Friday, June 1, 2012

What's On the Menu in Collaboration Class Today?

Marlinton Middle School in Arabic, Maghribi Calligraphy
There was a bit of a party atmosphere in the 8th grade classroom of Language Arts teacher Mrs. Jonese today as we held our final gathering for the Beyond Pen Pals Collaboration Project. Joining us for the event were Sue Groves, Acting Executive Director from the Pearl S. Buck Birthplace and Jolie Lewis, Vice-President of the Birthplace Foundation Board, who joined us virtually in a Google Hangout.  The students enjoyed egg rolls and fried rice from China Palace in Lewisburg, while drinking Moroccan mint tea and good old fashioned sweet iced tea from right here at home.

This side of the box was labeled in French and English

This side of the box was labeled in Arabic and Chinese.
Since after the Christmas break the students have been communicating with peers at the Shanghai ChangZheng Secondary School in China via email and Al Akhawayn School of Ifrane, Morocco via VoiceThread, a multimedia program that enables online, asynchronous conversations around media.  

It is especially useful for overcoming time differences.  In fact, the students enjoyed tea from all three cultures, including their own.  The iced tea was homemade by their teacher, Jan Jonese, and the tea used to make the mint tea, though one of Morocco's most preferred brands, was in fact Chinese.  More than that, it bore a small, golden, shiny "quality guaranty" sticker indicating it came from the very same province in which Pearl Buck grew up and worked while in China. I had fun showing them the ritual around the preparation and serving of Moroccan tea, is simple compared to that of Chinese tea.

We have had our share of technical and other challenges throughout this project and we had some today, too.  A combination of technical issues and a miscommunication prevented the Moroccan students from joining us for our first live interaction.  They were trying to join us in a video conference, but we were waiting for them in the wrong place, virtual place, that is.  They attempted to contact us via email, and we attempted to contact them, but our communications did not reach one another.  

It has been my experience that there is frequently a great deal of latency in the relay of email and chat messages to and from Pocahontas County.  I am not sure why that it is, but when it is an issue, it seems to be an issue no matter which email account I am using, and I have several.  It makes me wonder if it doesn't have something to do with the routing of internet traffic in this region.  That is pure speculation on my part.  I'm just disappointed my students were not able to interact live with either their Moroccan or Chinese counterparts, and if I could diagnose the problem we might be able to remedy it.  Email ought not be that slow to relay.    

The project was an educational initiative of the Pearl S. Buck Birthplace,
written here in Arabic translation, Maghrebi Script.
This was a pilot project, our first successful attempt at such a thing, so it sometimes did not go perfectly.  At other times it went very well, indeed.  I have to thank the students and, above all, their teachers to for that.  The students in the project came from the classes of Jan Jonese, who was with me in the class everyday and without whom I probably would have run out of ideas early, and Denise Sharp the 8th grade science teacher, who took those students less interested in the project during that time, making the class size manageable.  I'm deeply grateful to them both.  I'm kicking myself for not getting a class picture!  Each student in the class was given a certificate for a free tour of the Birthplace by the Foundation, so perhaps this is not the last time I will see them, but it will be the last time as group.

Preparing breakfast in the science classroom
Special thanks are also due to Jolie Lewis, Vice-President of the PSBB Board, who was my partner in envisioning and planning this project from the start, and who joined us in class on several occasions, including our Breakfast cook-in when we turned the science classroom into a kitchen!

Of course thanks are due to our overseas collaborators.  Thank you to the students who wrote the letters and prepared the videos, and thank you, especially to their teachers, Loubna Abdarazzak & Laiza Khan at the Al Akhawayn School in Morocco, and Shirley Fry at Shanghai ChangZheng Secondary School in China. 

The ground was paved for what I was able to accomplish by Lucinda Tyler, whose ambitious and exciting project involving the Birthplace, the Pearl Buck Museum in China, and schools both here and in China was nipped in the bud prematurely by Chinese official for arbitrary reasons never fully made clear to us.  Fortunately her work and some of the equipment she secured for the project gave me a head start in this endeavor.  

VoiceThreads from Al Akhawayn School and Marlinton Middle School
Our students had Chinese Pen Pals thanks to former PSB Board Member Eddy Pendarvis, Professor of Education, and QingQing Zhao, Director of China Programs, at Marshall University.  They moved quickly and made a considerable effort to help us.  Then, of course, it was MMS principal Joe Reilly who brought us into the school and matched us with a teacher to begin with.  He did a good job with that.  He has the best interests of his students at heart, and searches for innovative ways to help them reach their goals.  

Thanks to Cathy Mitchell for stepping in to help us out of a technology scrape or two, or 10, or 20!  Sometimes people think I know everything there is to know about technology, and I suppose I do.  But I don't know a lot more, and she has always been able to help when I run into something I can't resolve.

Finally, thanks dad, Anthony L. Toler, and my friend Rachid Aadnani, who teaches Arabic at Wellesley College, for the food and mint tea the students enjoyed today.  

I would go on to thank the Pearl S. Buck Foundation Board from inviting me here, High Rocks for their support...  But that's for later, and my personal blog.  That list is long, and this project is only one part of my Americorps service.

I'm not going anywhere, yet. Come by and take a tour at the birthplace on Saturday, Sunday or Monday and it's likely I'll be your guide. I'm just done with that iteration of this project and want to thank those who made it possible.  We do plan to repeat it next year, adjusted for lessons learned.  Contact us for more information.  

I'm still hoping to put together a team of students to document the Little Levels Heritage Fair on video, as source material for next year's collaborative projects and for archival purposes.  Things have been extremely hectic, and I didn't have a chance to recruit before school got out, so if you're good with a video camera, or want to learn, maybe this is the project for you.  I am looking for Middle or High School Students who can get to Hillsboro during the Heritage Fair to take video of the festivities, then edit them into your own mini-documentaries.  Leave comment on the blog, or write to me at if you are interested or for more information.   

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