Thursday, May 23, 2013

Using Teleconferencing for Language Acquisition and The Study of International Affairs

When I was about 9, I went on a trip to the Caribbean.  There are two things I distinctly remember about this trip 1) that my brother almost drowned 2) that I made friends with an incredible girl from West Germany.    Her name was Martha and she looked nothing like the "aryan ideal" we are taught about in studies of the Holocaust and WWII.  She had beautiful green eyes and dark brown hair with natural red highlights.  Her face looked much older than the typical nine year olds, hardened undoubtedly by the trauma of never having met half of her family, who unfortunately had been on the "wrong side" of Berlin when they were suddenly restricted from returning to their homes when the Soviets took over East Berlin.  She had never met her uncle, grandmother, grandfather, or much of her cousins and extended family.  She knew a lot about the Holocaust, having been taught about it in school since she was five.

I had German ancestry in my roots, but did not have any close personal family members who were Holocaust survivors.  My paternal grandmother, a Zimmerman, was among many other German Jewish Americans whose families had left Germany to migrate to America in the 1840's, 50's, and 60's, well before even the unification of the state under Bismarck   She had been brought up not particularly religious, but until the Great Depression, had always purchased kosher meat and went to shul.  She was proudly German.  Hence, unlike many Ashkenazic Jews, I did not have any preconceived bias against Germans.  So, when I met Martha, with her warm personality, brilliance, and wisdom beyond her years on my trip, I immediately wanted to be her friend.

We actually maintained a friendship well beyond the trip corresponding as "pen pals" for a few years afterwards.  I cherished letters I would get from her stamped "West Germany" and spent hours writing back to her.  Her English was terrific, my German was well, non-existent.  I grew so much from the pen pal relationship we had.  It was really my first taste of living history.  While I do not credit this experience with inspiring me to become a history teacher, I certainly think that it set me on a path towards that. As a nine year old, I was learning first hand from someone on the ground in Western Germany about the fall of the Berlin Wall, the society the division had created, the culture of post-War Germany, and the eventually recovery and reunification of a nation.  It was an incredible experience and opportunity despite the fact that I barely fully appreciated that at merely nine years of age.  It did have long term ramifications for me, when I was going for a PhD at Revel, I actually took German at Columbia University.  I have actually spent a lot of my career studying German history.

So what does this have to do with technology?  Good question.  Back then, in the 80's, just receiving a letter from another nation every few weeks to a month was considered amazing and rightfully so.  Nowadays, thanks to technology, communication is rapid, much more reliable, more global, and much more interactive than ever before.  I a cannot imagine a better way to learn a foreign language than to befriend a classmate in a foreign country and work with that person to acquire new language skills in that person's native tongue.  Language labs have been created in a variety of schools across the nation and as recently as 2010, Danny Jaye, helped the Bergen County Academies apply for and receive a Pell Grant for one at the Bergen County Academies.  I'd like to take this concept a bit further.

Image a classroom with computers, about 25, (ok that already exists), but computers with headsets that individually allow students to sign up to a piece of teleconferencing equipment that looks like skype on steriods to be partnered with a fellow student halfway across the world and talk.  Together they can "chat" and converse about a given topic the teachers from both classrooms have already set up as specific topics for that week.  They can each be instructed to work on using specific vocabulary or verbs that are pertinent to that topic.  Through this relationship and discussion, the pairs of students can become fluent in each others language.  They can even work on projects for class together on a google doc.  We have the technology.  Why we do not do this in all schools currently boggles my mind.  It seems cheap (since many schools have computers and it only requires purchasing headsets), not particularly difficult to set up (since most computers have internet), and incredibly rewarding.

A few weeks ago, I was privileged enough to meet two delegates from Beijing School #2, the best public school in China.  Magen David is hoping to team up with them to help our acquisition of Mandarin and also to learn more about Chinese culture and history.  We are also considering running some courses with these students via teleconferencing equipment.  I would encourage others to find schools internationally to do the same with.

Ok, what does this have to do with international affairs?  Well, students can also pair up to research news articles about international events and look at different perspectives about the events from newspapers from both of their nations.  This can become a combined language and history assignment.  They could even read a book together in the other's language and discuss it.   I challenge you to consider this in your school.  You can start with one computer and a class of kids speaking with another class.  The possibilities are endless.