What do elephant grass, budgies and The Beatles have in common? They are revelations for my students. They are the stuff kids write about in their letters or the music they use in their video correspondence from around the world. Each of these things represents an invaluable piece of cultural exchange, student to student.
I have long been yearning to give my students the opportunity to dialogue internationally with fellow students but as any teacher will tell you, it’s not always easy to find a place for this kind of activity in an already packed curriculum. I have been asking my contact at Springs Alive in Uganda for some time if he could find a way to share student correspondence. At the same time I have been seeking contacts through Skype in School (a PB Wiki)and the Online projects 4 Teacher’s ning (a social networking site), hosted by Jen Wagner who is widely known for hosting collaborative educational projects. Sign up for her latest challenge! Out of the blue, as an inquiry from my Weebly classroom site, I was contacted by a young woman who is on a Fulbright Scholarship teaching English in Taiwan who wanted to arrange some correspondence between students. The irons in the fire got red hot all at the same time and I forged ahead with all three projects.
Martin Sebuliba from SPACC found a way to scan or type up student letters which my students will read upon their return from Spring break. (My students thought that ‘football’ meant ‘soccer’ anywhere outside the US.) So did I to be honest! We all have a lot to learn. Thankfully,Online Projects 4 Teachers connected me with Donn V. in Australia, who immediately acted by getting her students to produce letters with photos and we have since exchanged 2 each way in 3 weeks. And finally, Shiela Lee has shared two wonderful videos with us introducing her class and teaching us some Chinese! (She posts to Vimeo)We have shared an introductory song and some poetry. It’s a whole new world!
In preparation for this project students completed a table in the computer lab comparing the US, Uganda, Australia and Taiwan. They compared size, population, natural resources, location, language, money and type of government. I checked out books from the library and bookmarked internet sites to help fill in the data for their tables. Students then had to choose two countries to compare. They compared three things. For example: Location, Language and Natural Resources. I think from this list you can glean the curricular connections between Math and Social Studies and Language Arts. I met with students individually and in small groups to discuss the similarities and differences between countries. The students were quick to notice the link between all four countries and the United Kingdom.
In addition, I found a very informative site about schools in Uganda. My students found it very eye opening to discover how far students travel to get to school with or without shoes. Of our four schools, SPACC is teaching myself and my students an awareness of cultural sensitivity.I should also mention that we used Google earth extensively to examine the regions, geography and topography, measure the perimeter of the countries and their distances from the equator. We found out that Uganda has been called The Pearl of Africa, is a little larger than the state of Georgia, has famous tree-climbing lions and Mt. Stanley over 16,000 feet tall, the 3rd highest in Africa!
Once we received the first set of letters from Australia and matched up pen pals, we shared parts of the letters out loud. I asked the children to find the most interesting part to them or to find a word or phrase that was unfamiliar to them. Language is so colorful and amusing. Students were perplexed and amazed at the differences in language between two English speaking countries. They couldn’t wait to write back. I asked them to answer or ask questions in the first paragraph and then in the second paragraph describe where they would take their pen pal sight seeing in the Atlanta area.
The first few letters from Uganda were a real eye opener for the students. Even though I had prepared them by studying the website about schools in Uganda, the impact of an individual voice is so powerful and so true it can’t be ignored. This is a snippet from one letter we received. These children are our neighbors and now thanks to the internet, we can read their words. Someday we may be able to hear their voices. Amazing! My students are learning that we may not share the same words for things partly because they do not have the same things. For instance, my students asked me if they collect Webkinz in Uganda. The conversation that ensued was priceless.
My regular readers are aware of my friends in Uganda at Springs Alive Children’s Centre, a relationship forged through a connection made through Global Gateway. They have no electricity and very rudimentary buildings for school, but the do have a leader with an entrepreneurial spirit who was able to overcome seemingly insurmountable barriers making kid-kid communication a reality.
Shiela Lee and Donna V. are brimming with wonderfully creative ideas which is incentive for me to respond with equal vigor. It is such a pleasure to have made each of these new friends online and to allow them to permeate the classroom walls with enthusiasm for learning and collaboration. I don’t know who is enjoying our pen pals more, me or my students. I feel very engaged as a teacher and I can tell by the look on their faces when I say, “You’ve got mail!” that my students are captivated by the adventure of making contact with new people and new ideas.