Parkland students know a lot more about Moldova than most Americans.
Ask the man on the street where Moldova is, and more than likely he won't even know what Moldova is. But pose the question to sophomores in Candi Lavender's Winston-Salem, North Carolina, world history classes, and the questioner will be bombarded with information.
Brittany Ward can tell you that Moldova was a republic of the Soviet Union before it gained independence in 1991.
Keith Young can tell you Moldova has been named the poorest country in Europe.
Antonio Johnson can tell you that the official language is a dialect of Romanian. He also can tell you that student protests are growing in frequency in Moldova because of a Parliament vote to make Russian the official language.
And Montay Rowe and Sarah Gathings can tell you that electricity and garbage cans are just two of many commodities taken for granted by Americans that are often scarce in the former Soviet bloc country.
Lyceum Vasile Alecsandri students pose beside a bust of the poet namesake of their Moldovan school.Credit: Diana Retcu
The Human Connection
These Parkland High School students didn't get their facts from a textbook. Because they have a partnership with students from the Lyceum Vasile Alecsandri, in Ungheni, Moldova, they learned about the country from the source -- its people. And Lavender and her students say the personal relationship has made all the difference in their interest in both the subject of Moldova in particular and of the world in general.
Such a partnership is not without difficulties. With electricity sometimes available only two hours a day in Moldova, sending e-mails and making postings to their partnership Web site have proved to be sometimes insurmountable chores for the Moldovan students. A folktales project is behind schedule because of lack of electricity, lack of heat in the school -- which kept students home for several weeks -- and infrequent access to computers at their school.
But, as Lavender says, "while frustrating, these are great learning experiences," in part because her students need to take into account the technological capabilities of their overseas Internet partners when they are corresponding. After they toured Winston-Salem with a digital camera and an eye toward showing their community to the Moldovans, the Parkland students had to keep in mind that the Moldovan school doesn't have broadband and that pictures can take very, very long to download. Those limitations had to be on their minds even as they were learning how to crop, edit, and resize using Photoeditor software.
Lavender emphasizes the importance of not limiting electronic partnerships to schools with the latest equipment. "This affords these students opportunities they wouldn't get otherwise," says the veteran teacher, who visited Moldova last September. "Upper-class children would probably have the opportunity to travel anyway. The farthest away some inner city kids get is to the beach. Kids in Ungheni probably never get away from their hometown and maybe only once in a lifetime go to the capital, Chisinau, which is about 65 miles away."
The interest in Moldova came about because Winston-Salem, a university town that grew up on tobacco money, began a sister-city relationship with Ungheni, and Lavender asked some visiting Ungheni dignitaries and the North Carolina Center for International Understanding to help her find a partnership school. Once paired, Lavender and her counterparts in Ungheni, English teacher Diana Retcu and economics teacher Elena Chelaru, decided to do a folktale project. Students would write folktales about their local region, exchange and compare them, print a book with the folktales in both Romanian and English, and then sell the book.
But the introductions to each other have been as interesting to the students as the actual project. Many Parkland students come from struggling families -- 65 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-priced lunches -- yet they reassess their own circumstances when they hear about their counterparts who may take one bath a week, eat one meal a day, consider a glass of milk a luxury, or subsist on an average monthly salary of thirty dollars.
Teacher Candi Lavender holds a shawl given to her by students who were her hosts in Moldova.Credit: Edutopia
Puts Things in Perspective
"I'm poor, but I'm rich compared to them. It puts the 'p' in poverty," says sophomore Gathings. "We take things for granted. ... When my Mom gives me five dollars, I think, 'This ain't enough.' But if they had it, they'd be grateful for it. I'm not grateful for everything I have, and I should be."
Lavender keeps the partnership moving forward even as her classes change. In the fall, she had students write the folktales. Bobby Hoots wrote about the Maco Light, the 1867 story of Joe Baldwin, who literally lost his head as he was swinging his flashlight back and forth to warn an oncoming train that his railroad car had become separated from the train. "They say every year he comes back and looks for his head on the train tracks," Hoots explains. He guesses the Moldovan students might think the story is "sort of funny." But then he adds, "They might also think, 'Never get on the train tracks.'"
This semester, Lavender's students will make comparisons between the Moldovan folktales and their own, which follows discussions comparing forms of government, religions, and architecture and learning that Brittany Spears is as popular in Eastern Europe as she is in the United States.
In an era when geography is hardly taught in schools and when the United States is not just insensitive to other cultures, "but apathetic," Lavender says, partnerships like the one her classes have with Ungheni students are critical.
"These kids have a real connection with another place in the world. There's another human being on the other end (of the Internet)." Because of that connection, Lavender says, when something happens in another country, "it's not happening to alien, distant people. That's important for them to know."
Sophomore Natalie Sheppard says these personal relationships can only help. "It might not solve world peace," she declares, "but it's a step in the right direction."