Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Global Connections: Storytelling Builds Bridges Between Cultures

August 13, 2008

I first met Greg Tuke a decade ago when he was running a program called Powerful Schools. The nonprofit organization was working to strengthen schools serving some of the lowest-income and most culturally diverse neighborhoods in Seattle. The big goal was systems change, and the best strategy for getting there was helping teachers change their professional practice. "Where you see teachers changing," Tuke realized, "is when professional development can happen within their own classroom environment."

Fast-forward ten years. Now, Tuke is directing an international organization called Bridges to Understanding, founded by acclaimed photographer Phil Borges. Bridges builds relationships between students in the United States, Central America, India, South Africa, and elsewhere around the globe. The vehicle is digital storytelling. Collaborating online, via videoconferencing and face-to-face, students create and share multimedia stories about their own lives and cultures.

"Stories are the glue for deeper engagement," explains Tuke, "and you can go so much further with stories that include voice, music, and pictures. These communication tools engage the head and the heart and allow relationships to form."

Not surprisingly, a critical component of the Bridges approach is helping teachers change how they work with kids in the classroom. Taking on a collaborative digital-storytelling project means overcoming classroom isolation, perhaps teaching with another teacher who may be far away, and teaching with new and sometimes unfamiliar technologies. Tuke admits that that can be a lot to get a grip on, but the results are more than worth the effort.

Participating teachers in the United States attend an intensive three-day workshop and then receive twenty-four hours of in-class coaching. Mentors come into participating teachers' classrooms to model lessons, answer technical questions regarding technology, give feedback, and support teachers as they grow into the role of project facilitator. "They are not in this alone," Tuke says.

Outside the States, professional development happens during workshops that are combined with international travel for U.S. students, teachers, and volunteers. This summer, American visitors are helping teach about digital storytelling in Cuzco, Peru, and Cape Town, South Africa. In the fall, teams will travel to Dharamsala, India, and Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala.

Teams from overseas also travel to the United States for more face-to-face collaboration. Earlier this year, Seattle students hosted visitors from Guatemala, India, and South Africa, making direct connections with peers they had come to know online. The exchange was timed to coincide with a visit to Seattle by the Dalai Lama for a conference on the theme of compassion.

Through the project, Seattle middle school teacher Melanie Shelton said her students analyzed the topics they chose to address -- ranging from global warming to homelessness to animal rights -- more deeply. "They talk articulately and passionately about these issues now. They sort of knew something before. Now, they know and feel something about these issues," she says.

A South African teen describes the value of the learning experience in a blog post: "Not only did I learn about photography and how to create digital storytelling, I started to understand that a photo or any image can tell you something when you look at it very carefully," the youth wrote. "Thank you, Bridges, for building a bridge that enables me to see the other side of the world and to see life as a never-ending journey of experiences."

Tuke's own story has involved some life-changing journeys. After eleven years at Powerful Schools, he took three months off to travel through Central America. "I would walk down a dirt street, come into a town that looked like it was off the grid, and I'd find an Internet café run by high schoolers," he recalls. "There is such strong interest among young people in connecting. I began wondering how we could connect schools so that young people can learn directly from each other."

Eventually, Tuke met Borges and saw, he says, how the photographer "put cameras into the hands of indigenous people," helping them preserve and share their own culture. It wasn't long before Tuke and Borges merged efforts, collaborating on their new vision to build global bridges.

To learn more about the Bridges to Understanding program, including a downloadable curriculum guide and a digital story library, visit the organization's Web site.

Have you done storytelling projects that connected your students with peers from around the world? Please tell us about your experience.

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