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Telecollaborative Project Develops Compassion, Global Awareness
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Each week, an educator takes a stand or shares an Aha! moment in the classroom in the Education World Voice of Experience column. This week, educator Brenda Dyck reflects on the power of telecollaborative learning in the lives of middle school students. These intercultural exchanges, Dyck observes, have the potential to move middle school students from complacency to compassion.

"There is a great difference between knowing and understanding: You can know a lot about something and not really understand it."
-- Charles F. Kettering
Brenda Dyck teaches at ABC Charter Public School, a school for gifted and talented children in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. In addition to teaching sixth-grade math and science, Dyck is also the school librarian. She has written for various educational periodicals and is a teacher-editor for Midlink magazine.
Middle school students seem to be walking contradictions. They're gregarious one moment and guarded the next. They exhibit incredible curiosity while their body language oozes boredom. They treasure individuality even though they frequently choose to move in mirror-image herds. To tap into the authentic side of middle school students, you almost need to catch them off guard. I've discovered that it is during a moment of surprise that middle school students often demonstrate vulnerability, wisdom, deep authenticity, and compassion.

Recently, I caught two classes, from opposite sides of the globe, off guard.

For several months, my class has been working with a group of students from Israel on a telecollaborative project called We the Children... For this project, both classes explored one of the most basic human rights -- the right to a safe place. For part of the project, students immersed themselves in identifying the characteristics of a safe classroom. They used those criteria to evaluate their classroom and their country in general.

During this time, the Canadian and Israeli students e-mailed back and forth. The conversations focused on the things that concern most 13 and 14 year olds -- sports, music, weekend activities, and fashion. Throughout the e-mail correspondence, my students and I were perplexed that no one spoke of or even alluded to the frequent terrorist attacks in Israel.

It wasn't until both classes of students handed in their reflective writing that a sobering picture of two very different living environments began to emerge. Using poetry as the format, the Israeli students began to describe the unsafe setting they call home. They told of being afraid of going into the street, attending movies protected by guards, and not being free to use buses or take trips.

One student, Sharon, described the reality of her unsafe world and then fanaticized about living in Chicago, a place she considered very safe. Gilat reflected on living in Switzerland, a place she considered to be at peace with the entire world. The poignancy of her words will always stick in my mind:

"My teacher asked a question once:
Which country do you think is the safest one?
Dan said France, Nurit said England,
Yuval said Spain, I said Switzerland.
I am not sure, but I was told
That Switzerland is at peace with all the world.
Can you imagine this lovely thing?"

I began to realize that beneath the light-hearted exterior of these students' e-mails was a generation of fearful young adults trying to make sense of the everyday terrorism around them. Like my own students, they had become very good at masking the hurtful things in their lives by covering them up with humor, sullenness, and pranks.

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I caught my own students off guard the day they sat at the computers watching a CNN photo essay depicting the recent terrorism in Israel. Up to this point, they had viewed their Israeli peers as they would any other13 or 14 year olds. I attributed this to receiving e-mails from Israel void of any mention of the suicide bombings or the violence that is part of daily life in Israel. As students flipped through the CNN images of chaos and bombings in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, you could have heard a pin drop.

During the debriefing session with students, our dialogue was solemn. One boy told of a peace rally he had attended at his synagogue that week and read parts of the program to the class. Another student commented that our telecollaborative project had helped her appreciate the safety of her country. She observed that studying alongside students in another culture had allowed her to make a personal connection with the people behind the unrest in Israel. This new revelation made it impossible for her to listen to news reports of suicide bombings in Israel with the same sense of detachment she had experienced before. Now she wondered whether her friend has been caught in the midst of the terrorism and was hurt.

As I looked at their serious faces and read their passionate words, I realized that telecollaborative learning not only had broadened my students' worldview but also had caused in-depth learning and compassion to penetrate their hearts.

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