One Virtual Class, Two Cities

June 11, 2018  • Mohamed Abdel-Kader & IDEAS: the Magazine of the Aspen Institute

This article was originally printed in the Summer 2018 issue of IDEAS: the Magazine of the Aspen Institute.

Winchester, Virginia, is 75 miles west of Washington, DC, in the Shenandoah Valley. Founded in 1752 and historically significant to several Civil War events, Winchester was the first town south of the Potomac River to install electric lights, and in 1917, it was connected to a railroad that brought in tourists and supplies. Beyond the technology and commercial ties, however, lies a stark economic reality: despite being close to northern Virginia, one of the richest regions in the country, a significant number of Winchester residents live below the poverty line and regularly face hunger. Almost 60 percent of Winchester’s public-school children are on free and reduced lunch.

In recent years, recipients of public support are eager to demonstrate positive outcomes and impact as increased attention has been paid to metrics and evaluation. But how can learning take place when so many children walking through a school’s hallways aren’t receiving their proper nutrition or, in some cases, are going hungry?

In Beirut, Lebanon, 5,849 miles from Winchester, Lubaba Khaldi, a determined high-school biology teacher, prepares for the day’s lesson. Khaldi teaches in one of Beirut’s many public schools and also serves as an adviser to Lebanon’s minister of education. Like most teachers, she also works hard to keep her students focused on the day’s lesson and not on social media or recess. Outside the halls of Khaldi’s school exists a contradiction similar to the one in Winchester: despite Beirut’s recent business boom, many residents face a daily struggle with hunger, not to mention the recent influx of refugees from Syria who have placed additional stress on an already strained environment.

Khaldi and JoEllen Delamatta, a teacher from Winchester’s John Handley High School, were recently connected by the International Education and Resource Network (iEARN), a partner of the Stevens Initiative—an international public-private partnership housed at the Aspen Institute that aims to broaden the field of virtual exchange. As many students face barriers in studying abroad and learning about other cultures and people, the Stevens Initiative, a collaborative learning experience with peers in other countries, helps deliver the skills many employers seek—skills that are necessary to navigate the diversity in our own neighborhoods.

Delamatta and Khaldi are collaborating on a project to teach their students about hunger, in both a global and a local context. “My students had no idea this was even happening here in their backyard, in Virginia!” Delamatta says. She describes the experience as transformational for many of her students. Not only did they learn about hunger, they also developed a stronger ability to communicate and collaborate with their peers in Beirut. In the process, the students were able to connect, learn about each other, and better understand the challenges they face in each of their communities.

As part of the project, the classrooms connected synchronously using technology once a week. Those sessions were followed by an intensive discussion about everything from the root causes of poverty and hunger to understanding the food supply chain. This experience culminated for students in each school with a simulation called a “Hunger Banquet,” in which participants were divided into facilitated groups and then given rations of food based on their income rather than their level of hunger—quite a paradigm shift for many students. Recently, the teachers met face to face for the first time in Marrakech, Morocco, as they participated in a workshop hosted by iEARN and supported by the Stevens Initiative. After exchanging warm greetings, the two began working with other educators, sharing best practices, and coaching younger teachers as they think about integrating similar virtual-exchange activities into their classes.

“My students saw [virtual exchange] as an authentic and real connection,” Delamatta says. “Not just the technology part but what they learned. They had to collaborate with their peers in a way they never have. They were forced to look at statistics on poverty in their own neighborhoods and compare it with their peers in other countries. My students were also impressed with how articulate and smart their peers in Lebanon were. This sparked some friendly competition between the classes and forced the students at Handley to up their game.”

Teachers often wonder if the classroom learning experience will inspire a student to act or contribute to his or her community. During the month of Ramadan, a few of Khaldi’s students, now more aware of the cyclical dynamics of poverty and hunger, began taking meals to the hungry in their own neighborhoods. “Through this virtual exchange, they as students know they can change the world,” Khaldi says. Similarly, as the temperatures turned frigid in Winchester, Delamatta was thrilled to hear that a few of the students in her class, inspired by their classroom experience, also took action. One student volunteered with the local Salvation Army, playing his trumpet to help them raise money. Others students volunteered with a local soup kitchen.

Perhaps most telling was after Delamatta asked her students about their experience with a virtual exchange: they asked, “Can we do it again?”

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