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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Going Global: Rural Washington Students Connect With the World

With the help of technology and encouraged by curiosity, students learn about and connect with kids across the globe.
By Sara Armstrong

First and second graders sent comfort quilts to hurricane victims in Puerto Rico and to sick children in Pakistan as part of one iEARN project.

Credit: Kristi Rennebohm Franz

When two children in classes half a world apart solved an art challenge in exactly the same way, they were delighted -- and curious. How else are students in Pullman, Washington, and Moscow, Russia, alike? Who are the artists and how do they live? How are their approaches to drawing and the materials used similar and different?

"One of the most amazing gifts of doing this Global Art Project is the joy of seeing children unencumbered from expectations that there will be only differences or only similarities with people and places new to them," says teacher Kristi Rennebohm Franz, who helped create the Global Art Project for the International Education and Resource Network -- better known as iEARN. "The current issues of terrorism -- that now all generations are facing, including the children -- makes the iEARN global art experiences to build positive human understandings even more poignant and important."

Starting with Primitive Technology

Rennebohm Franz, teacher at Sunnyside Elementary School, is an early pioneer of iEARN, a network of ninety-five countries and 400,000 students that sponsors a long list of collaborative projects designed to build global bridges, improve education, and make a difference in the world. She was so sold on iEARN's goals and projects in 1993 -- before the proliferation of wired schools -- she convinced her principal to allow her to receive e-mail on the school's one phone line.

Since then, the first- and second-grade students in her multiage class have made Comfort Quilts for victims of Hurricane Mitch in Nicaragua, for pediatric patients in Pakistan, and, more recently, for those who lost loved ones in the tragic events of September 11, 2001. They have compared water quality with students as close as Seattle and as far away as Costa Rica, China, Russia, the Netherlands, and Argentina. They have learned about Belize from Peace Corps volunteers. They have connected math to their lives through essays, surveys, and quilt designs with students in Australia, Lithuania, and Puerto Rico. They exchange information, data, writing, and artwork in subjects as diverse as math, science, social studies, and language arts using technology ranging from simple e-mail to sophisticated movie editing software and videoconferencing.

Teacher Kristi Rennebohm Franz facilitates her students' participation in a number of international, online projects.

Credit: Kristi Rennebohm Franz

Building Bridges

In the assignment that resulted in the matching pictures, students were asked to draw and write on the theme, "A Sense of Family." When the drawings arrived from Russia -- first in an airmail packet and then over the Internet -- one second grader was stunned to see a picture from Moscow that looked like his. He and his Russian counterpart had drawn a family of two adults and two children flanked by two trees -- one deciduous and one evergreen -- with clouds in the sky. Both children had solved the problem of white clouds on a white background by painting the clouds blue.

"When the children see these levels of commonality with children far away, they are very excited," says Rennebohm Franz. And when they don't find commonality, "I see them looking at differences as an opportunity to learn something new rather than seeing something strange or something to fear."

Affirmation is a big part of the exchange process. When Sunnyside students received artwork from Belarus, they knew their job wasn't just to ooh and ah over the colors and scenes. Their job was to ask thoughtful questions and cite elements of the drawings they liked, such as medium or materials.

"I just sat back and watched in amazement at their engagement and on-task incentive" to respond, recalls Rennebohm Franz. "One of the powerful pieces is that these children learn that once they've taken the time to learn something, it's valued by someone else. ... They have an innate sense of wanting to continue being a part of a community. They absolutely treasure the communication."

A Sunnyside Elementary School student tests water quality as part of an iEARN project on pond habitats.

Credit: Kristi Rennebohm Franz

Incentives for Academic Success

Edwin Gragert, director of iEARN (and an Edutopia 2008 Daring Dozen honoree), says the Internet more than reinforces that sense of community. "The world is no longer defined for us from third-party eyes. ... Students have the potential for defining it themselves by direct interaction with others anywhere in the world." Global understanding, however, isn't the only benefit of the projects. With collaborations that involve an outside audience, students "have a real-life purpose and accelerated motivation to develop their literacy skills," says Rennebohm Franz.

Both writing and art go through structured processes that are enhanced by the immediacy of the Internet and the physical ease of using a keyboard and word processing software to edit. Students are willing to spend more time writing because they don't have to hold a pencil; they work on meaning more, and they like editing. They also know they have to make their meaning clear for an audience of peers who may not speak English well.

Rennebohm Franz has developed the WRITE to Care Framework, a process for integrating reading, writing, and communication/technology "while participating in meaningful local to global telecommunications projects that make positive differences in their school, community, region, state, country, and the world."

"On the computer you get to edit to make your writing better so other people can read your ideas," explains one student. "It would be hard to write everything down by hand because your hands get all sweaty holding the pencil and you need lots of paper because you have to copy everything over. And with a pencil you have to erase, and sometimes the erasing doesn't work very well, and the paper tears. When you have the computer, you can just delete and type again!"

Rennebohm Franz says technology "makes it possible to do collaborative projects across cultures and continents." And unlike when she joined iEARN, her classes have all-the-time T1 Internet connections. Her classes also have access to other technology. Students publish Web sites and make movies, for which they do everything from digital videotaping, editing, ordering, and sequencing clips to titling and narration. They use PowerPoint ® presentations and digital slide shows. "So many children are visual learners, and the computer can help them," says Rennebohm Franz.

A number of projects include sharing student artwork with students in classes around the world.

Credit: Sunnyside Elementary School

Next Step: International Videoconferences

The Washington Legislature has provided many schools across the state with access to videoconferencing, and Rennebohm Franz's students are hoping to one day expand the live presentations about water habitat they have had with the John Stanford International School in Seattle to overseas schools. But even that intrastate relationship has deepened global understanding. If Seattle is real, and "we exchange our work with them, then places like Novosibirsk, Russia, and Uden, Netherlands, and Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, become real," she says.

Whether they're e-mailing their stories and scanned drawings, sending and receiving videotapes of projects, talking on video conferences, or presenting their findings at city council meetings and education conferences, Rennebohm Franz's students realize they're an important part of a larger world. What they find and report makes a difference as they simultaneously learn from and teach children and adults about meaningful topics.

A second grader sums up her experiences: "I think all the children all over the world should have what they need to read and write like we have." Then she added, "And thanks to all the teachers around the world."

Sara Armstong is a former Edutopia staff member.

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