It's pretty simple. Talk to people from other countries. See, when kids get in a room with perfect strangers they are allowed to talk to, they start rooting around to find commonalities. But along the way, they find out what differences are embedded in the cultures, too. And I was blown away with what my kids took away from our simple talk.
Wait. I am getting ahead of myself.
As I write this, I am a tad under the weather. I have been trying to figure out how to talk about my experience through the fog of sinus infections, so I did what I always do when I have writer's block. I go to social media.
A college professor friend of mine was making observations about our lack of knowledge and how to fix this... and well. Good news. I have an answer, professor!
Our school district's High School Social Studies Specialist, Craig Perrier, came out and promoted this to my team in January. Because I find it hard to not try new things, I was intrigued and was put in contact with Samantha Reynolds, another teacher who has used F2F in the county.
Between Craig, Sam, and Kristin Looney, the F2F Head of Programs and Partnerships here in the US, both my Team partner and I were very excited to try.
I suppose you are wondering what was so compelling?
Well, consider this:
I teach a course that spends a fair amount of time on geopolitics. World cultures and religions are very distant to my kids. We often talk of the bubble of NoVa... my kids are often unaware of what is happening on the eastern side of the county, let alone in DC or around the world.
We talk essential liberties. Understanding how culture, religion, and faith interpret these various liberties is part and parcel of being a global citizen.
These themes run through our local community: DC is 25 minutes north of us. We have state visits from foreign dignitaries like the Japanese Prime Minister and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In September, Pope Francis will speak at the Basillica of the National Shrine. We are impacted by protests on topics like gay marriage and abortion.
I also want the outside world in my classroom. I look to find opportunities for my students to teach out to the community. I love technology. Seems like a logical marriage, no?
Face to Faith... what is it?
Former Prime Minister Tony Blair and his foundation introduced Face to Faith, a new program at the UNESCO Power of Peace Conference back in 2009.
This short video underscores the desire for a young world in which we are capable of working towards peace through religious literacy. What does this mean? This means:
What is it not?
How hard is it?
What did we learn?
Well, for me the hardest transition to make was using video chat. I did not Skype or FaceTime before this... and that was my greatest hurdle. (I sent embarrassing emails panicing that I had to buy a subscription to Skype... you don't, by the way. That is an upgrade.)
A student did ask me how hard it was to make this happen, like did the school get upset or did I have to clear this with my bosses? Thankfully, no. The National Council of Social Studies has endorsed the use of F2F in social studies classrooms. My school district's board made a big flap about this in a 2013 meeting (Advance to minute 32). I am the making our school the eleventh of 196 schools to use this program in our district.
Other than that, it is getting an account set up. There are a great number of people who are more than happy to help you do this. It is not hard.
You schedule a conference, you collect student information, you find the equipment. You prepare your students and introduce it to your community. (Here is a great video.) You collect permission slips, and you give your kids readings to prepare them. (I created a google slide that gives you a rough idea of what you need to do to be up and running.) Please note, I am updating as I learn more about F2F.
And then it is lights up... the day of the VC arrives.
I'll be honest. I was surprised.
I couldn't really sleep the night before because I was sick, but also because I kept worrying about what could go wrong. The warning bells. Kids being irreverent in the halls. Kids saying things intentionally or unintentionally offensive to our participants. Tech failing. Kids not showing up. Other untold calamities.
And, some of those things did happen. I was sleep deprived. I failed to secure donuts for kids as promised, and spent an hour wasting my time at 5 am. I had kids walk in at the last minute. We had spotty audio, and the other schools couldn't hear us a times. Kids did say things that indicated maybe we don't really pay attention to the world.
And what did we talk about? Mostly what teenagers did in these countries. School, homework, sports, social media, sleep. All these things. What my kids wanted to talk about (Do you use social media? How much? What sports do you play? Is it important in your community?) took up so much more time than the ten minutes we ended up having to define the role of "faith" in our community.
Yet, something magical happened. I will be honest. I was a skeptic. We finished, and I thought "Well, we tried something new. That's good."
It wasn't until we debriefed where I saw the wheels spinning.
1. Kids realized they had a gold mine opportunity. They wanted to talk more, they wanted to connect on social media, they wanted to make friends and find out more. I had questions in my parking lot on Today Meet that we never got to that showed maybe we do know a bit about northern India and Ukraine. (In fact, if I could do it again, I may make Today's Meet a part of the VC so that the other schools can see it, too.)
2. Kids totally loved that this was live, unscripted life. At one point, a boy in India said, well.. I sleep a lot. Thumbs up from lots of boys on our side; thumbs up came back to us from India. My kids squealed. Yes. 18 year-olds. They did. I saw it.
3. Kids made crazy connections that I hoped they would, but wasn't sure would happen. They said, "I complained about being stuck in traffic. They complained about political unrest and war." They realized that extended family and faith plays the roles of sports here in America. We are obsessed with sports... and have the luxury of devoting much of our recreational time to participating, watching, and reading about. (We wondered if sports is our opiate of the masses.) You know, our economic livelihood here in DC is mostly not connected to athletic success, but it brings clout and notoriety. That can bring additional wealth not accessible in other ways. Kids in India read about politics and wonder about the unity of the world. We read about the Orioles and wonder if the game will be played or postponed. We're so... trivial... in our first world problems. Maybe we can fix this by using more interactive new sources like Newsela or by creating a classroom Flipboard or something.
They said, they are so like us... but so not. They are so smart, with fancy words. (Okay, kids... you are smart, too. Trust me. I know this. You just don't use your SAT words all the time.) We wondered how much extended families and clan rule made life different in other countries, not necessarily India or Ukraine. Just elsewhere. We don't know this kind of life where family and religion cultivate identity, community, and commitment. We don't have huge unifying festivals. We just celebrate homecoming and the Fourth. (Although, I think maybe these festivals are not as illusive as we think.) We recognize it is so hard to have universal identities and communities when we are so multi-culti. So we tend towards secular celebrations as a community.
And maybe all these things make relating to each other challenging. But, I am hopeful. My kids want to do it again. Some of them wanted to do it again today. Immediately. They are hooked. And if we keep hooking kids into these networks, we break down these divisions. We can understand what is happening in our region, in our country, in our hemisphere, and beyond. Isn't that exactly what the Tony Blair Foundation is looking for: a way to teach respect? Yes. Respect with the intent of fostering peace.
So, I have more work to do. There are other things F2F does... other topics that cover human trafficking to malaria to civil rights to the environment to religions. We can blog, we can do more detailed VCs.
I better get on that. World peace is waiting.
Photo via Flickr/Ted Eytan