BEIRUT: “They were so happy to have new friends,” recalls Rawya Shatila about her student’s initial reaction to embarking on an international educational collaboration with a class in Colorado.

Shatila had tried to explain to her students that they had friends in another country, but until they saw their own writing on their class’s blog, and their friend’s faces in animated videos on the internet, it hadn’t seemed real.

The collaborative project, entitled ‘Digital Storievolunteer-to-learn-a-language-2s: A Celebration of Learning and Culture’ was the brainchild of Shatila, a schoolteacher at Makassed Khalil Shehab School in Beirut and her teaching partner, Cheryl Arnett, of Sunset Elementary School in Craig, Colorado. Through the use of technologies including Wikis, blogs and online mapping tools, Shatila’s first- and second-graders and Arnett’s second-graders started to share stories and activities, forging international friendships in the process.

Shatila and Arnett first came into contact through the internet community ePals, but it wasn’t until a year later, when they scooped first prize for their project at the Microsoft Innovative Teachers Forum Awards in Washington this August, that they actually met face-to-face. “I felt that I had known Cheryl for a long time,” says Shatila. “Although we come from different cultures, our cooperation was very easy because of Cheryl’s openness.”

Arnett echoes her sentiments; “Meeting Rawya in person was a dream come true. It has been my greatest pleasure to know and collaborate with [her] for the past year.”

The annual Innovative Teacher awards, now in their sixth year, are given by Microsoft USA to recognize teachers who use technology creatively and effectively to improve the way their students learn. A total of 17 teams of teachers from 10 states in the US gathered in Washington this year in order to share ideas about the best practices in 21st-century learning and teaching. The winners were chosen by a judging panel made up of educators, past winners and Microsoft executives. Shatila and Arnett will now go on to represent the United States at the Worldwide Innovative Education in South Africa this autumn, joining nearly 500 teachers from 60 countries who won similar events in their regions.

Shatila has long been passionate about integrating technology into the curriculum; doing so, she says “allows us to reach all students with different abilities and learning styles. It also breaks the isolation of the classroom and helps make teaching more meaningful and fun.”

Her student’s academic performance has seen a marked improvement since the beginning of the project, and their confidence has grown also. “They’re always motivated and encouraged,” says Shatila. “For example, they want to show off their best handwriting because they know I’m going to take photos of them and post them on our blog.”

Shatila recognizes that children today are growing up in a world where technical skills are more crucial than ever before. “Our goal is to prepare them for the future by giving them the skills they need as 21st century learners. Children today are born with technology – they’re constantly entertained by things like video games – but we wanted to show them that technology can also be a device for learning, and it can be entertaining too.”

Utilizing a range of internet tools, the two teachers enabled their students to share experiences and learning across the Atlantic, increasing their global awareness of the similarities and differences between children from different countries. As Shatila says, “we were able to make our classes virtual neighbors instead of strangers on the other side of the world. Using technology, we are developing our students into global citizens – it broadens their perspective.”

The time difference is only a minor hitch; the youngsters have taken part in a range of activities to engage with their counterparts, including making animated videos using, designing posters on, and updating their own individual Wikis with pictures and writing.

From creating bookmarks for World Book Day, to making a recording of themselves reading the book “Flat Stanley” for their counterparts to hear, the students are constantly enthused by their classwork. Shatila is particularly excited about using the new tool the Twiducate platform, which is a free social networking resource for schools.

The Microsoft Innovative Teachers Award is not the first recognition that the Makassed Khalil Shehab School has received; the walls of Principle Ghina Hafez’ office are lined with numerous framed certificates, including one for the International School Award for International Collaboration, given by the British Council in 2009, which the school won through a similar scheme with their partner school in Scotland.

The school has a strong record of investing in technology and boasts a dedicated department for Information Technology; Shatila is eager to extend thanks to Adla Shatila, the department’s director, for her part in approving plans for acquiring new technology.

But even with the finest equipment, the collaboration sometimes falls foul of Lebanon’s precarious power situation. “We always have to have a backup plan, because sometimes the connection is too slow, or it stops, or the electricity cuts out.”

However, Shatila’s enthusiasm remains solid. She now hopes that the Innovative Teachers award – along with the two other awards she gained in Washington, Educators Choice and ePals Teacher Ambassador – will strengthen Makassed Khalil Shehab’s application to become one of the schools in the Microsoft Partners of Learning scheme. The global scheme, previously restricted to public schools, has this year been made available to private schools too, and integration in it will hopefully secure further technology funding.

Far from making them complacent, success has spurred Shatila and Arnett on to set new goals for their students in the ongoing collaboration.

They look forward to the upcoming school year and the new activities they will embark on with their students.

When in Washington together, Shatila and Arnett spent a great deal of time preparing for future projects.

“I hope that some day, my students and Cheryl’s will meet” says Shatila.

“Being connected in this way is important, so that they know that the world is one world, with one heart”

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(The Daily Star :: Lebanon News ::

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