Kelli Mitchell has never traveled outside the country. But the West Forsyth High School sophomore knows a little more about Russia after talking with Russian students via a live online video feed in her current issues class.
“It gives us a chance to learn about other cultures in the world, not just grow up learning the American way,” she said. “They have a lot of the same views that we do. I thought they would be a lot different.”
Mitchell is one of 19 students taking Jonathan Henderson’s current issues class. Once a month, the students get an early start in the school day, meeting at 7 a.m. to talk with an English class in Russia.
Russian students also are sacrificing personal time, staying after school to talk with their American counterparts.
West senior Alyssa Giglia said she was excited when she first learned she would be talking with students from another country.
“We’re pretty limited with our viewpoints,” she said. “So to see the viewpoints of someone in a different country, I was really excited to be able to do that.
“They wanted to practice their English and we wanted to learn their perspectives, so we talk about current issues like the economy.”
Henderson said he first got the interactive idea in 2007, when he was visiting schools in China on a study scholarship.
“I remember going around to different schools in China, even rural schools with peasant children, and saw them all on the Internet,” he said. “I remember thinking there’s no reason why one of my students couldn’t be on the other end of that communicating with them.”
When he returned, Henderson got permission to offer the elective class this year. He posted a bulletin on an international teaching Web site, which drew a response from Russian teacher, Helen Ogorodnikova.
One of the few challenges in connecting the classrooms has been to make the interactions mutually beneficial.
Russian students have the opportunity to practice their conversational English skills.
But to benefit West students, the majority of conversation is focused on democracy.
“We want their ideas on those things and that’s why a lot of our conferencing was on the election in the U.S. and how they viewed that,” Henderson said. “It’s breaking down stereotypes that they have had of us and that we have had of them ... They’re real people just like us.”
But there are some differences, said Giglia, who was surprised that students in Russia graduate after their junior year, and students from every grade attend the same schools, instead of separating into elementary, middle and high schools.
Erin Kicklighter said her heart was pounding when she first learned she’d be in touch with Russian students. She was expecting more glitches, but was surprised in the similarity between the two classrooms.
“They dress the same way, they listen to a lot of the same music, we’re not all that different,” she said. We’re all teenagers and we still have the same concerns and some of the same weaknesses, even though we’re in different countries.
“We also have some of the same strengths and how we’re the next generation to help strengthen the countries we’re in.”
The current issues class doesn’t follow a textbook, which Kicklighter said allows for more of a visual and hands-on learning environment.
“It’s helping us by letting us actually see what we’re learning,” she said. “We’re able to learn from the people who are actually living this experience. And that way we’re not just going off what history books have told us.”
With the success of Russia, Henderson hopes to expand the program to other countries and continents, including responses he’s received from Thailand, India and Africa.
“I want to see the program grow and bring additional students and even an additional section to involve more countries.”
E-mail Jennifer Sami at firstname.lastname@example.org.