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March 12, 2008 > Teachable moments

Teachable moments

By Justine Yan
Photos By Courtesy of Karen Mangon

The Funabashi Student Online Exchange Program was launched in early February connecting students at the five middle schools of Hayward Unified School District (HUSD) with those at five other "partner schools" in Hayward's sister city, Funabashi, Japan. The program's goal is to create an opportunity for students to "bond" with others at a global level.

During the celebration of Funabashi's 70th anniversary in Japan last October, a conversation between HUSD Superintendent Dale Vigil and Funabashi's school district superintendent sparked the idea of starting a virtual exchange program that utilizes easily accessible and conventional tools such as the World Wide Web. This program has been regarded as a unique example of taking a sister city partnership to the next level.

"Right now we want to start small, and we want to build our layers," said Karen Mangon who assists in the activities at Hayward and facilitates communication between the cities.

With internet accounts set up through their school districts, Hayward and Funabashi teachers have already begun transmitting their students' letters as attachments to their emails. By using resources that are already available to the teachers, the program has required no extra funding. Meanwhile, Mangon said she hopes to broaden the communication link by creating a portal or a web page on the district website. She mentioned that she also looks forward to the exchange of photos and even videos online as the program expands.

"Where we can expand [the students'] horizons, we certainly will," Mangon said.

Academically speaking, HUSD hopes to emphasize writing as an important method of communication and expression. Mangon noted that a significant portion of the population served by HUSD is comprised of English language learners. She expects the exchange program to provide a fun experience and a sort of "exercise" for all students, as they share their thoughts and day-to-day happenings by writing letters in English.

"What's really neat is that teachable moment, that global connection," Mangon said. "Diversity - you see that everywhere when you walk through our school hallways. But have you really interacted with someone from across the world? There's a way that we can connect them."

What the teachers and administrators from each city seek to prove is that their communities have much in common, despite cultural and geographic barriers.

Most importantly, the program brings students in touch with real people. The subtle differences and similarities between countries and cultures cannot be illustrated so clearly, or "brought into life" by textbooks or websites, stated Mangon.

"There's a lot of commotion and excitement for the program," she said. The enthusiasm expressed by the teachers at Funabashi has been incredible as well. The program has great potential; each teacher is given the flexibility to tie the program into the curriculum, and to bring in his or her own creative ideas to round out the program within each classroom.

Until the summer months, Hayward's middle school students will continue to write and receive letters from their peers 5,000 miles away. To give and to take - that's what an "exchange" program is all about.

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