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Pen Pals for Peace: Classroom chosen to take part in ‘virtual’ exchange program <p>

Pen Pals for Peace: Classroom chosen to take part in ‘virtual’ exchange program <p>

TOWNSEND — A group of fourth-graders at Squannacook Elementary School has reached out to a group of pupils in another country as part of an international pen-pal project. Their messages — short autobiographical essays, photos and drawings — were sent off to their intended destination, the Omid Learning Center in Afghanistan, on Sept. 12.

The 22 pupils and their teacher, Fred Goldberg, are awaiting replies from the pupils in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, they have learned a lot about the other country’s culture and customs.

Goldberg’s challenging, curricular-connected classroom projects have become so legendary at the school that incoming pupils almost always expect surprises, but this group lucked into a unique opportunity.

This year, the Advocacy Project (AP) selected Goldberg to lead a multicultural pen-pal exchange program in his fourth-grade classroom. AP, formed in 1998, is a Washington-based group that facilitates global “virtual partnerships” aimed at promoting peace and supporting human rights initiatives worldwide. Goldberg received the good news over the summer. It was relayed to the school in a Sept. 2 letter to the school principal from Stacy Kosko, outreach coordinator and learning partners project manager for AP.

According to Kosko — a former Townsend resident who has historic ties to Squannacook and first-hand knowledge of Goldberg’s teaching philosophy and penchant for projects — this is the first time AP has chosen a U.S. school as a partner.

Explaining why Goldberg was “chosen for this honor,” Kosko cited his “long record of educational innovation,” among other things. “We believe that his approach and his emphasis on student-centered project development make him an ideal teacher to lead this exciting program,” she wrote.

For his part, Goldberg has plunged into these challenging new waters with both feet and his latest crew enthusiastically onboard.

Message and method

Peace is more than a concept, as these pupils are learning. Peace is a structural state of mind, and projects such as this are the building blocks.

The class has taken the first step in a virtual journey that may lead to international friendships. Or maybe not. After all, nobody knows yet if they will get any responses to their letters.

Goldberg says they are hopeful, but that is not the point.

As he sees it, these pupils’ efforts constitute a worthwhile endeavor, and this project is the kind this veteran teacher — known to advise his classes to “think outside the box” — is always on the lookout for: an adventurous learning experience with fringe benefits.

“As multicultural education becomes the expected norm in American classrooms, teachers need ways to incorporate diversity into the curricula,” Kosko wrote. So far, this partnership sounds like a perfect match.

According to Kosko’s letter, AP sets its sights on “developing countries and those emerging from periods of chaos,” such as Nepal, Kosovo, Bosnia, Brazil, Sri Lanka, Ecuador, Guatemala, Israel and the Palestinian Territories and Afghanistan.

In a letter to parents dated Sept. 6, Goldberg explained the project, from origins to content, noted tie-ins to the Massachusetts Frameworks and listed activities involved. Each pupil would write a “very short autobiographical sketch” to attach to individual digital pictures, taken in class, he wrote. The messages would be translated from English to Pashtu. “That will be fun for our students to see.” he wrote.

The messages would be delivered to the Omid school in Afghanistan by Iain Guest, director of AP in Washington, D.C. Then, they would wait for feedback and take it from there.

Smooth so far. Then, as pieces of the project were clicking into place, a curve ball stirred things up.

Guest was headed for Afghanistan earlier than anticipated and the class would have to work fast so their messages could go with him. Goldberg attached an addendum to his letter to parents and hoped for the best. Despite the short notice, most of his 22 pupils brought back their permission slips the next day.

The foreshortened timeline had serendipitous side effects. Just a couple of weeks into the school year, this class learned what it means to adapt and think on its collective feet, with direction from their teacher, who readily admits it was a study for him, too.

“When we started what did we know about Afghanistan?” Goldberg asked.

All agreed they had been on the same page to begin with, and it was pretty blank. Now, they can discuss differences between the two cultures and ask pertinent questions, most of which their teacher can answer.

When a Townsend Times reporter visited the classroom, on a recent Friday afternoon, the delivery deadline was just a weekend away. Pupils were putting finishing touches on their messages and ready to talk about what they had learned so far.

They have learned, for example, that in Afghanistan, boys and girls go to school separately, and that, not so long ago, when the Taliban ruled, girls could not go to school at all. Some did, in secret, and both pupils and teachers risked their lives in doing so.

Even now, family structures differ from those in western cultures.

One cultural gap these youngsters found it hard to bridge was arranged marriages. In Afghanistan, these fourth-graders told a visitor, couples do not meet, fall in love and get married, as they do here. Instead, parents decide who their children will marry.

Whatever they might think about that, the messages they were preparing to send off to Afghanistan would not address such matters, nor would they ask any questions. Their autobiographical essays were personal, not political, and non-materialistic by design.

The essays at that stage had been typed, photos scanned and set on paper. Formats were alike, but individual styles shone through.

Each messages consisted of a single sheet of white paper with a color picture of the pupil in the center. Essays would be attached. Most pupils added personal touches, whimsical, colorful drawings that surrounded their photos on the page like art deco frames.

Goldberg explained the photo criteria: Pictures (photos) should be of the children, alone or with their families, but should not include homes and possessions. The idea, he said, was to show the children in Afghanistan “who we are not what we own.” But if they wanted to add artifacts as telling details, drawings were fine.

The artistic assemblage ranged from houses to self-portraits to personal paraphernalia such as toys, books, dolls, bicycles and baseball bats to an array of whimsical symbols: rainbows, butterflies, smiley faces. A marvelous collection of American graffiti.

Children at the Omid Learning Center in Afghanistan may be studying American culture, too, and some of what they learn may come from these messages, sent to them from children of their own ages and a small town many thousands of miles from their own.

The form followed the function of the messages. A single sheet of white paper with their pictures this class just as enthusiastic, bright and curious as several others the newspaper has chronicled in this room over the last few years. The latest in a roster of innovative projects launched in this room, this pen-pal peace program is unique, as were all the others, each one a standout in its turn.

Community ties

As Goldberg and his class wait for replies from Afghanistan, the teacher said a keynote of the outreach effort at this point is to “get the community involved in our mission of peace.” To that end, he wants to spread the word about the project and what the class has done so far, he said, hoping to elicit “I know someone who” input from others who may have ties to Afghanistan or its people.

(Next: What the students had to say.)

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