Lake Norman & Mooresville

Project shrinks world for 3rd-graders

To the students at Julie Buda's third-grade class at Park View Elementary, the world is no bigger than the screens on their white laptop computers.

That perception is understandable, considering they've been working on group projects with students as far away as China. It's part of the Flat Classroom Project.

Founded in 2006 by an American and a Chinese teacher, the global collaborative project uses technology to connect students in various cities and countries.

Although the project was originally created exclusively for high and middle schools, it was expanded two years ago to include elementary schools.

This is the first year any school in the Mooresville Graded School District has participated, said Buda.

Buda applied to the project after reading about it on a teacher blog, she said.

"Computers and technology have really flattened the world. These students are going to be communicating and competing with kids all over the world," said Buda.

For eight weeks, Buda's students studied topics with others from different schools in other countries.

These topics - including clothing, language and leisure time - highlighted the differences and similarities between cultures while teaching the students how to work collaboratively, said Buda.

Communicating over Edmodo, a networking site akin to Facebook, students uploaded movies, audio and pictures of their individual project onto their project page.

A teacher from one of the participating schools led each group.

"Mooresville is a small town. Some of the kids haven't been to many places, and some are never going to go across the ocean," said Buda. "This is a way to bring the world to them."

It's teaching them something about their hometown as well, she said.

"I had cameras that the kids took home at night, and they could take pictures of things around their home or neighborhood," she said. "It's getting them to think about our area as much as other places. They're learning about all the things they have here that they may take for granted."

The photos are posted on the group's joint website so other children from around the world can view them.

Student Tony Brobeck said he was surprised at how different school life is for others.

"Some said they wished they could wear any kind of clothing to school," he said. "One girl said she had to wear a uniform."

As the project drew to a close last week, Buda's classroom said goodbye over Skype to some students in Montreal.

"They expected the kids to be very different, especially when we're talking about other countries," said Buda. "They've enjoyed making friends and learning that these kids are just like them. They read the same books, watch the same television shows. It's opened their eyes to what it's like in other parts of the world."

Principal Mark Cottone said the Flat Classroom Project is teaching Buda's students an array of life skills, including public speaking and collaboration.

"We don't know what the world will hold for their future jobs, but we do know it will be technical," he said. "Our kids are going to compete in a global economy," he said.

The project, which Cottone said the school may expand to other classes next year, is a shining example of the magic that can happen in a classroom when a teacher takes chances on innovative teaching methods, he said.

"If our students are to be successful, teachers have to be our No. 1 learners," said Cottone.