Special Report

The World is Their Teacher

By Mary Ann Zehr — October 01, 1998 7 min read

Few of the children at A:shiwi Elementary School on this remote American Indian reservation have set foot outside their home state. But in mind and spirit, they’ve traveled all over the world.

Thanks to connections forged over the Internet, the students at this Zuni school have exchanged art with Aborigine children in Australia, donated supplies to refugees from Myanmar, and consoled the families of Argentinean youths who were killed in a fire.

“If we’d used ‘snail mail,’ I don’t think the relationships would be where they are now,” says Glena Cachina, the local field assistant for the Westport, Conn.-based Save the Children Federation, which gave A:shiwi its first computer and Internet connection in 1992. “Technology is so fast.”

While researchers can’t say for sure what effect the Internet has on learning, no one disputes its revolutionary ability to offer students immediate access to information, experts, and global interactions.

Zuni teachers at the 475-student A:shiwi school-"A:shiwi” is the word the Zuni use for themselves-say the Internet exchanges have taught their students about different cultures and perspectives. The Zuni live in a sparsely populated area of western New Mexico; few of the community’s 10,000 residents have a home computer.

“The photo and art exchanges are opening up the world to these kids showing them there are other things to do,” says Christopher Lewis, a Zuni teaching assistant at A:shiwi.

At the same time, contact with others has reinforced the Zuni’s own cultural pride, 5th grade teacher Juanita Edaakie says.

“It made them realize they are special-all the things they have: their dances, their songs, their language,” Edaakie says. “When they saw other places that didn’t have as much as Zuni had, they respected what we had more.”

Access to the Internet is possible only when schools have access to the proper equipment and wiring, of course, and it’s here that poor schools like A:shiwi often come up short.

By last year, the proportion of U.S. public schools with Internet access had reached 78 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. But in the poorest schools-those with 71 percent or more of students eligible for federally subsidized lunches only 63 percent of public schools had access. Twenty-seven percent of all instructional rooms had access; in the poorest schools, the figure was 14 percent.

Concern about this inequity-sometimes referred to as the “digital divide” -led the federal government to create the “E-rate” program, which gives priority to poorer schools in offering discounts on telecommunications services and equipment.

Advocates have strongly defended the discounts from attacks in Congress, despite little research linking Internet activities to higher achievement.

“A lot of these programs are just getting off the ground and haven’t been devoting a lot of resources to evaluation,” says Barbara Means, a senior researcher at the Center for Technology in Learning at SRI International, a research organization in Menlo Park, Calif.

One of the few projects to undergo this kind of study is Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment, in which students from 70 countries report observations about their environment through the Internet and work with research scientists on-line to evaluate the data.

The study compared 44 GLOBE classrooms with 27 non-GLOBE classrooms during 1996-97. Means, who evaluated the project, says the GLOBE students showed more knowledge about how to measure the environment as well as a better understanding of general measurement principles, such as how to draw a sample or interpret data in a graph.

“They also had a more complete understanding of what it means to be a scientist than the non-GLOBE kids,” Means says. “The GLOBE kids had a better understanding that there’s not always a clear answer.”

A:shiwl Elementary Is more technologically advanced than many other poor schools largely because of the Save the Children Federation, a grant from the federal Technology Literacy Challenge Fund, and the leadership of Charly and Cathy Bullock, an Anglo couple who teach at the school and have spearheaded its involvement with technology. As a result, students here have access to information over the Internet that would be difficult for them to get any other way.

When Charly Bullock’s students were reading the Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, for instance, he showed them a Web site about Frank that had photos of all the people mentioned in her story. “It really supported their reading,” says Bullock, a literacy teacher who works with all 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders at A:shiwi.

Lewis, the teaching assistant, recalls how mystified his students were when they came across the word “cathedral” in a story. “They didn’t know what a cathedral was,” he explains. “I said, ‘It’s like the mission here, but it’s a lot bigger.’ ” Wanting to offer a better explanation, Lewis conducted a search right then and there on the Internet and found plenty of photos.

Lewis, the teaching assistant, recalls how mystified his students were when they came across the word “cathedral” in a story. “They didn’t know what a cathedral was,” he explains. “I said, ‘It’s like the mission here, but it’s a lot bigger.’ ” Wanting to offer a better explanation, Lewis conducted a search right then and there on the Internet and found plenty of photos.

The Zuni children’s first meaningful on-line communications came in 1994, when 21 youths in the Patagonia region of Argentina were killed while helping to squelch a forest fire. An elementary school principal, Daniel Reyes, expressed his sorrow about the deaths in his community in a public message on lEARN.

“He was so shaken, he said he had to tell the world,” Charly Bullock recalls. Bullock told one of his 4th graders about the message, and they composed a letter to Reyes and the community offering their sympathy. The letter, which was published in a local paper in Argentina, led to ongoing contact between the two schools for several years. Bullock has since visited the Argentinean school.

He has also published a collection of family stories from 10 schools around the globe. These stories-about births, family treasures, and holidays and celebrations-were based on children’s interviews with parents and grandparents and exchanged through e-mail.

But the project that everyone here comes back to talk about is the worldwide art exchange directed by lEARN teachers. Indigenous children in several regions of the world create art and then send a sample of it to each of the other participating schools. Each school then displays the art in an exhibit.

A:shiwi’s exhibit this year included colorful serpents, turtles, and birds painted by Australian Aborigine children, legends with illustrations set onto paper by Choctaw children in Mississippi, and gourds painted by the Zuni children.

In the 1996-97 school year, the Australian teachers who help coordinate the art exchange sent to all participating schools a video of the children behind the art. The Zuni children and some Zuni adults were shocked to see the impoverished conditions under which Karen children-members of a minority group from Myanmar-live in Thailand.

The Zuni students-all of whom are eligible for free lunches under federal guidelines-raised $1,800 for the Karen children by making greeting cards and selling them in the community. The Karen used the money to buy blankets, an electric generator, and school supplies.

When the other children in the art project learned about the fund-raiser through the Internet, some of them also contributed money to the cause.

The effort started an annual fund-raising tradition at A:shiwi. Last school year, the children helped buy a boat motor for native people of Nicaragua.

April Harker, the parent of an 8-year-old at the school, says the experience of sharing with people in another country has been good for her son.

“I explained to him why we were raising money-I tell him there are other people out there who have more needs [than the Zuni do-and now he understands that,” she says.

Ongoing e-mail communications between Zuni children and Aborigine children in Australia has also led to some particularly rich experiences for the Zuni children.

Graeme Sellings, an Aborigine boy from Australia who was touring the United States, stopped in to visit the Zuni reservation for a week.

When the children in Cathy Bullock’s class-a multiage class of 1st, 2nd, and 3rd graders-are asked what they learned from this young man, they as they learned how to throw a boomerang and blow on a didgeridoo, a large tube-like instrument.

But the Bullocks say the most remarkable thing about the meeting was that the students made an emotional connection with another native child from across the world-a relationship that would not have happened without the Internet.

While the Zuni children are usually shy around outsiders, they weren’t with Graeme.

“When Graeme came, he could have potentially been intimidating,” Charly Bullock say . “When he walked in [to the school], they mobbed him. They felt they were relatives.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 1998 edition of Education Week