By Dr. Fred Mednick, Johns Hopkins School of Education Visiting Fellow
When they entered the room at Johns Hopkins’ Great Hall at the School of Education, forty-four 7th grade students from East Baltimore Community School (many of whom had never been to the campus), along with their teachers and parent volunteers, did not quite know what to expect. The students had been studying bullying and the issues facing teachers during the Chicago teachers’ strike. They had heard about World Teachers Day and had been briefed about how they would meet teachers from different countries, tell them what they had learned, and ask questions.
But still, it didn’t really sink in or make sense until Li-Hong waved to them from 6,700 miles and 12 time-zones away—in China. The students waved back, somewhat amazed, and the conversation began.
Li-Hong played a video from a school rebuilt after the devastating 2008 earthquake in Sichuan. In the video, children from Chengdu said hello, in unison, to the students in Baltimore and shook hand-painted signs that read, “We Stand Up for Teachers!” — the theme for this year’s World Teachers Day, held every October 5th since 1994.
When an East Baltimore Community School student then told Li-Hong what they were studying and Li-Hong responded, the students were hooked. She displayed a picture of The Great Wall and talked about how China protected itself from the outside world by creating barriers, judging others without evidence, and suffering as a result. She raised an interesting issue and she respected the students’ intelligence. Real learning was taking place — global learning, in fact — with teachers from around the world. And it was live. The students understood: learning matters.
And so it went. Following Li-Hong, Solmaz Mohadjer, 9 time-zones away, told a story about how her apartment shook that very morning from an earthquake. She spoke from Dushanbe, Tajikistan, where over 2,000 earthquakes rock this Central Asian country, 75% of which is made up of mountains. When a student answered her question about how tectonic plates cause earthquakes, borders began to disappear. Here was a world-class geologist, working in one of the most earthquake-prone regions of the world, instructing students in a subject they had only studied briefly. But there was something more at stake here. Good science can save lives, she stressed, and ended with the story of a girl who, because of her knowledge of tsunamis, recognized the impending disaster about to take place on the Indonesian beach her family was visiting. Having convinced everyone to evacuate the beach, she saved lives. Science matters.
Solmaz was followed by Sameena Nazir, who waved to the students from her village located near Islamabad, Pakistan, also 9 time-zones away. She spoke of how her village celebrated World Teachers Day that very morning. She described the challenges she faces every day, most notably those inequalities in the Pakistani education system that do not support the ability for many girls to go to school. Not so in her village, she explained, where her organization, The Potohar Organization for Development Advocacy (PODA) was a working example of quality education, distributed equally. The message was clear: things may feel overwhelming, but one can make a difference. Bullying, too, may feel overwhelming, but they could make things better. Ideas were beginning to connect and the students were connecting to ideas. Thinking matters.
The conversation came back full circle and closer to home – only 2,900 miles away in Saltillo, Mexico – where Deya Castilleja played an adorable video of her students, like those in Chengdu, raising their own hand-painted signs that, like those of the Chinese students, read: “We Stand Up for Teachers!” EBCS students learned about Ms. Castilleja’s passion for teaching peace education, negotiating conflicts, and preventing bullying in classrooms — themes the EBCS students have been feeling more and more empowered to address, thanks to their principal, teachers, and colleagues at Hopkins.
Were there technical difficulties managing five regions of the world with inconsistent bandwidth? Certainly. Was it a challenge, from time to time, to understand everything the speakers were saying? Definitely. Somehow, though, no one minded. And while there was not enough time to answer the flurry of students’ questions, imaginations were sparked. Besides, a curious mind, hungry for more, is a very, very good problem to have.
The students ate their boxed lunches, talked amongst themselves, and helped the coordinators power-up donated Flip cameras to be used for collaborative projects in the future. As they filed out for a tour of the Johns Hopkins campus, they took something else with them. After all, it’s not every day that a local school, an international teachers’ organization, a School of Education, and teachers from four countries, in time-zones thousands of miles away, could find common ground.
Johns Hopkins University School of Education and East Baltimore Community School stood up for teachers — by standing up for learning itself. They did so not so much by arranging for, or enjoying, the novelty of a visit to a world-class university and an international video-conference. They made it possible for students in Baltimore to learn not just about a world foreign to them, but from and with global friends. They made it possible for timezones and borders to evaporate. And this was only the beginning.
For the students at EBCS, a vison of education got a little broader, the university became much more accessible, the world grew smaller, and they stood a lot taller. And by sharing local and global issues, education became that much more important.
That’s a message that can last a lifetime.