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Expanding Peace Corps Program Seeks To Bring World to Schools

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Vienna, Va.

When Ann Widdifield teaches world cultures to her class of 5th graders, the heart of the message she wants to convey is spelled out boldly on a banner taped to her blackboard.

The poster reads: "We all smile in the same language."

This year, to help bring that message home to her students, the veteran teacher is drawing on curriculum resources provided by World Wise Schools, a program devised by the Peace Corps to help American students acquire a broader global understanding.

Now, instead of simply reading about different countries, the students in Ms. Widdifield's class have the opportunity to write to a Peace Corps volunteer in Turkmenistan and touch artifacts brought by a former volunteer who lived in Paraguay.

"I'm after anything that can bring the outside in," said Ms. Widdifield, who teaches at the 400-student Marshall Road Elementary School in this Washington suburb.

"It's like putting a face on a place. Now, my kids will be interested in this person, they'll have this connect, and you never know who's going to get hooked into it," she said.

In August, President Clinton announced his support for tripling the scope of the World Wise Schools program to reach 10,000 teachers by 2000. To reach that goal, the Peace Corps is expanding its outreach efforts to teachers and the roughly 150,000 returned Peace Corps volunteers in the country, said Alyce Hill, the director of the World Wise Schools program. The Peace Corps estimates that roughly 4,000 teachers have used at least one of the resources offered by World Wise Schools so far.

Curriculum Supplement

In addition to linking classrooms with volunteers, World Wise Schools outfits teachers with educational videos and teaching guides.

Materials are available for grades 3-5, grades 6-9, and high school. They focus on the countries where Peace Corps volunteers serve. Returned volunteers also serve as guest speakers, visiting classrooms to talk about the geographic and cultural characteristics of foreign lands.

Introductory materials and services are available to teachers for the asking--at no charge. Schools and libraries pay only if they want to buy additional videos, which cost $20.

The guides and videos are supplementary, intended to enhance a teacher's curriculum, not replace lesson plans, Ms. Hill said.

The National Council for the Social Studies endorsed the program in 1992, citing its emphasis on "global connectedness and cultural understanding,"said Richard Diem, the council president.

In Ms. Widdifield's classroom, the students' letters to the volunteer in Turkmenistan double as vehicles for a lesson in letter writing for language arts.

An assignment to find and record information about the Central Asian country builds research skills alongside the cultural lessons, the teacher said.

Domestic Dividend

For the Peace Corps, the World Wise Schools program helps fulfill one of the organization's lesser-known goals, sometimes referred to as its "domestic dividend."

The corps trains its volunteers to use their skills to help people in developing countries and further foreign understanding of American culture, but it also aims to make Americans more aware of other cultures, said Mark Gearan, the director of the Peace Corps.

With a fiscal 1997 budget of $470,000 out of an overall Peace Corps budget of $220 million, the success of the program relies more heavily on people power than financial resources.

Because there are thousands of returned volunteers across the country, the time is right for expansion, Ms. Hill said.

Program facilitators hope to build exposure for the initiative next March, when many volunteers will make classroom presentations to mark the 37th anniversary of the start of the Peace Corps.

"Building awareness is really the only challenge," Mr. Gearan said. "Once people are aware of it, especially teachers, they're really excited."

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