Walls are tumbling down in the White Plains City School District, but there is no need for alarm. As teachers pioneer the use of new technologies in their classrooms, they are breaking down barriers and opening doors to exciting new learning experiences for themselves and their students. In fact, teachers are addressing their students’ needs by simply getting back to basics; basic human interactions, that is. Through the use of Interactive Videoconferencing (IVC), teachers are inviting experts from around the world into their classrooms as co-teachers. These experts are not only of notable persons in their fields, but also students from around the globe sharing living history lessons, just the way our students shared their 9/11 experiences with concerned students globally.
The idea is simple. IVC allows students to engage in the lost art of human interaction. Unlike the Internet, interactive videoconferencing has students conversing with people from all walks of life, all over the world, face to face, without leaving their school building. Whether it is the student in Sri Lanka who is a victim of the Tsunami, a holocaust survivor in the US, an HIV positive teenager in South Africa or an astronaut at NASA, teachers are bringing students opportunities most of us only dreamed about as viable resources. In effect, people are becoming our students’ most valuable primary resource, and our students love it!
“Another way to hook kids,” is the way foreign language teacher Rebecca Peters describes videoconferencing. Students in Peters’ French classes and those in Judy Plant’s Spanish classes regularly connect with students in a variety of countries that speak their target languages. For the first half hour, students speak in Spanish or French; for the second half hour, students studying English get to practice on our students. Peters adds, “Kids are amazed when others are able to understand them in their target language.”
Over the past five years, teachers at White Plains City Schools have developed IVC- enhanced curriculum with funding and continued support from the Shinnyo-en Foundation and organizations such as Global-leap.com, the Global Nomads Group, Global Education Motivators, IEARN and Taking it Global. These organizations are making it possible for pioneering teachers world-wide to collaboratively plan experiences for students that both validate and reinforce concepts studied in the classroom, making classrooms come alive.
What has become apparent is a joyous secondary gain. In addition to enhancing students’ academic learning, our students are becoming more culturally tolerant and aware. Apathy is evolving into empathy as teachers creatively plan experiences for their students that allow them to hear from war-affected children or have a dialogue with young Tsunami victims in Sri Lanka, to name just two. Students are emotionally moved to action. The concept of community service and citizenship take on new meaning as students react and want to “do something” once they begin to understand how fortunate they are as young Americans.
In fact, a video conference with an HIV positive young woman in South Africa
turned a health class discussion on AIDS into an incredible hands-on initiative to feed South African orphans whose parents were AIDS victims. “Lucia” told her Eastview family that there often wasn’t enough food for these orphaned children, and our students were moved by her words. Rather than simply donating money to AIDS victims, our students were inspired by the saying “If you give a man a fish, you’ll feed him for a day, but if you teach a man to fish, you’ll feed him for life.” They contacted Seeds for Africa, an organization that helps schools teach kids how to grow their own food. The Community Service Club initiated a sale of clay pots with flower seeds, which they hand-painted in art class. The sale was so successful that enough money was raised to sponsor three gardens in South African schools, which will produce enough plants to feed several hundred people. Sarah Kellogg, an eighth-grade student who participated in this project, remarked, “I know that environment does not just mean the land we live on, but it includes the people who live there too. Without healthy people, there is no point in a healthy earth.” Indifference is evolving into caring as students learn and share with other cultures around the world.
However, like any new endeavor, not everything has run smoothly. At times, there are frustrating technical difficulties. At one point mid-conference, the kids in England could see us and we could see them, but they were unable to hear us. As teachers scurried to address the technology, students took the matter into their own hands. Eighth-grader Ana Montoya took marker and pad and began to dialogue without spoken words. She simply held her written question up to the camera, and the Brits responded orally, since we could hear them. We love how our students are becoming creative problem-solvers, especially when there are glitches.
Through the diligence of teachers who are willing to take risks, administrators like Superintendent Tim Connors and Eastview Principal Joseph Cloherty, who lend their support, and universities like Texas A & M Center for Distance Learning Research, we are able to create dynamic partnerships to help our youth develop as emotional and creative young adults, as well as intellectual human beings.
The 2004 report from the US Labor Department report SCANS, or Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills, identifies “ basic communication and social skills such as listening, speaking, cultural diversity, leadership and responsibility . . . thinking skills such as creative thinking, visualization and problem solving… as critical to the future success of students in the 21 st century workplace.” Interactive videoconferencing is an exceptional tool for this preparation.
It’s an exciting time for educators and students pioneering this new phase of technological learning together. When even the glitches become learning experiences, both students and teachers believe experimenting is a risk worth taking.