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Sri Lanka: Goodbye
seemed too final

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Sasi waits patiently while the last few girls are getting ready for school. | Benjamin Weatherston

Sasi waits patiently while the last few girls are getting ready for school. | Benjamin Weatherston

By Sarah Giddings and Melissa Denig

Many adults perceive that a teenager’s view of the world is extremely narrow. In most cases they would be right. The majority of our students lack access, other than through the Internet, to people and worlds outside their community. Therefore, when an opportunity came for us to develop a true global education partnership, we seized the chance.

Over the past two years at the Washtenaw Alliance for Virtual Education, we built a partnership between our students (Allie, Olivia, Anna, Alyssa, Mariha and Courtney) and students at Grace Care Center orphanage in Sri Lanka via Skype, with Ann Arbor Rotary West’s Project Hope Rising. Connecting our students with the Grace students did not happen overnight. Many of our initial Skype sessions were plagued with language barriers and technical difficulties. As time passed, though, our comfort level grew with communicating online and we began to break down those walls that seemed to separate us in the beginning. Learning about the Sri Lankan civil war, culture, language, breakdancing and the intense game of cricket were paramount to our successes in building authentic relationships and educating across the globe.

Since the inception of this partnership, we mainly sat behind our students during the Skype calls. Often we whispered or passed notes to our students with questions and topics to discuss, to help keep the conversation going and the awkward silences to a minimum. The Skype sessions ran like a book club. Typically, the girls had some time to catch up and gossip about their lives and then they would focus on reading. The WAVE girls took turns reading stories out loud, stopping to show pictures and ask questions to check for understanding. After about a year of working together, reliance on the text feature in Skype had dwindled, showing that the Grace students were dramatically improving their English language skills. Our students had shown their independence and desire to lead the calls at that point, and prefered to keep us teachers out of the room!

The growth that we have seen in communication and leadership skills among our students is astounding. Every Friday morning between 9:30 and 10:30, you can walk by our conference room at WAVE and hear uproarious laughter and see smiling, engaged teenagers on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

Maggi | Benjamin Weatherston

Maggi | Benjamin Weatherston

Thanks to the help of the Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County communities, we raised enough funds to travel to Sri Lanka with two students, Allie and Olivia, and stay at Grace this July. After more than two and a half days of traveling, three flights and a 10-hour bus ride, it would have been easy to be consumed by thoughts of our aching limbs, tired eyes, hunger and travel fatigue. It also would have been easy to join the rest of our travel companions at a hotel for a late-night dinner. But the excitement of meeting face-to-face friends we had been communicating with for two years, kept us going. One of the adults who came from Grace to pick us up for the last leg of our travels told us that even though the Grace girls had exams the next morning and were supposed to be in bed, they were all up waiting for us. Once we heard that, we knew we had to put our issues aside and focus on the importance of our journey.

Arriving at Grace around 11 o’clock at night — which felt like the wee hours of the morning to us — we rounded the corner into the orphanage in Grace’s ancient school bus, and we could see all of the older girls gathered in a group waiting for us. We heard “Sarah Teacher,” “Melissa Teacher,” “Apple Cheeks” (Olivia’s nickname) and “Allie Akka” (Allie’s nickname). When we stepped off the bus, all the girls greeted us with smiles and hugs. It felt like we were in a dream to finally be able to hug our friends that we had only ever seen through a computer screen. We never thought we would actually be here on the other side of the world.

Visiting Grace crystallized for us how limited our worldview was. The absolute joy of daily life coupled with the abject poverty girls at Grace experience was a juxtaposition we had never experienced. We spent much of our mornings and evenings surrounded by the girls as they practiced their English with all of us. They wanted to show off for the American teachers and loved sharing what they were learning. We also noticed it was easier to communicate in person, because we used so many more hand and body gestures than we were able to do online.

Allie and Olivia jumped right into the fabric of Grace — joining into games with the girls, swimming in the ocean and helping them with school lessons. But there were some notable differences. Everyone at Grace cared about our personal comfort. They gave us seats while they sat on the dirt; they gave us their best food and refused to serve themselves the same; they sat out in the heat and sun while we retreated for shade and water. Our students learned to shift their perspective and comfort became relative. Any complaints by our girls lessened as they shared more of the Grace world.

Cathy Franklin, Sarah Giddings, Melissa Denig and the WAVE students conduct a reading program with the Grace girls. | Benjamin Weatherston

Cathy Franklin, Sarah Giddings, Melissa Denig and the WAVE students conduct a reading program with the Grace girls. | Benjamin Weatherston

We also visited Methodist Girls’ College, the school girls at Grace attend, and noticed right away their pride in receiving an education. As teachers, we received a standing ovation from more than 700 students as we walked through the door of their school into an open-air courtyard. We have never received a reception like that in America! When we talked to many students throughout the day, we saw their goals were not overshadowed by celebrity or media. We heard their dreams of “teacher,” “doctor,” “university” over and over, despite lack of standard educational tools.

When we were able to talk with the teachers and principal, we learned there are many similarities in the Sri Lankan and American educational systems. The students who have both parents, early childhood education and better financial resources perform better at school. That was a huge wake-up call for us. These aren’t just our students’ issues, they are worldwide educational, family and structural issues.

On our last night at Grace, in the twilight hours, with a beautiful fiery sunset behind us, the girls put on a closing ceremony where they danced, sang and celebrated with us the culture and beauty of Sri Lanka. At the end of the ceremony, we were asked to share what the week at Grace had meant to us. As everyone shared feelings of fulfillment, joy, courage and hope, tears began to fall from our faces. In the waning hours of nighttime no one wanted to go to bed, because going to bed would mean we would start our journey back, and saying goodbye seemed too final for all of the growth we had experienced. Instead, we shared hugs and held hands — expressions of love that were shared across our cultures.

Our students have said over and over that our experiences with the girls at Grace taught them to not take life or their education for granted. We see our struggles through changed eyes and bring back lessons of sacrifice, empowerment and global leadership for all of our students. The overarching mission of this project was to help the girls at Grace through education, but the girls at Grace taught us more than we could ever teach them.

The authors, Sarah Giddings and Melissa Denig, are educators and instructional leaders with the Washtenaw Alliance for Virtual Education, a free public high school consortium program for students in all Washtenaw County school districts.

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