tampabay.com

Learning together, though a world apart

By GINA PACE
Published April 14, 2007


ST. LEO - Thirteen-year-old Charlotte Keith stood up Wednesday evening in a technology lab at St. Leo University to meet her pen pal from Nanjing, China.

Charlotte, a tall, pretty blond, wasn't ready for the response that came back over the live Internet feed.

When her pen pal saw her, he let out a long, smitten "ooooohhhh."

"I have given you chocolate and toys," he said as he held up a cellophane-wrapped package to the web camera. "I hope you will love it."

Charlotte turned crimson and hid her face in her hands. The other 50 students watching - both in Pasco County and Nanjing - got the giggles, proof that even 8,000 miles away, middle schoolers are middle schoolers.

For the past few months, 25 Pasco Middle School students have been learning how similar they are to their Chinese counterparts through an electronic exchange with the Nanjing Shuren International Junior High School, chatting in English about pop culture, their school day and family life.

Assistant Principal Laurie Johnson said the program excites students because they lead it, with students writing lessons to share with the Chinese students, as well as developing and creating Web sites, blogs and photo pages.

"It brought passion into the classroom," Johnson said. "They can't wait for the next teleconference."

On Wednesday, Stephen Zoni, the technology teacher at Pasco Middle, was with the students in Nanjing as part of a visit to China with his daughter Susan O'Very, who travels there frequently for work. Zoni was able to talk to his students back at home during the teleconference, telling them about spending time with students in Nanjing.

Zoni gave a proclamation and a key to Dade City to officials at Nanjing Shuren, with Mayor Hutch Brock on the other end of the teleconference for the presentation. Brock's son Carson is a student who participates in the program.

The conference went on as parents and other family members crowded in the room to get a peak at the process.

"I think it's pretty neat, the technology they have now that they can do something like this," said Dean Yingling, whose sons Casey and Codey are in the program.

During this session, students were paired off to read Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and e-mail each other their thoughts. As the Chinese students introduced themselves, they told their pen pals about a gift they were sending back with Zoni for them.

The Pasco Middle students travel to St. Leo University to use the videoconferencing technology there, but they hope to raise money to buy similar technology for Pasco Middle and conduct the sessions from the school, Johnson said.

Teachers are already planning ways to expand the program for next year, incorporating different subjects, such as agriculture, geography and history. Teacher Josh Broder said that while it's great the students are learning about China, the main focus is to teach them how to communicate across cultures to prepare them for a global work force.

"It's fun being in this program," said seventh-grader Rebecca Eitner. "Talking to them is like having a conversation with your friends."

Gina Pace can be reached at 352 521-6518 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6518. Her e-mail address is gpace@sptimes.com.