Part 1: The Beginning

US Global Connections group.
US Global CXN group.

This year, students from La Porte, Texas, have the opportunity to correspond and collaborate with students attending The Olympia Schools in Hanoi, Vietnam, to learn about each other’s local communities, lifestyles, education, and other sociocultural issues. Initially begun as a way for US and Vietnamese students to engage in literary and cultural studies that would provide a basis for cultural awareness and allow them to interact and share their worlds, the group has moved far beyond our hopes and is now a thriving learning community of global citizens.

A few TOS students sharing a picture with us after a water fight at an autumn festival.
A few TOS students sharing a picture with us after a water fight at an autumn festival.

The idea for the group began last March when Christopher McDonald, Head of Schools for The Olympia Schools in Hanoi, Vietnam, and fellow AP English Literature grader sent me a television newscast video of the charitable work TOS was doing as part of a service learning project in their community. His students were interacting with the world around them and becoming better citizens and stewards of their community while learning valuable life skills and character development through experiences that complement the lessons taught in the classroom. While McDonald has cultivated many partner schools in the US and Canada, La Porte High School, the only high school in a suburban city of 35,000 people approximately 30 miles outside of Houston, is relatively insulated from the world. What better way to broaden my students’ worldviews than by introducing students from each school and providing an avenue for them to collaborate, as well as gain proficiency in 21st century skills and the real-world application of those skills? McDonald and I discussed the possibility of a student-led collaboration between the two schools, and with high hopes and no idea where this project was headed, we created the Global CXN group.

At the beginning of the school year, a group of my 12th grade AP English Literature students were paired with Daniel Rymer’s grade 10 X-cel students in Vietnam. Both groups of students read Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart as a basis for introduction; then, using Edmodo as our first platform, students entered into discussion about the major themes and conflicts in the novel. While students dutifully and stiltedly discussed the important elements of the novel, it soon became abundantly clear that they were particularly interested in the ways that culture is interpreted and understood through different lenses. Naturally, the discussion led away from the novel and into a lively exchange about students’ own cultures, and, as one might expect among teenagers, the first talk was about food (indeed, it remains a hot topic even 3 months later, often resurfacing at the oddest moments, complete with photos of whatever they happen to be eating at the time). Other discussions since then have included school days and activities, daily lives, popular media, music, art, festivals, sports, holiday traditions, and rites of passage in each country.

Some of Global CXN students speaking with Nam, a former LP grad who moved to the US from Hanoi in his 9th grade year.
Some of US Global CXN students speaking with Nam, a former LP grad who moved to the US from Hanoi in his 9th grade year.

In a beautiful move inspired by our students’ discussion that has ultimately changed the course of our interactions, Rymer posted Adichie’s TEDTalk “The danger of the single story” (if you haven’t listened to it, do it now–I’ll wait). This talk not only sparked a lively discussion between groups across the globe but also gave rise to our students’ idea to write an eBook that will tell their many stories as a way to dispel stereotypes, myths, and assumptions about Eastern and Western cultures.

In their work, students are examining and explaining various cultural beliefs, social activities, and their daily lives. Together, through inquiry and collaboration, students have identified eight topics they envision as chapters and have signed up to write the different chapters according to their interests. These topics include Citizenship and Civic Duty, Holidays, Individual and Interpersonal Relationships, Education, Religion, Daily Living and Entertainment, Heroism and Patriotism, and Social Expectations.

While in a Hangout about education, Donald has a gem of truth.
While in a Hangout about education, Donald has a gem of truth.

As facilitators, Rymer and I help students learn to manage their time, provide writing instruction and help them work through their ideas while writing, read and comment upon drafts, and help students find their voices. Yet, I think we both also are thoroughly enjoying ourselves as we watch our students grow in the process. We have graduated to Google Hangouts as our preferred platform for discussion and collaboration (a move I will discuss in the next installment of Global CXN); in many ways, the rapid growth of friendships between the two groups of students, the freedom with which they express themselves, and their general “teenage-hood” has been fun, inspiring, and humbling to witness. 

In the end, I am finding that no matter where they call home, kids are kids. There’s a fundamental sameness–a oneness, if you will–among all of us that transcends race, birthplace, religious beliefs, and cultural experiences; a oneness that surpasses culture and that is much more human and binding; a oneness that is rooted in a common desire for love, belonging, acceptance. The ideologies and differences that we (adults) allow to divide us are the very things that we should celebrate, the things that bring richness and diversity to our lives. That is the lesson I am learning from our Global CXN students.

Global CXN Part 2 will discuss the challenges our group has faced in dealing with technology and the time difference.