May 18, 2018 | Katherine Adams
When dedicated teachers get the opportunity to help high school students connect with their peers on the other side of the world by sharing literature, they take it. A combined effort of three University of Houston-Clear Lake education professors, one UH-Clear Lake graduate student, a Skype link and a library full of students turned some simple reading assignments into unforgettable, cross-cultural and cross-global learning experiences.
“I got a contact from a nonprofit organization called The Globe Reads,” said Sheila Baker, assistant professor of education and program coordinator of UH-Clear Lake’s school library and information science program. “I was asked if I had a connection to a local school library that would be interested in gathering students to participate in two Skype literature and poetry lessons with a school in India. The objective of the lessons is to promote empathetic engagement through shared reading with students across diverse cultures throughout the world.”
Baker said she had the perfect connection: her own student, Bonnie Alexander, who’s the librarian at Pasadena High School and is getting her School Library and Information Science M.S. from UH-Clear Lake this summer.
Alexander said that she believed the Pasadena students had a truly impactful experience speaking with their Indian peers, as they discussed a Robert Frost poem and the poetry of Indian Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore, on Feb. 14. “They definitely connected,” she said. “We had some technical difficulties getting the audio to work, and there were moments when one side could hear and the other couldn’t. But the teens were determined to communicate, so they were making hand signals and writing signs and holding them up so they could keep talking while we figured out the technical problems.”
Alexander said during the second Skype session, which took place on April 26, students discussed, “The Boys in the Boat,” a novel by Daniel James Brown. The Pasadena students found common ground with their new friends in India and got a new perspective on social justice and the rights of others. “One of the goals of the program is that students should become activists for change,” she said. “They learned a lot about the lives of the teens in India and it definitely made an strong impact.”
Baker said the reading selections are chosen on the basis of how much discussion they believe it will generate. “The goal is not as much about the literature itself as to expose the humanity on each side. They certainly succeeded in these two sessions,” she said.
There was quite an effort on the part of the Indian teens to make the appointed Skype session, said Assistant Professor of Curriculum and Instruction Debra Shulsky. “For them, it was over 10 hours ahead, which made it quite late at night, and the technical problems caused a delay. They stayed at school very late and had to go to school in the morning, but their teacher said they were very happy and they made it work.”
Discussions are about encouraging teens to make connections, Shulsky continued. “Dr. Baker and I do research on the topic of global citizenship, and this event mirrors those ideas. We are more alike than different and we can start that conversation through great literature.”
The American students listened to their Indian counterparts talk about their struggles and gained new insight into their own lives. “One girl said that after hearing about the lives of Indian girls, she’d never take her education for granted again,” said Preeti Jain, assistant professor of early childhood education. “A theme of one of the poems was the importance of the support of family and friends during difficult times. An Indian girl spoke of the support she’d gotten after disclosing she’d been sexually abused.”
Other girls spoke of arranged marriages, skin color, career choices and education for women. “The literature we choose presents ideas about being human and the freedom to be who you are,” Shulsky said. “The students brought up their personal experiences as a result of those discussions.”
Baker said that she, Shulsky and Jain plan to remain liaisons for The Globe Reads and help set up more Skype reading sessions with PHS and other schools from different cultures. “It will be interesting to see the change of students’ perspective over time,” she said.
For more information about UHCL’s School Library and Information Science M.S., visit www.uhcl.edu/academics/degrees/school-library-information-science-ms-school-librarian-certificate.