Special Report

U.S. Schools Forge Foreign Connections Via Web

By Robin L. Flanigan — January 23, 2012 7 min read
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Ninth graders at the 2,300-student South Plantation High School in Plantation, Fla., were in a videoconference with Egyptian students and journalists last year when President Hosni Mubarak stepped down. Both the Americans and the Egyptians were in awe, clapping and laughing and sharing in a moment of global importance.

“All of a sudden, our students understood what freedom is, what a democracy means, how fortunate they are to be where they are, and how people have to struggle to get to that level,” said Donna Rose, the director of the school’s VALOR Freshman Academy, the academic program for the school’s 500 9th graders. “In a heartbeat, they changed their view of humanity. How could I have done that on my own?”

Across the United States, students are teaming up with classrooms around the world, using videoconferencing equipment, social media, and other technologies to learn about current events, historic milestones, economic trends, and cultural norms. Educators say the collaborations, which lend themselves to co-curricular projects, foster deep and meaningful conversations, whet a thirst for knowledge that textbooks cannot offer, and show that people in different countries have a lot more in common than many assume.

Educators note that no matter what countries American students are paired with, the same teenage topics seem to come up as they get to know each other during formal class discussions: dating, sex, family, music, and clothes.

And they point out that the poor technological connections between countries, the dropped calls, and the broken translations teach patience and perseverance even as they pose logistical problems for the partnerships themselves. At the same time, educators say the authentic relationships that form between students from different cultures tend to turn them into more independent thinkers with higher levels of tolerance and compassion.

“It’s really easy to hate what you don’t know,” said Lisa Nielsen, an international speaker on innovative education and the co-author of Teaching Generation Text, published in 2011 by Jossey-Bass Teacher. “In the future, I think there are going to be big changes in the way countries are defined, because people around the world are going to be connecting and bonding with each other in a way that doesn’t involve places, but their ideas and passions.”

Ms. Rose has noticed a rise in the academic performance of each freshman class at South Plantation High School, particularly with critical-thinking skills, since she started partnering with other countries five years ago. Students have spoken with earthquake survivors in Haiti, widows in Afghanistan, and indentured servants in Pakistan.

This school year, they’re connecting regularly with a school in Nagoya, Japan, and with students in a Yemeni refugee camp. (Sensitive to requests from Yemen, South Plantation students make sure there are no high-tech gadgets on their desks and nothing too ornate in the classroom within view of the refugees, because they don’t want to make them feel deprived.)

“We are an urban school with a high minority population,” said Ms. Rose, “and this is how we expose our students to the world.”

Connecting Cultures

For the same reasons but in a far different environment, social studies teacher Suzie Nestico oversees a project that involves 14 schools and nearly 400 students in Australia, Canada, England, Germany, South Korea, and the United States. She teaches students in grades 10 through 12 at the 900-student Mount Carmel Area High School in Mount Carmel, Pa.

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“We’re a small, rural town of 6,000 with ultra-conservative family values and viewpoints, and most of our students have never gone anywhere else,” said Ms. Nestico, the project manager for the Flat Classroom Project, an international collaborative effort that links classrooms around the globe. She also built a course called 21st Century Global Studies that started this academic year. The course is for students in grades 10 through 12 who, through project- and inquiry-based assignments such as editing wiki pages, learn that working collaboratively with other cultures—an increasingly marketable skill—can be challenging.

“It’s a big shift for them to go from ‘me’ to ‘we,’ ” she said. “I can’t help but think that the more kids we involve in projects like this, the more we start to break down some of this sense of entitlement” that exists among students in the United States.

“Just imagine if you wrote 200 words on your wiki page, and when you went back the next day, you saw that students in Korea had changed a couple of your sentences because they thought it sounded better another way,” Ms. Nestico said. “There are a lot of sighs at first, and it’s a messy process, but it’s very much worth doing. This is where we truly push learning to the highest level.”

