I was browsing through some old files this week and I stumbled across this wonderful piece of video that brought back some great memories for me. It’s just over 10 years old and is an interview with a group of students I taught back then, just after they had been awarded third place in the 1998 AT&T Virtual Classroom Contest.
The Virtual Classroom Contest, for anyone that remembers it, was an amazing web-based global collaboration project that linked kids from across the world together. Over 300 schools took part each year, forming 100 teams made up of three different schools that had to be located on three different continents. The project ran for over eight months, starting with the use of forums and email to debate and discuss ideas for a theme, and then a massive collaborative push to turn their ideas into reality. We were fortunate to be teamed up with two other amazingly dedicated schools – Percy Julian Middle School in Oak Park, Illinois, and Fuwa Junior High School in Japan, and we produced a collaborative digital novel about time travel through our three countries called “Once Upon a Time Machine”.
I can honestly say that working with these kids, and the experience of working globally, across timezones, overcoming language and cultural barriers, to produce a true piece of creative, collaborative work is without doubt the thing that kept me in teaching. Working with these kids doing these sorts of projects opened my eyes to what real learning could be about, and what the truly important values of education were. These students, as well as their teammates who weren’t in the video, worked so hard that year and were so dedicated and committed it was astounding. You only have to watch them and listen to them speak to realise that what they learned was nothing that could be found in a school textbook. This project was not about “playing school” to keep a teacher happy. This was about rising to a challenge, chasing your passions, and learning because you wanted to, because you actually found it interesting. All of this work was done outside of regular school work; it’s amazing what students are capable of, in spite of school rather than because of it.
I hope you take the time to watch the video and to listen to their answers, because I think they embody everything I want education to be. When I asked them what they learned, I got answers like “teamwork”, “leadership”, “tolerance”, “committment”. This was all unscripted and unprompted. These kids really were as genuine as they appear in this video. As I watch it now, I’m still quite amazed at the maturity of these students who at the time were only about 14 or 15 years old.
Many of these same kids entered the Virtual Classroom Contest the next year and managed to help their team take out the overall first prize, earning a trip to Hong Kong to meet their virtual team mates. It was, as you can imagine, a wonderful experience for a group of teenagers to know that they were the “world’s best” at something.
The Virtual Classroom Contest was discontinued in 2000 due to cost cutting at AT&T, but was resurrected in 2005 by the Give Something Back Foundation. I find it equally impressive and humbling that my friend and partner in crime from Oak Park, Janet Barnstable, has continued with the revised Global Virtual Classroom Contest every year since then and has mentored her kids to either first or second place each time. If you ever wanted evidence that the quality of the teacher can have an effect on the quality of the learning, there it is.
To all the kids I had the joy and privilege of working with back then, thank you for teaching me much more than you’ll ever realise.