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Student Exchange

Use the Internet to enrich lessons and connect your students to peers around the world.

By Cindy Long

It’s halfway through first period on a Friday morning at Belfast High School in Belfast, Maine, and ninth-grader Chelsey Paradis stares musingly at her laptop screen. While many high school freshmen are thinking about weekend plans (or the lack thereof), Chelsey considers more worldly matters, such as whether expressing doubts about the future success of the Republic of Dagestan might seem insensitive to her online classmates who live there.

As students in a global classroom, currently studying the literature and geography of Eurasia, Chelsey and her classmates are connected via the Internet with peers in three ninth-grade English classes from different parts of the former Soviet Union—Azerbaijan, the Russian republic of Dagestan, and the city of Vladimir. Students on both continents have just finished reading a translated version of “My Native Tongue,” by award-winning Dagestani poet Rasul Gamzatov. Their assignment is to write about whether the diversity of languages and culture found in the region will hurt its chances of success. Chelsey wants to be candid, but diplomatic. When writing for a worldwide audience, she has learned to choose her words carefully.

Presenting students with such challenges is part of the aim of the yearlong project, in which the kids in Maine and their Russian peers collaborate on writing projects. The curriculum—including literature readings, lesson plans, and writing assignments—is shared via a Web site, discussion boards, and digital photography. After completing an assigned reading, students respond to the literature with a two- or three-paragraph essay that becomes part of a longer, final paper they will write for each geographical region studied. The essays are also posted on the site’s discussion board, called the Café, where the Eurasian and American students read and respond to each other’s work.

By participating in this cross-cultural exchange, the American students can make deeper connections to the literature and develop a better understanding of the geographical areas they study—all through their communication with teens who live there. The Russian and Azeri students, who are learning English, can hone their language skills. Most important, the experience allows all students to knock down the walls of traditional classrooms and physical locations to challenge the stereotypes and preconceived notions they may have about each other.

Students from the Zagatala, Azerbaijan wave the flags of their country along with the American flag.

The Maine class, team taught by three NEA members— special education teacher Michael Bailey, English teacher Gregory Applestein, and geography teacher Butch Richards—is conducted like an advanced course. “More than 50 percent of the students are learning disabled (LD), but this course is not about coloring maps,” says Bailey, who started the global classroom with the help of Project Harmony, a nonprofit organization pursuing online engagement and cultural awareness between school-age children in Russia, Eastern Europe, and the United States. “Too often LD students aren’t challenged to an appropriate level. The most rewarding experience of the global classroom has been to see those bright students shine in their ability to grapple with worldwide questions.”

Going Global

Bailey first linked up with Project Harmony while visiting Azerbaijan as part of an American Councils on International Education program designed to create learning partnerships between U.S. and Eurasian schools. Project Harmony was housed in the same building as the American Councils, and soon Bailey was in the office of the Project Harmony director, sketching out his ideas on a piece of scrap paper about a shared curriculum between his students and a class in Azerbaijan. A few weeks later, with help from the Project Harmony technical staff, the global classroom Web site was launched.

Special Education teacher Michael Bailey says one of the most rewarding experiences of the global classroom has been watching his learning disabled students improve their writing and higher thinking skills.

Bailey believes that the partnership challenges his students and enriches their learning. “They’re not just reading a report in front of the class, but ex- changing ideas with peers from across the globe,” he says. He adds that his students’ writing skills—especially their grammar and spelling—have improved, because they know that the kids reading their work are not fluent in English.

Back in first period at Belfast High, Chelsey Paradis works on her essay for the Café. Soon after she begins writing, she raises her hand. “I don’t think they’re going to make it without being able to talk to each other,” she says. “But I don’t know how to say that without hurting their feelings.”

“It makes it more difficult when you have an audience, that’s one of the challenges,” Bailey explains.

Chelsey seems undecided on her position, and while she mulls it over, her classmate, Jake Denham, posts his essay to the Café, concluding that “having a diversity of languages would hurt Russia’s chances of revival.”

Within his essay, he asks his Russian classmates for their insights: “How big of a problem is [the diversity of languages] for you? Is it hard to talk to people right now? Do you want to re-unite?”

