Skype in the Midst of War
by Chris Henke Mueller and Dominic Inouye
It is 9:30 at night--on a Friday. The beginning of the weekend when teachers and students head home to unwind, but on this night 16 students returned to school to deepen a conversation.
Seven thousand miles away, it is 7:00 in the morning--on a Saturday. Students in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, are arriving at school an hour early to connect to others.
For over four months, the C.L.A.S.S. program (Character Leadership Accountability Sustainability Service) had been building a relationship with students of the Global Connections Exchange (GCE) program. Beginning a relationship, forming an understanding, fostering mutual interest and conversation all take time. But, now, we were ready to Skype for the first time.
We were all a bit nervous. Our first skype had been canceled due to the Qur’an burning on the U.S. base in Bagram as schools in Afghanistan were closed for safety reasons. We explained as best we could to our youngest students what had taken place and promised that we would reschedule, confidence none of us felt. We worried about technical difficulties, time differences (did we have that right: 10 and ½ hours ahead of us? Why ½ hour?), understanding each other, more political unrest, students who wouldn’t be able come. This lack of confidence kept us on our toes: emails to GCE program directors both here and in Afghanistan kept communication open even after the killing of 16 people on March 11 threatened to derail our talks again, practice Skypes with friends and family helped us work out some of the bugs, questions sent ahead of time helped both sides prepare answers and overcome some cultural differences, and obsessive worrying about the time difference helped us see just two days before the planned event that Daylight Saving Time would now change our students’ time to be at school (instead of 8:30, they needed to come at 9:30). Perhaps it was just our lack of experience with this, because a Skype truly is a simple thing to arrange: an exchange of names and contact numbers, an agreement of time and date, and there you go! And, thankfully, it did go this time.
So, how did it turn out?
It is the goal of C.L.A.S.S.--now nearing its second year at The Prairie School in Racine, Wisconsin--to build character, foster leadership skills, teach ourselves to be accountable, and offer opportunities for service, all with the goal of building a more sustainable world. This Skype offered us all of that.
Sixteen students ranging in age from 10 to 15 returned to school to talk with their CLASSmates in Afghanistan. An equal number of male students from the GCE program came to their computer lab early in the morning began our Skype with the sharing of a traditional song. Our students had been singing Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s mashup “Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World” all day and shared their version, with one of the students on her ukulele.
Students had already been communicating via Nings that both programs host, and between the Skype and Ning conversations we have been able to share ideas about education, oppression, and hate, as well as simpler topics such as cultural holidays, traditional stories, favorite foods, and activities. The Skype conversation took the form of a sharing: What do you study in school? How many of you have a Facebook account? What are your perceptions of our country? What should everyone know about your country? What is your happiest childhood memory? What can we do to help each other achieve their goals? One student would ask the question, another would answer. A call and response signaling our shared desire for a sustainable world.
What will we do differently the next time?
One thing we would do differently is set up our room so that everyone can be seen by our guests. We could see all of them, but their view of us was limited; while our shared words are really what this Skype was all about, the face-to-face knowing of each other can not be underestimated. This time we used the camera in the laptop, but an external microphone and camera would have been better. And, while we did take video of our Skype, still photos would have been useful, too.
This first Skype was, like we said, a back-and-forth sharing. With future encounters, we hope to sustain a dialogue about important issues both our groups of students face. Ultimately, it is our plan to share a global read with the students in the GCE program and host further Skypes related to a shared curriculum....but that will have to be for another time.
There are two ways to dehumanize people: to demonize them or to idolize them. Meeting face-to-face with seven thousand miles, 10 ½ hours, war, language, and vastly different lives between us, Skype offered us a chance to bring humanity back into our lives.
It is a wonderful world.