GP Launches Virtual Playground

Monday, March 21, 2011 | posted by Jon Heifetz |
Joy George is an eighth-grade language arts teacher at Beverley Manor Middle School, which serves more than 800 students in rural Augusta County, Virginia. Through GP's new Virtual Playground, Mrs. George's students, as well as students in Connecticut and in Missouri, have gained the unprecedented ability to learn about other cultures through direct communication with other students half-a-world away.

So far Mrs. George's students have shared stories about their own lives with students at Global Playground's Huay Puung Mai School in Thailand. Since Global Playground's founding in 2006, its leadership has always had a vision that went beyond merely building schools in the developing world -- they envisioned a world, for example, where students in New York City and rural Uganda could share stories of their lives with each other. The Virtual Playground is Global Playground's newest initiative that utilizes Internet technology to allow for cross-cultural exchanges between students around the world.

Much of the early conversation on the Virtual Playground has centered on food. Mrs. George's students saw pictures of students at Huay Puung Mai preparing their own food and images of the types of food the Thai students eat. "The faces of the students as I showed them photos of raw water buffalo and how the students cooked their own food was hysterical. I wish I had a video camera!," commented Mrs. George.

Mrs. George's students responded to the Thai students, writing a description of their own surroundings, the subjects they study in school, and the foods they eat.

Mrs. George's students described how food is prepared for them, either by parents or cafeteria workers and delved into details about what is typically eaten for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. They also described "special occasions," such as summer carnivals and fairs in Augusta County where fried chicken and funnel cakes are served. Christmas in Augusta County consists of lasagna, macaroni and cheese, green beans, ham, and peanut butter pie.

"The students ask nearly every day if Thailand has responded and when we are going to post again," said Mrs. George. "The thing about kids is, they are so willing to be friends. I am not sure when that changes as we grow up, and how we very subtly allow prejudices to take over our lives," commented Mrs. George.

Any educators who would like to have their students participate in the Virtual Playground, please e-mail info@theglobalplayground.org.

Update on First GP Teaching Fellow

Wednesday, March 16, 2011 | posted by Jon Heifetz |
Ryan Drysdale is Global Playground’s first Teaching Fellow, and has now served for five months at Huay Puung Mai School in Thailand, where Global Playground opened a library in early 2009 and contributed technology in 2010.

Reflecting on his experience teaching English, Ryan described one memorable interaction where he observed that a group of students was beginning to understand English better. He wrote, "While learning vegetables, the students would say 'I like eating carrots.' Compared to American students, they love every vegetable. They asked what I liked to eat, and I rattled off some basic foods. Then I slipped in 'I like eating students.' The look of terror on their face was priceless and the pride I felt for the students understanding English was refreshing. After relishing in those feelings, I explained I was joking. It was another day or two before those specific students would come near me."

Summer vacation for students at Huay Puung Mai will begin shortly. During the two-month hiatus, Ryan will meet with Books for Thailand, an organization providing free books to local schools that are in need of more books. He will also join a Global Playground delegation that will be visiting Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam to explore new projects and to check on existing ones.

Ryan worked hard with his fellow teachers and students to attain "Dream School" status from the government under Thailand's "One District, One Dream School" initiative. Established in 2003, this initiative seeks to ensure that each of Thailand's districts has one high-quality school. Huay Puung Mai School was evaluated on factors that included infrastructure and subject-specific presentations; the conferring of this status will have major financial implications for the school.

Huay Puung Mai's latest accolade shows just how far it has come. Five years ago, this school's enrollment was a fraction of the 350 that it is today. The school had no high school, and no opportunities for boarding; today, about one-third of Huay Puung Mai's students board at the school. Students who previously did not have access to education now have the opportunity to attend high school and possibly even college.

While in Thailand, Ryan has actively blogged on GP's Web site and contributed to the Global Playground Twitter feed. Indeed, modern technology has revolutionized the very nature of such an overseas experience versus a generation ago. In his blog, Ryan writes of reading the world news on his iPod, which is only possible because Huay Puung Mai School is equipped with wireless Internet. This digital access, along with the cameras, Skype headsets, and webcam that have recently been purchased for the students at Huay Puung Mai School are the building blocks of GP's Virtual Playground. The students at Huay Puung Mai will be able to "play" electronically on the Virtual Playground with youth around the world.

Global Playground is currently seeking teaching fellows for a year of service in Honduras and Thailand.