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Using technology to join different cultures

In a very literal sense, Stony Point High school students have found a window to the world in connecting with their peers across the Atlantic Ocean. Though regular chats via Skype, the Round Rock school district pupils have embarked on a cultural exchange with counterparts in Cape Town, South Africa.

The trans-Atlantic chats feature 15 students of the International Baccalaureate Diploma Progamme, a yearlong project with South African children. A technology-aided cultural exchange has developed between the two sets of students, with a give-and-take of not only ideas and insights but songs and poetry reflective of their disparate societies.

“They are able to actually promote sister-school relationships and also make those relationships personal,” said Stony Point English teacher Edleeta Shands, who helps oversee the program. “It’s something they will carry on in their lives. When they sing songs to each other, it brings it to their eyes.”

The exchanges let students know they are more alike than they are different despite the distance between them, said Shands, whose daughter lives in South Africa and connected Stony Point with the Cape Town students.

“Technology breaks that separation.”

The exchanges took on special meaning for Stony Point senior Kori Michele Cooper, who pitched a story on the international outreach efforts to IB World magazine, after noticing the magazine displayed in school. The resulting article published in the March issue, “One Small LEAP Via Skype,” tells the story of the international exchanges.

The LEAP acronym of the headline serves a dual purpose, providing a verb describing the outreach and the [leap that students need to make.]

On Thursday, Round Rock school district Superintendent Steve Flores was scheduled to recognize Shands and the IB students for the article’s appearance in IB World magazine.

Cooper, an aspiring writer who has been accepted into Northwestern University in Chicago, said the chat sessions yield a perspective on the challenges encountered by students in South Africa. And seeing the faces of the students makes that understanding less abstract.

“This puts a face and a name to the people we read about in textbooks but don’t see face to face,” Cooper said. “They live in townships where they don’t have access to indoor plumbing and we take things like that for granted.”

Stephanie McKee has served as the IB coordinator for four years, catering to the educational needs of students in grades 11 and 12. She said she finds great value in the international exchange, particularly in giving local students a perspective they might not otherwise have developed.

“The LEAP school project exemplifies the mission and philosophy of the IB Diploma Programme, which promotes a global perspective in education,” McKee said. “The students who participate in IB study a second language, draw on examples from different countries, consider multiple perspectives, develop an appreciation of other cultures, address global issues and work toward providing possible solutions.”

The immediacy of the Skype technology also allows participants to measure the impact of the dialogue in real time. South African program coordinator Lungiswa Gwaai said the unique window into another part of the world has prompted her class to promote the idea with the aim of replicating the effort at other South African schools.

“We meet every Thursday at 3 p.m. South African time, and talk about different topics every week, exchange music and phrases,” Gwaai wrote in an email, in response to a reporter’s questions. “The group has opened so many eyes that we would like to have such groups in each of our schools as we have six scattered around South Africa serving different previously disadvantaged communities.”

Cooper said she and her fellow students structured the dialogue with their South African counterparts in a way that ensures continuous conversation and lively dialogue. To that end, each student had something to offer—in her case, primarily poems from the Harlem Renaissance she knows from memory after her mother’s insistence she learn them from a very young age.

“My mom was on a kick to get me to be an empowered black girl,” Cooper joked, while expressing gratitude to her mom for having exposed her to the literature. Langston Hughes and other notables from the Harlem Renaissance are among her favorites.

One of the poems she has recited to her friends across the ocean is “Saturday’s Child,” a classic of that era from writer Countee Cullen, hoping the poem might also resonate with them as it did with her as a little girl:

Some are swaddled in silk and down,

And heralded by a star;

They swathed my limbs in a sackcloth gown

On a night that was black as tar.

“We structured it so there wouldn’t be any awkward silences,” Cooper said. “At one point they went on break and we thought they were gone forever,” she recalled, remembering a protracted absence of their peers in South Africa was due to a different academic year than theirs.

Shands said her students have taught her a few things too, and she marvels at their enthusiasm. “These kids have absolutely astounded me with how hard they worked. I set this up but everything else is run by them. It’s just a seed that’s planted and the kids ran with it.”

Stony Point students now are helping to sponsor a five-day trip to enable LEAP students’ travel to East London in Cape Town to visit schools and run workshops to promote reading and social responsibility. Graduating Stony Point seniors who serve as the project’s current leaders are now working with the Stony Point IB junior class toward the goal of continuing the project into next year.



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