South Charlotte

Students go 'global' thanks to technology

It's pen pals on steroids. CNN meets elementary school.

Without taking a single plane ride, Charlotte Jewish Day School students are meeting, teaching and learning from students in nations across the world.

At the beginning of the school year, CJDS students in every grade - kindergarten to fifth - embarked on their latest adventure: the global classroom.

Once a week, students meet with teacher Rachel Moore and connect with students in classrooms worldwide.

Through video and an online ePal program, they're able to discuss pressing issues, brainstorm solutions and delve into the lives of their counterparts.

The kindergarteners are studying weather with a school in France; the first-graders are discussing animals and their habitats with Taiwanese students; and the second-graders are learning about climate maps with Switzerland and Canada.

Meanwhile, the third-graders are talking natural disasters with their counterparts in Christchurch, New Zealand; the fourth-graders are tackling global warming with a school in Thailand; and the fifth-graders are communicating with Israeli students (often in Hebrew) to discuss water issues.

The class is taught with a social network called ePals Global Community, where more than half a million classrooms in more than 200 countries and territories are registered.

The CJDS students do research online about the issues, then email their pals with questions. They even wrote to their individual e-pals over winter break.

The time zone difference often doesn't allow for Skype - an online video-phone program - so students often record video to send.

After Christchurch was rocked by earthquakes in late December, the third-grade students at CJDS asked their e-pals: "What was the aftermath like? Are you OK? Was your home damaged?"

But not all their conversations are serious. Sometimes they just get to talk - kid to kid.

Via video, CJDS students taught their counterparts about Hanukkah and how to play dreidel. They've also demonstrated playground games such as Cat's Cradle and Four Square.

The New Zealanders taught CJDS students some of their games, too. Surprisingly, the students said, they have a lot in common with their counterparts down under.

One fifth-grade boy said he was excited to find out his e-pal was into sports. "He likes to play soccer, just like me," he said. "And he's talkative, too."

Many of the students even play the same Xbox games.

There's also a service-learning component to the new classroom. The CJDS fifth-graders discussing the Israel water shortage were surprised Israeli students don't take showers with water pounding down the whole time: They turn on the water, turn it off to soap up, turn it on to rinse, then turn it off again.

After studying the issue of water wastefulness in the U.S. (the average American uses 100 gallons a day), the students monitored their daily use. They were surprised to find that a mere flush of the toilet uses about three gallons of water.

Principal Mariashi Groner has long worked toward creating 21st-century classes for the school, which has an enrollment of 96 students, but the results of the global classroom has been greater than she had hoped.

"You'll read about global classrooms in middle schools and high schools, but at an elementary level it takes a different kind of tone," said Groner. "It really is special, and I believe it's going to get more impressive and detailed as (Moore) explores with the students."

Moore has been with the school nearly a decade, teaching math. Groner chose her for the new program because of her enthusiasm and love of science. Groner wanted a teacher who would lead but also be willing to format each class based on the students' interests.

"Children today, they don't have a lot of power over what they're going to do," said Groner. "They're over-programmed, they're told what to study, what to do. ... In this classroom, (the students) really are in charge of their learning."

All CJDS classrooms are equipped with SMARTboards, so startup costs for the project were reasonable.

The school paid for them with money from the $500,000 they won in a nationwide schools Facebook contest sponsored by Kohl's in 2010.

Though the funds were there, preparing for the global classroom wasn't easy. It took a while to find other schools interested in contact as regular as the CJDS teachers wanted, and the whole across-the-world element made scheduling difficult. In addition to time-zone differences, schools below the equator have summer break during the CJDS school year.

But there's no question the new global classroom gained popularity with the students about as quickly as a pizza party would. They're already begging their parents to take them to these places, said Groner.

The fifth-graders are trying their hardest to squeeze a school field trip out of their classroom experience. "I'm working on it," said Moore, laughing.