Creating the Conditions for Accidental Learnings: Dialogue with Syrians, Palestinians, Canadians…and Wookies

11/4/2012

PictureStudents discuss peace and conflict on Oct 30.

This fall, I was honored to be part of another multi-point video conference on the Middle East in Transition for Global Encounters, a series being offered to schools through a partnership between the Centre for Global EducationTakingITGlobal, and the Research Journalism Initiative.  The two-session series included a curriculum for classroom and asynchronous homework activities, which we’d spent weeks developing, revising and posting in a virtual classroom, including carefully-crafted discussion threads and online assignments.  The live event included dialogue and discussion, all well planned out in advance… but in the end, it’s not all that foresight and planning that make a global connection meaningful for students.  In fact, our events in October reminded me yet again that accidents are the best part of global learning, and that real connections are made when we reveal something subtle and unintended about who we are and are able to see each other as human.

In this case, it was the convergence of a very serious conversation about peace and conflict with a slightly less serious season of the year in North America: Halloween.  The discussions were around violence and non-violence in Syria and Palestine, and students were exploring seriously the difference between acceptable self defense and terrorism, when people do or don’t have the right to raise arms against an oppressor, what happens when superpowers get to decide who has the right to self determination…  And amid it all, one rather brave, tall young man from a high school in Ohio kept stepping up to share his thoughts in front of the camera–dressed as Chewbacca from Star Wars.

At first it just seemed absurd.  My role during our live events is to monitor and facilitate the Twitter feed, and the tweets went through the roof–mostly from the Canadian students.

  •    “OMG CHEWY COSTUME!!! BRAAAAA!”
  •    “Ahh freaking out! Loving the Chewy costume!”
  •    “These poor people watching us must think we have an extremely hairy kid talking to them.”
  •    “Yea I was gonna recommend a razor lol jk!”

The cherry on the sundae came after the event, from the boy himself: “Had a great time discussing important topics today in my Chewbacca Wookie costume.  Hope to do it again some time.”  If you look at the screenshot I’ve provided from the Livestream, you’ll also notice Elmo in the back left, who got a lot of attention in the Twitter feed as well–especially at the very start of the video conference when her giant head was still in place.  See the full Twitter feed for the whole conversation, if you’re curious.

I can’t overemphasize how important these accidental moments really are.  We can do a lot to try to plan activities and conversations which will foster intercultural connections between kids, but the fact is that the most powerful connections are like this one: accidental, unintended moments when our basic humanity comes through.  I’d love to wax poetic about the whole thing, but honestly it was what it was–a serious and meaningful conversation about peace and conflict with a kid in a wookie suit, a giant red Elmo in the background.

I saw something similar–and slightly more poetic–happen once in a live video conference with a young poet in Palestine, Falastine Dwikat.  I was facilitating a video conference for young women in Denver, and Falastine was sharing about her life.  My students were struggling a bit with the experience–Falastine read her work fairly quickly, which left lots of time for questions, but the students hadn’t understood her poetry very well and were having trouble thinking of what to ask.  It was one of those awkward moments which are inevitable in video conferencing, and thankfully a teacher in the room stepped up to end the silence.  “What are you reading right now?” she asked the young poet.

What happened next was something I could never have planned–as Falastine described her current read, a spiritual exploration called Sophie’s World, the students on my end started turning and whispering with surprised expressions.  They were reading that very book in their philosophy class, it turned out.  Falastine shared what she was enjoying about it, and a student on my end bravely declared, “I really hate it.  We all do.”  To this, Falastine replied, “Oh, but have you gotten to Chapter 11 yet?  Oh, you have to keep reading–that’s the best part!”  It was a moment of connection, a flash of common ground between young women in two very different parts of the world living very different lives–whether my students read to Chapter 11 as a result or not.

In truth, there is much more which connects these young women–but we have to start with what’s possible, with the little insights which make us laugh or see each other as a little less distant than the map suggests.  Teachers can put all the right pieces in place, but we can’t force these kinds of accidents to happen.  Our role is to create the conditions where it can happen, to set up all the right circumstances and create an environment where students feel comfortable as themselves, where it’s ok to make mistakes and laugh at themselves a little.

It’s the connection which matters; anything which breaks the ice can create these humanizing moments.  Years ago, early in my work running such events, I facilitated a video conference on Women in Leadership between high school students in Denver and university students in the West Bank.  We had young women on both sides of the globe, talking live about the very long and complicated path toward women’s full liberation in U.S. and Palestinian society.  On the whole, the conversation was serious but slightly stilted, like the students on the U.S. side didn’t quite feel at ease–and I remember wondering what I needed to do to help them relax so they could be less concerned about the camera and more concerned about the conversation.

All it took to shift the moment and create the opportunity for a real connection was a comment from one young woman in Denver, who approached the camera at a critical moment, just as the Palestinian women finished sharing some of the more oppressive elements of their lives.  My student looked seriously into the camera.  “It’s not really a question, just something I wanted to say.  It’s taken a long time for women to get where we are in America,” she told the girls in Palestine.  “When I think about the last hundred years, it’s been a slow process to liberate women, and we’re still not paid as much as men today.”  She paused, then looked straight at her counterparts in Palestine.  “So, be encouraged, I guess,” she told them.  “It’s a long road, but things do change with time.”

As teachers, we may need to stop worrying so much about our content for a few minutes and know that what we’re really doing is creating a learning moment, not trying to control exactly what happens inside of it.  The less we try to control or force the direction of conversation in such live events, the more likely these unplanned, magical moments have the room to occur.  The kids who watched Chewbacca talk seriously about the state of the world will never forget the experience–first because of the image he created, certainly, standing in front of the camera covered in fur.  But they’ll also remember what he had to say, which was thoughtful and articulate–important, even.  This work is not just about peace, conflict, leadership or literature–global education is about setting up the conditions which allow students to learn about culture and identity through these very real, mostly accidental moments of connection.