When You Can’t Bring Your Classroom to the World, Bring the World into Your Classroom

Photography by Mohammad Faraj (West Bank)
“There’s nothing like face-to-face interactions,” I am often told. For many technology users, especially those introduced to technology later in life, it doesn’t feel personal; it feels “techy.” But anyone who has used Skype knows that a real, human connection can be created through e-technologies. For educators aiming to teach global perspectives, the paradigm has shifted: when you can’t bring your classroom into the world, bring the world into your classroom.
Internet technology and educational platforms have gotten cheaper and more universally accessible. Wall maps have been replaced by Google maps, and educational technology has finally caught up with the needs of teachers and is reaching into every corner of our now flat world. But technology is only a tool; it allows us to develop dialogue and interaction, but is a means, not an end in and of itself. Tech-based global education has the capacity to improve critical thinking and cultural pluralism but requires far more than just fancy technology; it requires careful, thoughtful curriculum development, and the support of organizations whose goal is to build authentic global communities online.
About the Research Journalism Initiative
The Research Journalism Initiative (RJI) has found that the combination of technological tools, progressive pedagogy and creativity allows teachers to humanize the world and its inhabitants for students. Whereas western journalism has been, for most of its existence, based on the faulty premise that an outsider’s view of a given conflict is more reliable than the experience of those living inside a given conflict, RJI’s work in youth media requires that teachers make a philosophical shift toward honoring the stories individuals can tell.
Self-representation is inherently tied to self-determination, and journalism becomes a more constructive tool when wielded by the people living injustice, becoming part of their search for liberation by allowing them to define themselves to the outside world.
To facilitate such self-representation and journalistic empowerment, and because of the almost complete lack of educational materials addressing marginalized populations, RJI works to create a direct and personal link between U.S. students and their counterparts in Palestine, teaching them to move beyond taboos surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, one of the hardest global topics to explore in American classrooms. We teach students in the U.S. and the West Bank to use current e-technologies so they can easily craft and share their personal stories, whether through iMovie, blogging, online discussion boards, or some other tech-based means of communication, stressing the importance of individual experience and story. Eventually, RJI hopes to open partner offices in every part of the world where human rights are being violated without a window of communication with the world.
New media platforms provide an ideal place for such self-representation. Students in Palestine have less advanced technology at their fingertips, particularly in refugee camps and small villages, but many young people do have Internet access at home and use social networking sites regularly, particularly in urban areas with universities. In initial asynchronous exchanges, RJI students use the online forums of Taking IT Global (TIGed), a global network of students, teachers, and educational/developmental organizations. Based out of Canada, TIGed is designed to be internationally accessible and highly functional in bad broadband situations, offering virtual classrooms where students can post writing, art, photography and videos, comment on each others’ work, engage in discussions, maintain their own blogs, and even have live video chats. All RJI units end with a synchronous exchange, a video conference hosted at An Najah National University in the West Bank, allowing the students to end their experience with a face-to-face dialogue that participants consistently describe as transformative.
Three Case Studies
Educators can significantly enrich critical thinking and cross-cultural competencies by producing and exploring a wide variety of student media, teaching students to think critically about individual bias and the experiences that form it—including their own. This approach makes students as much the creators of knowledge as the consumers, empowering them to see education as an interactive, life-long process of discovering the world while understanding the role one might play within it. Through e-technologies, new youth media forums and exchanges have created an urge to action which unites students in a common struggle, leading to increased collaborations and solutions-oriented projects that can be deeply transformative for students across the world.
Case Study No 1: Using RJI and TIGed to Start the Dialogue
In the global classroom, RJI’s Poetry of Witness curriculum offers a non-threatening method for getting students comfortable discussing conflict. U.S. students view photographs posted by Palestinian youth and write poems in response to the imagery. They post the poems on TIGed, in written or digital/video form, where the photographer and their peers can comment. Then, students in the U.S. read poetry by Palestinian youth, and post response poems back on TIGed. After this, American students are asked to bear witness to something in their own lives through poetry, photography or digital storytelling, which is also shared online (see http://rji.tiged.org). Units end with a live videoconference with at least one young Palestinian poet, and students on both sides share their work in a poetic dialogue which helps students connect with each other authentically—and more easily than if they were addressing politics directly.
