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Connecting kids across cultural divides

Published on: March 01, 2007

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 ( 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

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 or contact the author at


Cheryl Crow is Communications Director for Bridges to Understanding.

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