By Brenna R. Kelly
Randy Barrette wants his students to know there is a world outside of Menifee County, Ky. So he has found a way to take them there – virtually.
An hour before school on a recent morning, 10 students in Barrette’s World Cultures class at Menifee County High School sat in front of big-screen TV. More than 7,100 miles away in Kabul, Afghanistan, students at the School of Leadership, Afghanistan (SOLA) did the same thing.
Then, with the help of a translator, they talked to each other.
And though they didn’t speak the same language, the students had plenty to chat about. In the weeks leading up to the live video conference, students in both countries followed the same curriculum so they would have a basis for their conversation.
On this day the students talked about role models in their cultures, had a show and tell, and finally said goodbye to their new friends.
The class is part of Global Citizens in Action, a program from Global Nomads Group, an international non-governmental organization dedicated to improving understanding among young people across the world.
“The goal is really to connect students across different kinds of borders, whether they are real borders or perceived borders of culture or distance or stereotypes or biases, whatever that may be,” said Allison Finn, a program associate with the group. “And to not only to connect them, but allow them to really collaborate to create change in their communities, whether locally or globally.”
The group runs semester, yearlong and short-term virtual exchange programs, primarily connecting North American schools to schools in the Middle East, north Africa and south and central Asia. Since it was founded 16 years ago, GNG has reached more than a million young people in 50 countries, she said.
Barrette brought the program to Menifee County three years ago after learning about it at an International Society for Technology in Education conference. For the past two years, Menifee has been paired with SOLA.
“Some of the young (Afghan) ladies have shared how they had to leave their communities to go far away to live in Kabul, and in their communities some of their fathers were threatened for putting a girl in school, but they stood up the threats to give their girls an education,” he said. “These parents understand the necessity of an education in order to advance the individual as well as the country, and they don’t take for granted.”
Barrette, who teaches Spanish, has his own connection to Afghanistan. His classroom is dotted with Afghan rugs and other mementos he brought home after working with Afgan refugee communities for Save the Children, in Pakistan, several years ago. Barrette is hoping that the class is giving students their own international connection which will lay the foundation for the global understanding they will need in the future.
“If you believe what all of the research tells us then you have to buy into this new reality that they will work, at some point in their life, with somebody from another country,” he said. “Even the guy or lady on the assembly line is going to have to have some kind of global awareness, even if it’s just knowing a little bit of language because they have to look at materials in a different language.”
Barrette believes all students and teachers could benefit from Global Citizens in Action, one of GNG’s civic engagement programs or the group’s science, technology, mathematics and engineering (STEM) programs.
Teachers who are accepted into Global Nomads Group programs receive professional development which could be virtual or in person, depending on funding, Finn said.
“That prepares them for teaching not only Global Nomads Group curriculum, but also 21st Century skills and project-based learning in general and how they can use that to open up their classroom walls,” she said.
Barrette sees himself more as a facilitator of the class than a teacher.
“I don’t stand up in front of them or answer all their questions,” he said. He guides the students to sources where they can find the answers.
For example, after a recent bombing in Afghanistan which an American doctor was killed, Barrette had his students read both U.S. and Pakistan news accounts.
“Most education is done out of a textbook,” he said. “You’re just learning facts and maybe a few applications, but it’s not timely. In a class like this where it’s real time, it’s global, you have to take what comes in, analyze it, process it and decide what you are going to do with it, and move on.”
Each month the class of juniors and seniors gets a new objective that helps prepare for the monthly video conference with their counterparts in Afghanistan. The preparation could include watching a video, reading articles or doing another activity. One assignment had the students researching the issue of whether U.S. troops should stay in Afghanistan.
Another assignment was to create personal and global timelines, students map events that are significant in their own lives, either personally or globally events. The students use news articles about the events to see how they were viewed in other parts of the world.
In addition to the monthly objectives, the students also work on a year-long project with the goal of making a change in the community. For their project, the Menifee students chose to try to break down stereotypes while SOLA’s students examined the importance of sports, national unity and gender equality their country.
As part of the project, the Menifee students created a global awareness survey for the entire high school. Based on the results, they created a webpage, a video and bulletin board to educate their peers about the stereotypes students and teachers have about Afghanistan, the Middle East and Islam.
The Afghan students produced a play about sports in their country and in the U.S. and how sports can be used as a tool for national unity, peace and gender equality. Finn noted that in addition to learning about other cultures; students in the program are learning 21st century skills. They are using video, creating websites and learning about international video conferencing.
Barrette was named 2013 Kentucky Society for Technology in Education Teacher of the Year in part because of his participation in the Global Nomads program. In her nomination, Principal Brenda Warren, wrote that while Barrette understands best teaching practices, he also believes “that the latest innovations, modernized tools and updated technics can enhance teaching and learning experiences for both teachers and students.”
Though Barrette uses a video conferencing system to connect with Afghanistan, the connection can be made simply using a laptop, free software and a projector, Finn said. Teachers who are not participating in GNG programs can download the curricula for free and incorporate elements into their instruction, she said.
At Menifee County, the class is an elective and Barrette said he does not issue grades, but helps them to track their progress on a global competency scale. Though the number of students in class dropped from the start of the year, the ones that remained will see benefits throughout their education and life, Barrette said.
“They feel that they have a connection with people in this other country, that they have access to information that they would not otherwise have access to if they just simply listened to their parents or other people or the news without digging deeper,” he said. “They feel they can use a certain level of technology to carry on this relationship. However superficial it might be, it’s still a relationship.”
As the final teleconference of the year came to a close, Menifee student Erica Brewer said the class’ final goodbye to the Afghan girls.
“It introduced me to lot of cultural things I didn’t know about. It’s been really good to collaborate with you all,” she said. “I hope that after this we can still stay in touch and it’s nice to know we have friends in other parts of the world.”
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