A globe on a desk
Web Exclusive

Language Learning and Global Citizenship: A University and K–12 Partnership to Recognize Student Biliteracy

School districts in Iowa provide a Seal of Biliteracy that officially acknowledges K–12 students who attain proficiency in two or more languages (one of which is English) by their high school graduation.

By Carmen Gwenigale, Theresa Juhl, and Will Coghill-Behrends

November 5, 2021

Since 2018, the State of Iowa has required K–12 school districts to provide a Seal of Biliteracy that officially acknowledges students who attain proficiency in two or more languages (one of which is English) by their high school graduation.

According to the Iowa Department of Education, knowledge of more than one language is a critical skill for success in college and careers. The Seal of Biliteracy emphasizes the importance of language learning in Iowa’s schools, recognizes the value of language diversity and cultural identity, prepares students for work in an increasingly global labor market, and provides colleges and universities a way to recognize the notable achievement of prospective students.

World language teachers in the Iowa City Community School District (ICCSD) recognize that to truly be “biliterate,” students must go beyond the attainment of advanced language proficiency by gaining deeper skills and experiences such as intercultural knowledge and engaging with diverse communities. To this end, ICCSD teachers have partnered with faculty at the University of Iowa to develop a global learning curriculum that engages Seal of Biliteracy students in advanced language competency development while they work within their communities to address global problems.

Using frameworks that address global competency development from organizations such as the Asia Society, World Savvy, Longview Foundation, and NAFSA, the program’s key to success is simple: getting students to take action and use their language and global learning skills to meet community needs.

In September 2019, ICCSD officially launched the Seal of Biliteracy program with a daylong workshop led by Dawn Michele Whitehead, vice president of AAC&U’s Office of Global Citizenship for Campus, Community, and Careers. Whitehead met with K–12 teachers and college faculty in a small group to discuss curriculum and assessment strategies for doing community engaged work with students. She also engaged more than one hundred high school students in a workshop that made the connection between language learning and real-world applications. In the workshop, students explored how they can solve problems and address needs in the local community by developing their multilingual abilities alongside competencies that enable effective communication across cultures and countries.

In addition to learning about global citizenship and language development, student participants also met with representatives from thirteen community organizations that serve international populations in the Iowa City area. These organizations include agencies that serve immigrants, refugees, and newcomers to this country, as well local food pantries and worker justice organizations. Students and the representatives discussed a variety of possible service projects that would benefit the organizations and, more importantly, the individuals and families they serve. Through these conversations, students made deeper connections between their language and intercultural communication skills and the global problems that manifest in the local community.

Following the daylong launch, students got busy fulfilling their service commitments within their communities by working with the agencies. Some students participated in document translation, others supported food and clothing drives, while still others helped to plan community events that were inclusive, relevant, and beneficial for international communities. In their classes at school, the students regularly responded to reflective prompts connecting their real-world engagement with the Seal of Biliteracy’s language and cultural learning goals.

In March 2020, the abrupt closure of schools due to the COVID-19 pandemic halted much of the students’ engagement in the classroom and their community. However, teachers and students continued their Seal of Biliteracy curriculum online, and many students were able to complete their community-engaged projects remotely.

Groups of students completed translation projects to support the work of food pantries in the communities of Coralville and North Liberty. French- and Spanish-speaking populations in the area are growing, largely due to refugee relocation and other immigration. The students met with pantry staff to learn about the needs of the organizations and meet with the populations that the pantries serve. The students’ work was instrumental in making pantry services more accessible to the local populations.

Students also conducted translation projects for the Center for Worker Justice, translating workshop and support materials to support workers navigating the new to them work requirements in the US.

For Community Connections, a service agency supporting newly relocated immigrants to the United States, students translated support materials to better enable a smooth transition to a new community. In another project, students served as tutors for elementary students who were native speakers of French and Spanish.

At the Neighborhood Centers of Johnson County, students began the planning for a local food event featuring the culinary delights of local immigrant communities. Unfortunately, the pandemic prevented the event from happening, but organizers hope that this event can occur at some point.

Throughout these community projects, students learned about the value of language learning beyond the classroom. As leaders of the Seal of Biliteracy project look to the future, our goal is that this work will continue to support high-quality language learning coupled with the development of global citizenship in our communities.


  • Carmen Gwenigale

    Carmen Gwenigale is the world language coordinator for the Iowa City Community School District.

  • Theresa Juhl

    Theresa Juhl is a French teacher at West High School or the Iowa City Community School District.

  • Will Coghill-Behrends

    Will Coghill-Behrends is clinical associate professor of multilingual education at the University of Iowa.