Aishat Dedisheva is a student from the Dagestani class. Like the poet Gamzatov, she is Avar, which is the language she speaks at home. In Dagestan, which borders Chechnya, some 36 languages are spoken. According to legend, the horseman who rode across the world handing out languages threw a bagful into the mountain gorges of the Caucasus region and told the people to sort themselves out. To this day, they’re still trying.

Most of the Dagestani students come to school knowing only their native tongue and must learn Russian as a second language before even beginning to learn English. While older generations fear the languages of their ancestors might be lost, the young people embrace Russian. Gamzatov, the students point out, falls somewhere in between.

Belfast High School English teacher Gregory Applestein leads a discussion in the global classroom.

“In his poem ‘Native Tongue,’ Rasul Gamzatov writes how he loves his mother tongue—the Avar language…and at the same time he loves the Russian language, the language of human intercourse in Dagestan and Russia,” Aishat writes in the Café. “I can say that the languages of two Avar villages not far from each other differ greatly and we understand each other with difficulty. So the Russian language is consolidating and serves to the success of the regions and Dagestan.”

Finding Common Ground

Through the class—the only one of its kind at Belfast High—the ninth- graders stretch the boundaries of their experience and develop an awareness of the world largely unheard of 10 years ago in a small-town American school. Many of the Maine students have never traveled outside of New England, let alone to Russia.

“The global classroom experience not only helps kids grow as students of literature and geography, but also as human beings,” points out Applestein.

Belfast High School student Joel Watson is in a band and wants to travel the world. He says the global classroom has opened his eyes and changed his perspectives about the people of the Caucasus region. “The kids in Dagestan are mostly Muslim, and after 9/11, a lot of us thought of Muslims as terrorists,” Joel says. “But the kids there didn’t know much about us either. They thought we were a bunch of greedy rich kids. Now we see we’re really similar. We have a lot of the same struggles and even the same ideas.”


Online resources to help link your classroom with the world:

Global SchoolNet Foundation


International Education Resource Network

Project Harmony

Global learning is a growing trend.  

Read about two other global classroom projects!

Visit the Belfast Global Classroom site:

What surprised some of the Maine students was that their Muslim classmates confront the threat of terrorism on a daily basis. Armed guards stand watch outside schools to prevent attacks like the one on a school in Beslan in September 2004, when armed rebels held students and teachers hostage during a siege that killed nearly 350 people, half of them children. Meanwhile, Chechen separatists have infiltrated Dagestan in their efforts to break away from the Russian Federation. They’re targeting police in shootings and trying to recruit supporters, sometimes from the area’s high schools. Teachers, including the Dagestani global classroom teacher, Mikhail Nokhov, try to dissuade their students from joining the rebels. Nokhov hopes that fostering understanding among differing cultures will help his students resist such pressures.

The English teacher explains that he was eager to participate in the project after meeting Michael Bailey in July 2005 at a Cold War seminar in England. “We [became] friends and he invited me to take part in his global classroom,” Nokhov says. “I agreed because it is useful for the students to have pen pals in an English-speaking country, which will make them pay more serious attention to learning English.” Not only that, he adds, but “they will learn about many other things that they are interested in, not from the textbooks or from me, but from the American boys and girls who are the same age. I hope that it will…bring them closer in understanding.”

Still, there are technical obstacles Nokhov faces. “We have no Internet access at the schools,” he says. “The number of computers is limited and they are of an old type.” His students either go to the Internet café in town or to his house after school to get online.

Project Harmony is determined to help teachers like Nokhov overcome technical limitations in Dagestan and across Russia. The organization has already made great progress in Azerbaijan. Through its Azerbaijan Connections and Exchange Program, funded in part by the U.S. State Department Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, Project Harmony has created “Internet Computer Centers” in 72 schools in 17 regions of Azerbaijan.

Shukufa Najafova, the English teacher in the global classroom’s school in Azerbaijan, took advantage of the program. A year ago, Najafova had never used a computer. But with the help of a local English-speaking Peace Corps volunteer, Najafova submitted an application to Project Harmony and was awarded with six computers, a printer, scanner, digital camera, and high-speed Internet connection. Now she and her students are Internet whizzes, regularly contributing photos of themselves and their region to the Belfast High global classroom site and participating in Café discussions.

“None of this was possible before,” Najafova says. “Now our school is connected with the world—we sit here and talk with America. It is so good for us.” And, clearly, good for the American students too.

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