Case Study No 2: Using RJI and TIGed to Transform Perspectives
I used the Poetry of Witness approach for several years as a creative writing teacher and was consistently moved by the insights students gleaned. In one example of many, a 10th grader named Anne Marie Blieszner wrote a poem called “Refuge” in response to a photograph of two school girls in Nablus, West Bank, taken by Mohammad Faraj. In poetry workshop, we asked Anne Marie about her last stanza, about who the “I” was, and she indicated that she started the poem thinking the “I” was the girl in back, the one who can actually smile a little because she’s protected by the girl in front. But Anne Marie said that the “I” quickly became her, too, as she got to know these faces and started wanting to be their refuge personally. This experience indicated not only profound visual and cultural literacy, but that the project had transformed the way Anne Marie saw her self in relation to the world. Due to the connection she made with the Mohammad’s depiction of children, they still maintain a friendship on Facebook two years later.

Case Study No 3: Using RJI and TIGed to Develop Collaborative Media
Currently, an RJI student initiative in Denver is developing a literary and art/photography magazine, which will be managed on TIGed and will showcase new media by students in Palestine and the U.S. This project will be entirely student directed, and will take the shape students want it to, exposing them to myriad new media platforms as they develop their own. The editorial board will be made up of students on both sides of the globe, and a TIGed virtual classroom will provide the forum for collaborative work. This kind of student-directed experiential pedagogy is designed to make students the leaders of their own explorations. In fact, we have found that these approaches simultaneously develop students’ collaborative and leadership skills, turning them into true agents of change for the future. (See www.researchjournalisminitiative.net/resources.htm for sample lesson plans and curricular resources.)
In the United States, RJI resources can be incorporated into a broad range of middle, high school and college curricula, helping students understand the relative nature of “truth” by bringing marginalized voices into the classroom in complement with perspectives more consistently addressed by textbooks and media sources. In doing so, a new kind of youth media is emerging, one led by students and whose goal is not to “share the news,” but to “share our selves” in powerful and meaningful ways.
Next Steps
In partnership with the best technology, western education has the opportunity to build world citizens who are compassionate about the needs and experiences of others, aware of the validity of different perspectives, and comfortable in dialogue with people from different cultures, even about the most uncomfortable of topics.
Using e-technologies to develop self-expression and then connecting students with young people abroad is a use of new media which is easy to recreate in any context or region, not just in Palestine. RJI has found that new youth media forums, paired with comparative and collaborative media techniques, can transform the way students see the world, helping them engage with other young people in meaningful and authentic ways—and with the recognition that true critical thinking means deconstructing and understanding bias, not rejecting it.
Jennifer D. Klein is Director of Educational Development for the Research Journalism Initiative, and Global Partnerships Director for the World Leadership School. She holds a BA from Bard College and an MA from the University of Colorado at Boulder, both in Literature and Creative Writing. She taught college and high school English for 19 years, including five years in Central America and 11 years in all-girls education. She has published a wide array of educational and creative writing, and is currently working on a book on Cuban education. Former Educational Chair for the United Nations Association Board of Directors, Colorado Division, Jennifer is currently President of the Denver Metro Chapter. In 2010, Jennifer left teaching to begin PRINCIPLED Learning Strategies, a global educational consulting business dedicated to developing and enriching global education through curriculum development, professional development, and the use of e-technologies to bring the world into the classroom. She has spoken at a wide array of national conferences, including Islam and the Media (CU Boulder), the People of Color Conference (National Association of Independent Schools) and the International Society for Technology in Education.