The fifth- and sixth-graders assembled in front of a laptop in a classroom at New Canaan Country School didn't get to Skype with schoolchildren from the village of Mbola, Tanzania, on the morning of Nov. 29, but they might have learned just as much as if they had.
Teacher Kristen Ball told her students that she received an email from one of the teachers at the school in Tanzania earlier in the morning that indicated the town was having electrical problems, but that it would do the best it could to make the call happen.
"Here's what I'm picturing," she said. "They sent me an email this morning saying they're having power problems. The generator in the center of town is this little, little thing, so what I'm picturing is them all running around trying to get it to work."
After a couple of aborted connections, each accompanied by a communal cheer, followed by a communal "awww" by the class, it looked like the planned call was not going to happen. The prospect of unreliable electricity from a single generator must have been unusual for the New Canaan students. The lights in the classroom were off, but only because that made it easier for them to see the SmartBoard hooked up to the laptop, which has wireless Internet that flows throughout the campus.
The initiative to link up with a classroom as far away as Mbola was part of the School-To-School Connections partnership program facilitated by the Connect to Learn initiative at Millennium Promise. Millenium Promise Alliance is a nonprofit organization dedicated to achieving the Millenium Development Goals laid out by the United Nations in 2000. It was co-founded by Jeffrey Sachs, a professor and director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University.
Sachs became a mentor to Ball after she was his daughter's teacher at The School at Columbia University. In summer 2005, Ball earned a scholarship and traveled to Kenya, where she worked on starting the School-to-School Connections program on behalf of Sachs. The morning Skype call represented the fruition of that work.
As Ball and others attempted to sort out the technical problems, Ball had the kids practice what they would say if the call worked. The students had written questions in Swahili and practiced them at home. Just as they were about to begin their recitation, a call came in from Tanzania.
A cheer went up and several kids in class said "Hujambo," Swahili for "Hello," and waved. A picture came up on the screen up but there was again no sound and the students on the other side, about 15, all wearing white shirts and black ties and sitting in a room in front of a computer in the same way as the New Canaan students, were frozen. After a couple of excited seconds, the connection was again lost.
"I just want to say hujambo again," one child said to his friend. "Hujambo all the way."
Ball resumed the Swahili practice. Fifth-grader Jack Neafsey's hand shot up. When he read his question, "What's your favorite subject in school?" he sounded almost like a native speaker. So did the next student who spoke, T.J. Stoker.
Both Ball and sixth-grade teacher Fraser Randolph were visibly impressed.
"Wow! You've been practicing!" Randolph commended the student.
The students' accents sounded better than Ball's, who assured the group that she too had been practicing.
The village of Mbola lies in the central plateau of Tanzania, between Lake Victoria to the north, which supplies the headwaters of the Nile River, and Lake Tanganyika to the west, the second deepest lake in the world. About 38,000 people live in a group of six villages that together comprise Mbola cluster. Subsistence farming is the main economic activity, according to the Millenium Villages website. The rainy summer season is now upon the sub-Saharan country. The weather forecast for the nearest city, Tabora, on Nov. 29 was 91 degrees with thunderstorms.
Back in New Canaan, it was becoming apparent that a successful call wouldn't happen after almost an hour of trying. The students had not lost hope, however.
"Seventh try's the charm!" squealed one girl, who was also raising her hand.
Ball tried to make the missed call a teaching opportunity.
"I'm feeling disappointed because we've been working on this for so long, but I think this might actually be a great learning experience," she said to the class. This was the second missed call between the two schools after Hurricane Sandy derailed the first one in late October. Another time the Mbola school had to reschedule because the roof of its town center had blown off in a windstorm.
Ball told her class that the Tanzanian students had been surprised to hear that even in America, school was canceled and a call was impossible due to weather. She said she felt that event brought the students closer together because they had a type of shared, or at least similar, experience.
Then the familiar Skype ring was heard again. "Hello!" came a distinctly African-accented voice on the other side, the screen still without picture. Shrieks and the "hujambo" erupted in the room. The bald head of a teacher who appeared to be fiddling with the computer was all that was visible, but then just as soon as it had popped up on the screen, it too cut out.
It was the closest the students would get that day to communicating with their peers half a world away. After trying since 8 a.m., Randolph's sixth grade had to start leaving for its 9:15 a.m. class.
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