Learn about the issues | Elementary | Teaching giving | Ages 6–10

Connecting kids across cultural divides

Although I'm only 25 today, I can still remember digging through dusty copies of Encyclopedia Britannica as a child to research anything from my Irish heritage to South American pottery. I marvel that in the 15 years since I graduated elementary school, children have gained myriad technological resources to explore and learn about the world. As parents, however, you might wonder: What can this increased access to information do beyond exposing my child to more facts? How can emerging technologies help my child become a better global citizen, increase his/her empathy, and improve his/her leadership skills?

Bridges to Understanding, created by local world-renowned humanitarian photographer Phil Borges, was created precisely for that purpose. Bridges' mission is to engage K-12 students worldwide in direct, interactive learning and storytelling to build cross-cultural understanding. Bridges connects classrooms around the world through digital photography and storytelling, live interactions, and teacher-mediated text exchanges. What does that mean? It means that if a child today was to do the same report I did on Peru, as a Bridges student he or she would be able to link directly to students currently living in Peru, ask them directly about their lives and culture, and even view short digital stories that highlight how students there are taking action to create a healthy water system.

Bridges helps teachers use new interactive communication tools so students can learn not just about the world, but engage directly with their peers around the world. In addition to reading about the Tibetan conflict in their textbooks, for example, children in Bridges classrooms actually connect with students in the Tibetan Children's Village in Dharamsala, India. They can watch the digital stories about their daily routines -- everything from chores to after-school soccer tournaments. Then, they can use the Bridges interactive online forum and tools from the International Education and Resource Network (www.iearn.org) to ask questions about one another's lives and collaborate on learning projects.

Teachers in more than 60 classrooms in Puget Sound are now involved in similar projects with students in more than 30 countries. Bridges provides on-site digital storytelling workshops and ongoing assistance to ensure that students engage in rich dialogue and share perspectives on issues and their lives. I can't imagine how different my education would have been had I had the same opportunities as these students do today.

How can you get involved?

The Bridges program is sustained by the help of classroom teachers as well as volunteer mentors who serve students in local Seattle schools and/or travel around the world on Bridges digital storytelling workshops. Bridges offers short workshops in Seattle -- and longer international workshops -- at which you can learn the tools of digital storytelling and then mentor local students in creating their own stories. We teach the workshops partly from our Seattle offices (donated by Getty Images, Inc.), using laptops loaned to us by Microsoft and software donated by Adobe. Bridges mentors range from schoolteachers to professional photographers to college students looking for a meaningful spring break activity.

After a recent short workshop in Seattle, volunteer mentor Daphne Guericke wrote; "This past weekend was just awesome, rich and inspiring in so many wonderful ways. I feel blessed having had the opportunity." After an international workshop to India, mentor Karen Church said, "It was an incredible way to travel. We had an immediate connection with the children in the Tibetan Children's Village, and access to the communities in ways that I never though possible. It is such a gift to feel welcomed and connected to the people in a place you're visiting, and to combine travel, photography and volunteering."

My ninth-grade English teacher used to frequently refer to the famous William Butler Yeats quote, "Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire." We are now living in an era where our pails are overflowing with information; our challenge now is to light the fire of curiosity, empathy and cultural understanding, to bridge the gap between knowledge and true understanding, and help our students create a more peaceful future. With organizations such as Bridges, the future looks more promising than ever.

Bridges to Understanding is one of ParentMap's Giving Together partners this year. For more information, visit www.bridgesweb.org or contact the author at cheryl@bridgesweb.org.


Cheryl Crow is Communications Director for Bridges to Understanding.

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