The event was the culmination of a six-week project during which the students sent emails back and forth with fellow third-graders at the American International School in Cairo, Egypt. Because of the time difference, the video call, which was made over the program Skype, had to start at 8 a.m., as soon as the Fisher students entered the classroom, so that the Egyptian students could finish the call before the end of their school day.
"With daylight savings time, its only a six-hour time difference, so they're in their last period of the day, while we're just getting started," said Cummings, who had come in at 6 a.m. to make a test call to Cairo. The test call had not gone as well as the actual call, he said, as Cairo had been experiencing power outages related to a sandstorm earlier in the day.
Cummings first had the idea for the project after a visit to Egypt with his wife. "My wife and I visited Egypt and fell in love with the country and its people," said Cummings. "Today's students need more than just book learning, they need to make the subject real to them. Short of a field trip to Egypt, I thought, why not utilize technology to make this a more interactive experience."
Cummings used Google to find elementary schools in Cairo, and began sending emails seeking mutual interest. After months of searching with no luck, Cummings finally heard back from the American International School, which put him in touch with Anne Sarafin, an American who teaches a third grade class at the school. Cummings' and Sarafin's classes were "ePals" last year, but this year was the first time the two classes were able to actually speak to one another. Email topics had included discussions of family dynamics, religion, housing, and differences between city life and country life in both countries. Because the Egyptian class is larger than the Fisher School class, each Fisher student has two Egyptian pen-pals.
Once the call had been established, each class made four short presentations about the food, geography, local businesses, and transportation in their hometowns. The American students were shocked to learn that in Cairo donkey carts are considered a viable mode of transportation, although only a few of the Egyptian students had ever actually traveled in one. "Even though we have donkey carts in Cairo, only a few people use them for transportation. Most of us use cars or buses," explained Sarafin.
The Egyptian students explained that it had only snowed once in their lifetimes, this winter, and even then it was only a light dusting that didn't hit all of Cairo. When Cummings told them that Arlington had gotten around 24 inches of snow in a single storm earlier this winter, the Cairo classroom erupted in a collective, "Wow!" "Oh my god!" said one student in wonder.
Fruit is a very common food in Egypt, explained the Egyptians to the Americans, as it can be grown all year long. When one Arlington student asked if any of the Egyptian students had ever gone hunting on a four-wheeler, he was met with mostly confused looks. Sarafin explained, "Some people in our class who have been to the States know what hunting is, but here in Egypt we don't really have many animals in the wild to hunt. So no one here really knows about that." Four-wheelers, or all-terrain vehicles, she said, were very popular.
Nearly all of the Egyptian students speak both English and Egyptian Arabic, and several speak Syrian Arabic as well. The students in the class were mostly Egyptian, although there was also one American and one student from Pakistan.
"This has been a fun learning experience for the students," said Cummings, "We've made our study of Egypt a cross-curricular unit through science literacy, and social studies." He said that the class had been studying Egypt's history, and comparing it to the modern country. "The biggest part," he said, "is allowing the students to compare their worlds." Cummings pointed out that his entire class had been born after the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and that they, perhaps because of this, are more quick to see the similarities between their lives and the lives of the children in that region, instead of just the differences.
When Cummings asked the class what they had thought of being able to Skype with students in Egypt, one student said, "I thought that was cool!"
Another, as the rest of the students were getting their snacks for snack-time, walked up to this reporter and said, "We loved it!"
Derek Carson can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @DerekCarsonBB