Some lessons have less to do with a final grade than with understanding that a simple phrase in one culture can easily be misperceived in another.

When a student in California posted an online request last summer for information about a “flash mob,” for example, a teacher from Germany immediately jumped in to write that European students couldn’t even talk about such a thing because of the London riots. And two years ago, during an education-related trip to Mumbai, India, Ms. Nestico had to nix any exclamatory T-shirts that might offend the local residents, such as “Holy cow!,” because cows are considered sacred animals in India.

‘Just Like Us’

Troy Tenhet, a 6th grade teacher for the 650-student Bill L. Williams Elementary School in Bakersfield, Calif., turned to ePals to link his classroom with those in Iceland, Norway, and Singapore. The ePals social-learning network joins more than half a million classrooms in more than 200 countries and territories.

When Iceland’s most active volcano began erupting in May 2011, Mr. Tenhet’s students heard about the devastation firsthand from children their own age through email exchanges. And a haiku-poetry swap with peers in Norway evolved organically into a lesson on patriotic symbols.

“They realized that, hey, there are kids all over the world that are just like us,” Mr. Tenhet said. “All of a sudden, everything matters more.”

The day after Haiti’s massive earthquake in January 2010, Melissa McMullan, who teaches English and social studies to grades 6 through 8 at the 900-student John F. Kennedy Middle School in Port Jefferson, N.Y., found herself unable to get her students to focus on an upcoming state exam. They kept interrupting with questions about the catastrophe, and no amount of redirection got them back on track for long.

Ms. McMullan went home that night and, struck by the anguish she saw on the evening news, decided to adjust her strategy.

“I believe strongly that whatever you need to teach kids can be taught in the context of what they’re interested in,” she said.

With backing from her principal and help from other faculty members, she constructed an interdisciplinary unit of study centered around Haiti and the earthquake. She set up partnerships with people who traveled frequently to Haiti; ran a shoe-collection drive for orphans; and flew to the ravaged country to deliver the donations. She stayed only 18 hours, but used Skype, a Web-based videoconferencing service, to introduce her students to the orphans they were helping.

“That was the moment,” Ms. McMullan said of her inspiration to launch what would become the nonprofit organization Wings Over Haiti. So far, the group has shipped at least 1.5 tons of donated shoes, clothing, and toiletries to Haiti. Students do all of the packing, weighing, and invoicing.

‘Make a Difference’

Ms. McMullan’s students even helped open a school in Haiti, with 43 students in kindergarten and 1st grade, in October 2010. They wrote job-interview questions, watched the interviews via video, helped hire the school’s three teachers, and started a meal program to feed every student at the school two meals a day.

Eighth grader Gianna Bottona organized a car wash to help the fledgling school buy a satellite dish. Her family also has started sponsoring a 4-year-old Haitian girl, whose pictures are all over the family’s house.

“It gives you an outlook that no matter what your size is, or who you are, you can make a difference,” she said. “It’s an indescribable feeling knowing that every time you see those kids smile, it’s because of you. It’s almost selfish, really. When you help them, you’re helping yourself.”

She and her classmates use Skype to keep in touch with the Haitian students, and password-protected cloud-computing rooms to post files and pictures and set up conference calls.

As a result, new connections are being made within JFK Middle School’s walls as well. Ms. McMullan has her students collaborating regularly with eight special education students she’d never met before the earthquake. “There was something about reaching way beyond us that allowed us to work much better in the building,” she said.

Ms. McMullan travels to Haiti once a month these days. The relationships between students continue to strengthen—and that means that some tragedies far away now hit closer to home than before. One student at the Haitian school recently died of starvation.

“When you see those things happen, it makes it much harder to judge somebody because they don’t have the right shoes or they aren’t good at lacrosse,” Ms. McMullan said. “It puts things in perspective.”

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A version of this article appeared in the February 01, 2012 edition of Education Week as U.S. Schools Forge Foreign Connections


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