Horio and her students, in turn, have shared their knowledge of what to do during natural disasters, as they did in a Skype session on earthquake safety with Tran Thi Thuy’s class in rural Vietnam.
Tran, a teacher who says she was raised in the poorest family in her village, bought her own Wi-Fi router to bring the world to her students through Skype. She says the sessions, which are in English, take her kids beyond the grammar and vocabulary that are traditionally taught, to actually speak the language themselves, even though they’re in an area where native speakers are rare. Talking with people in other regions helps students learn to understand different accents as well, Horio adds.
Darlene Colon, who teaches technology and English as a second language to middle schoolers at a public school for athletes in Puerto Rico, has started a monthly rotation of Spanish and English sessions with classes in Texas and Kentucky. The kids are helping each other with pronunciation, she said — a welcome diversion for her students, who are still struggling from the impact of Hurricane Maria last year.
Colon’s school building was destroyed in the hurricane, about two months before last year’s Skype-a-Thon. A hallway in a neighboring school became her classroom, and even though the area still didn’t have electricity, she found a way to charge her computer and boosted the data service on her phone so she could connect her class for the event.
“The kids didn’t have anything, no electricity or water. Some had lost their homes, family members and friends, and they were very stressed,” she says. “So this helped them forget their troubles and just enjoy themselves.”
When the electricity came back on in time for Christmas, her students’ joy was so infectious that a spontaneous music jam and dance broke out during a Skype session with a class in New York.
“Everyone was so happy, and even though all the news was about the chaos here, we were able to show that wasn’t necessarily the whole story,” she says. “Even though it was difficult for us, we were willing to continue and participate.”
Above all, teachers say the Skype sessions highlight how much the kids have in common with each other – such as Horio’s Japanese students discovering they had the same favorite Dragon Ball comic book character as a class in Spain.
“We’ve had sessions with 78 different countries,” says Kumar, the STEM teacher in India. “But in spite of all that diversity, the sense of commonality is what comes through to the kids. When they laugh and share things, that’s what they identify: oneness within diversity.”