Students Without Borders

To Robbie Daitzman and Joanne Guidry, students at the Loudoun Academy of Science, the classroom extends far beyond their Sterling, Va., school. The pair have spent the year working with two peers in Singapore on projects to determine the benefits of maggot flatulence. The collaboration is one example of the ways U.S. students are working with peers in another country. Video by Maria Glod, Edited by Ashley Barnas/The Washington Post
By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 24, 2009

A team of very smart teenagers has set out to discover ways that maggots might make the world a better place. Two are from Loudoun County. Two live more than 9,000 miles away in Singapore.

To many U.S. politicians, educators and business leaders, Singapore's students have become a symbol of the fierce competition the nation faces from high achievers in Asia. But these four students call themselves "international collaborators" and friends.

Even as globalization has fed worries about whether U.S. students can keep up with the rest of the world, it also has spawned classroom connections across oceans. Teachers, driven by a desire to help students navigate a world made smaller by e-mail, wikis and teleconferences, say lessons once pulled mainly from textbooks can come to life through real-world interactions.

"When we talk on Facebook," Joanne Guidry, 17, one of the researchers at Loudoun's Academy of Science, said of her Singaporean peers, "you can't tell they are halfway around the world."

Ballou High School students in the District made a dance video to go-go music, and an Israeli school sent back a folk dance video. A New York class talked to French students about Barack Obama's July visit to France as a presidential candidate. Students in Montgomery County and Romania last fall shared ideas on whether cyberbullies should be punished.

Harford County students -- including many who had never visited nearby Baltimore -- debated the merits of chocolate milk with peers in Uzbekistan and Morocco. (Chocolate milk, the students report, is popular in all three countries.) The sixth-graders from Harford's Magnolia Middle School also chatted with Iraqis and Slovenians about popular music. Eminem was a universal hit.

Teachers see such exchanges not only as an exciting way to teach geography, history, language and science but also as a vehicle to forge connections that push children beyond cultural stereotypes. At Magnolia Middle, Tiffany Diemer said her students "saw that no matter what country the kids were posting from, they seemed just like them. That was their biggest revelation. That was their 'Wow.' "

President Obama, like other U.S. leaders, has voiced concern about how the nation's students stack up compared with the world. Singapore, an oft-cited example, has ranked ahead of the United States on math and science tests.

But in a speech this month to promote better relations with the Muslim world, Obama pledged to encourage student-to-student connections by creating "a new online network, so a teenager in Kansas can communicate instantly with a teenager in Cairo."

There is no way to count exactly how many U.S. schools have connected with schools outside the country. But teachers are signing on in record numbers to online forums designed to link students across the world through secure digital spaces.

The International Education and Resource Network, with an office in New York, started in 1988 with two dozen schools to build ties between the Soviet Union and the United States. Now it connects students in 125 countries through projects about social issues, identity and the impact of natural disasters. More than 600,000 educators in 200 countries have joined ePals, a Herndon-based company that matches teachers with similar interests and provides translations.

This spring, third-graders at Maryvale Elementary in Rockville used ePals to talk to a class in Guatemala -- chats that sparked lessons on geography, climates and writing.

In one note, a Guatemalan student mentioned that he liked to visit a volcano near his home. Assistant teacher Natacha Steimer said her students were amazed. "It's far more interesting to hear a person your age tell about the volcano than to read in a book about a volcano," she said.

At Ni River Middle School in Spotsylvania County, eighth-graders teamed with peers in Burkina Faso to study global warming. The African students shared a firsthand view of their country's fight to save forests.

"It was difficult for our students to connect with this big global issue because they didn't see any impact," said Brenda Conway, a technology teacher. "The kids in Burkina Faso saw the issue every day with deforestation."

Older students tackle topics in more depth. A discussion between Fairfax County teenagers and peers in Azerbaijan about the U.S. decision made under President George W. Bush not to ratify the Kyoto Protocol got "pretty intense," said Edison High School teacher Karen Martin. The foreign students, she said, questioned why their small country should pitch in with the effort to cut greenhouse gas emissions if the United States would not.

"For my kids, it gave them a sense of questioning what our role really is in the world," Martin said.

In their cyberbullying discussion, students from Montgomery and Romania talked about democracy, freedom of speech, depression and suicide.

"Personally, I don't think that our democracy should allow schools to punish students for off-campus cyber-bullying," one Montgomery student posted in the fall. "I strongly believe that schools already have enough authority as it is."

A Romanian student had this view: "I agree with the idea to allow the schools to punish cyber-bullying because . . . this can hurt the feelings of young people."

One afternoon this month at Loudoun's Academy of Science, Guidry and Robbie Daitzman fiddled with the white maggots at the center of their research on the antimicrobial properties of maggot flatulence. Their project, the brainchild of a Singaporean teacher, will continue in the next school year.

Although the Loudoun teenagers work with bugs native to the United States, their partners are running the same tests on Asian maggots. In August, Guidry, Daitzman and several classmates are heading to Singapore to meet face-to-face and present research.

"I have really tried to get my kids to see themselves as citizens of a planet," said George Wolfe, the academy's director. "There really are things to learn from each other."

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