Global Learning Initiative Helps Kansas Students Collaborate with Peers Around the World


"What's your definition of jihad?"

A simple question, but profound in that it came from an Egyptian middle school student talking to his peers in my classroom during a videoconference exchange.

Exchanges like this are becoming routine in Douglass, KS, thanks to a Global Learning Program we began in our elementary school two years ago and which we'll be expanding into Douglass High School next fall. This particular exchange took place during a December 2007 conference involving schools in Kansas, New Jersey, South Dakota, Virginia, and Cairo.

The Egyptian students asked the question, and my students answered, "a jihad is a holy war, and it's the basis of a lot of the bombings." But the Egyptians said, "Well, that's not our definition."

They went on to explain that a jihad really means striving to find God. Sometimes in trying to find God you have challenges or trials and tribulations, but for the kids in Cairo jihad is not war. That miscommunication of what a word means can obviously lead to all kinds of trouble. Imagine using that word with that meaning and having people in another country imposing their own interpretation.

The Douglass Global Learning Program seeks to build bridges between people at an early age and, as important, help them to learn to work together on projects--as they will as adults in a global economy. Student growth can be strong when they're able to talk frankly to each other and not have an adult get in the way of their communication.

The Germ of an Idea
We began the Global Learning initiative with the realization that companies in nearby Wichita, and through them Douglass residents, are regularly doing business around the world. One of the Boeing vice presidents, Bob Waner, said, "I'll tell you what I need. Americans are good at taking an idea and running with it, but the Japanese need everything laid-out and tasks assigned, and Italians create and produce in chaos. All have their own approach. I need you to give me graduates who can work with all those cultures and build me an airplane."

In further discussions, our superintendent, Jim Keller, and I learned that local businesses wanted more than simple communication. Our friends at Boeing, Cessna, Coca-Cola, and Learjet kept telling us that they need our graduates not only to be able to communicate with different cultures but to go a step further and be able to create a product with them.
In response, and with assistance from Kay Gibson and Glyn Rimmington of Wichita State University, our district designed a curriculum that brings students together using various technologies and then asks them to collaborate on projects in science, language arts, math, music and art.

For example, we recently completed projects on rain forests. We brought fourth- and fifth-graders in Hong Kong and Douglass together, and they started by comparing each others' cultures. Then they progressed to doing research on the rain forest. Each class produced a small report and drew artwork. We shipped them back and forth and displayed them in each others' schools.

The kids were responsible not only for producing a report, but for explaining the guest mural, from the cultural context of whoever created it. My kids had to explain why Hong Kong kids draw faces on trees and that trees in Hong Kong have a whole different historical reference than they do in the United Sates. Because there are good and bad spirits in trees, according to Chinese culture, and our kids have to know that.

Making It Work
Jim Keller and I have been careful to take a step by step approach in asking our students to work with peers in other cultures. We have also been able to take advantage a number of cultural exchange programs to make it happen. I have been able to travel to China, Europe, and Japan and this summer will go to Korea to explore the culture and bring back contacts for Douglass students. In the process, we have built regular working relationships with schools in mainland China, Japan, and Hong Kong.

The little kids--in grades K-2--need something in their hands. So we concentrate on scrapbooks and snail mail them to Hong Kong. Then in grades 3 through 5 we start establishing ePal e-mail accounts and begin calling using Skype and doing videoconferences. By middle school, students are collaborating on science, music, and art projects, and, in high school--starting with a pilot program in the fall--there will be a fully integrated program teaching language arts, social studies, and Mandarin Chinese in conjunction with schools around the world.

At each level, our instructors have been careful to introduce students to the technology fairly slowly, and to give students across the world a chance to get to know each other before starting the heavier conversations or more elaborate projects. If you and I sat down, we'd shake hands and probably start out by talking about what we're interested in or about our families. It's the same thing with kids. You can't ask them to talk about global warming without giving them a chance to form a personal relationship. Then you can guide them into the topics that you want.

We have also relied on other organizations to help put these programs together. ePals, for example, is an online community that facilitates e-mail exchanges between students in 191 different countries. Global Nomads is a not-for-profit that sets up and moderates international video exchanges. Among other things, they provide videoconferencing gear and connections to schools in poor nations who would not otherwise be able to participate. The state of Kansas has an aggressive technology program and provides funding for digital infrastructure. The district has been able to attract a number of corporate sponsors as well, including our videoconferencing equipment vendor, Conference Technologies Inc. (CTI).

Jim Keller, our superintendent, first ran into George Sherman and Mike Bradford of CTI while meeting with managers at Spirit Aerospace. The two were eventually able to design a system for the high school's new Global Learning Academy using a LifeSize high-definition conferencing codec, two cameras, two 60-inch plasma displays, touch-panel controls, and an installed sound system. They also arranged a CTI sponsorship to underwrite part of the cost of the system design, equipment and installation.

The benefits of high-definition conferencing gear may not be immediately obvious in a high school, but they are significant. "While it's true that the quality of what we're receiving is limited to a certain extent by what people send us," Keller said, "there's no doubt that the new system gets the most out of those transmissions. And then, too, our contact in China says he's seen quite a marked improvement in what we're sending out. He told me, 'this is just like watching TV.'"

Another advantage of our new system is that it uses IP-based digital transmission, rather than costly and less reliable ISDN lines. We are currently able to meet the district's videoconferencing, Internet, and Internet2 needs with just a 10 Mbps connection, although we will expand that to 20 Mbps by fall, when the high school begins its program.

We also plan to add a high-definition portable system to the elementary school by fall and dedicate the original system to the middle school. Though only the high school will have permanently-installed gear, the younger grades will use that room--which comfortably seats 40--when they bring larger groups together for conferences, and the district plans to make it available to the community as well.

Rigorous Standards
My students have responded so positively to the program that it's been easy to impose high standards for the privilege of participating. They have to know proper English before we're going to let them write an ePals message. If they don't know where Nicaragua is, or if they don't know how to do averages, then how can they join a class from Nicaragua in comparing average temperatures?

Global Learning began as part of the elementary gifted program, but the more it grew, the more we saw the benefits for all of our kids. All of the Douglass elementary students have had the opportunity to participate in some way this year. But in the middle school, it's still part of our enhancement program, and any student who wants to participate has to show ability and perform well in the classroom.

It's a real commitment from the high school students, who are a great cross-section from our student population. Next year they will spend three hours each afternoon in the program and, owing to the time differences, many early mornings and late evenings in connections with other countries.

Still, the results in the early grades have been dramatic, and, in the high school, the students are anxious to start, every one that I've talked to.

I have no doubt that this will have a lasting impact on American Education. It's giving our students a head start on their role as global citizens.

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About the author: Marjorie Landwehr-Brown is the Global Learning director and director and lead teacher of the Douglass, Kansas, Public Schools' Global Learning Academy. You can reach her at [email protected].

Proposals for articles and tips for news stories, as well as questions and comments about this publication, should be submitted to David Nagel, executive editor, at [email protected].