When I was a teenager in the 1930s I developed a significant pen pal relation with a boy in Devonshire, England, and a girl in Spain. My Spanish was limited so the exchange with the girl was not very well developed. However, the boy and I corresponded monthly until he joined the RAF and I joined the Marines. We were both Boy Scouts so we exchanged badges etc.
After World War II, I was teaching a class and we sent CARE packages to Europe. My students began to correspond with their European counterparts. When we obtained computers and email became available, I encouraged exchanges. We had classes in San Diego exchanging information with kids in Alaska. In the 1980s, I funded the development of a TV series named Somebody Else’s Place by Aida Barrera. Students lived for a week with their counterparts in the series. A Mexican American kid from Texas might live with a German American kid from Milwaukie etc. They did everything including going to school with the host. The program documented all their activities.
One of the exchanges featured a Haitian American kid from Florida and a Franco American kid from northern Maine. The Haitian kid was probably the only black kid ever seen in the small rural Maine town. The opening scene in the documentary of the Maine kid in Florida shows the classes changing in a large Florida almost all black high school. The Maine kid is the only white face in a sea of black faces rushing to their next class. The kid says, “I didn’t know there were this many people much less that they would all be black.”
Somebody Else’s Place gave the kids a better understanding of diversity and cultural heritage. Today, with Facebook and YouTube, teachers and students can create cultural exchanges that are richer and more in depth. Learners can document their family histories and exchange them. With iPods etc., interviews of parents and grandparents can be made to establish a learner’s family background and cultural heritage. Not only do these exercises allow the students to share their family story with others, but they enrich our cultural heritage. The rich fabric of American culture and history can come alive in the personal stories of families and individuals.
The technology is there for us to use. The challenge is for us to be wise enough to use it effectively.
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