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From LA to Kabul
Holmes Middle School student with map of Afghanistan

From LA to Kabul

A new program created in partnership with the UCLA International Institute connects middle school students in Los Angeles and Kabul through a shared curriculum of art, history, culture — and kite flying.

Leslie Evans Email LeslieEvans

For the children in Los Angeles and Afghanistan who study together online in a joint program on global citizenship, the goal of finding personal connections despite 6,000 miles of separation and vast cultural differences got a healthy start when the students identified the universal pleasures of life that they could all share: "things that make me smile."

Since early in 2004, students from five Los Angeles middle schools have been learning about Afghanistan, using the same curriculum as two schools in Kabul, the Afghan capital. The project, which received seed funding from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Global Catalyst Foundation, is a partnership of the UCLA International Institute, Los Angeles-based Relief International and its affiliated Schools Online, and the National Geographic Society.

The partnership coined the name Global Citizenship and Youth Philanthropy (GCYP) to describe their common work. The stated goals of the program are to imbue international youth with the knowledge, skills and values of global citizenship and to foster learning and understanding across the cultural divide between war-torn Afghanistan and post-9/11 America.

"We hope to empower students to mobilize for positive social change by teaching about global citizenship and facilitating their communication and collaboration across national borders," said Sylvia Tseng, who manages the GCYP program.

The UCLA International Institute was invited to take a leading role in the project, said Institute Outreach Director Jonathan Friedlander, "because of our excellent reputation and achievements in the area of resource development and teacher training" Relief International’s Executive Director Farshad Rastegar (UCLA PhD 1991) said that another reason for collaborating with the International Institute is "the long-term potential for institutionalizing a global citizenship agenda in education and youth media."

The lesson plans used in the LA and Kabul schools combine online readings and research in six modules on Civic Engagement, Environmental Stewardship, Global Connections, Art and Music, Schooling and Education, and the pilot module, Cross-Cultural Understanding. Because the pilot module centers on connecting American and Afghan students, its constituent lesson plans focus on commonalities between the two cultures in three units on Holidays and Celebrations, Home, and Fun and Games. The extensive compendium of materials, resources and activities for the LA students was developed by veteran Holmes Middle School teachers Helene Stevenson and Hugo "Bucky" Schmidt along with CNES-affiliated scholar Sherry Vatter and Islamic Studies doctoral student Parisa Sekandari.

One of the topics in the Cross-Cultural Understanding module is kite flying, a national passion in Afghanistan that was suppressed during the rule of the Taliban. American students have learned that kite flying is a serious hobby and competitive sport in Afghanistan. Many students in LA marveled at the method Afghan kite fliers use to reduce the competition: they apply a paste of glue and finely ground glass to their kite string and maneuver it to cut the kite strings of their opponents. Others noted that kite flying is prevalent at celebrations and family outings. And several students were excited by the opportunity to make their own kites.

Students at Holmes, Sepulveda, Van Nuys, Lawrence and Portola Middle Schools are examining Afghanistan through study guides and a new map of Afghanistan produced by the National Geographic Society. The colorful map uses English and the two national languages of Afghanistan, Dari and Pashto. The map ties in to the educational modules by including topics such as national holidays and indications about earthquakes, vegetation, and Afghan kite flying. Students participate in an online exchange about "10 Things That Make Us Smile" by posting drawings and photos about their lives and schools to a joint interactive website, Global Kids Connect.

The Afghan Connection

Students at Lycee Maryam Girls School and the Bibi Mehru School, both in Kabul, are using the same translated lesson plans as the Los Angeles students. Through a grant from the Global Catalyst Foundation, and as a part of this pilot program, Internet Learning Centers are being established in both schools to provide students with the resources to enable them to more fully participate in the global community.

"Engaging these students in the process of cross-cultural communication and understanding without these tools would have been difficult," said Tseng.

The participating schools in Kabul and Los Angeles have all contributed to the "10 Things That Make Us Smile" project on the Global Kids Connect website. The postings are in English—with teachers in Afghanistan verbally translating the headings for their students.

Student postings have been revealing. Afghan school kids mentioned red roses, Spring, soft things and a baby’s smile. American students have posted drawings and photos of pets, friends, family and sports. Classes in both countries sent postings about food, but whereas the Americans mentioned "lunch" generically, the Bibi Mehru students mentioned their favorite foods, hoshak and mantoo, dishes mostly unheard of in culinarily diverse Los Angeles.

From there, things that kids found to smile about began to diverge. The American students cited movies, malls, air conditioning and theme parks. The Afghan students talked about girls being able to go to school, which was prohibited under the Taliban regime, and about sharing the same classroom with boys. About "no more burkas," the head-to-foot covering women were compelled to wear when out in public during the Taliban era. And about a shopkeeper who had been forced to wear a turban by the Taliban, and who now uses the fabric for a curtain in his shop.

Partnership

The organizing partners worked together to develop this innovative program and made common decisions on its various components. Within this close collaboration, each brought special expertise and took the lead in certain portions of the effort. The UCLA International Institute carried out the principal development of the curriculum modules used in both countries, recruited Los Angeles teachers and secured commitments from the Los Angeles area schools. Relief International/Schools Online directed the translation of the curriculum modules into Dari and Pashto and organized their use in schools in Kabul through its field offices. RI/SO also manages the Global Kids Connect website.

"Through these activities," said Tseng, "students can gain a deeper understanding of each other’s hues and perspectives."

This story originally appeared in the UCLA College Report, vol. 2, Spring/Summer 2004.

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