Moving Beyond Access in K-12 Education
Saturday, May 1, 1999

Language and Culture Demonstrations

[These are edited summaries, not complete transcripts.]

Shigeru Miyagawa: StarNetis an Internet site based on the Star Festival CD-ROM which was completed here at MIT a few years ago. Star Festival is the story of my own trip to my native city of Hiratsuka in Japan, which took place during the week leading up to a local event called the Star Festival. The interface to the software is a fictional PDA, and puzzles based on what is stored in the PDA are a key element of the experience, because students must solve them to progress through the materials. The premise is that on his way to his old home town, a professor collected and stored whatever he found, then lost the PDA on his way home. George Takei, who played Sulu on Star Trek, plays my character of the professor in Star Festival. The CD contains roughly 300 original photographs that were kept by my family and myself, and these help learners to come to understand the city through the eyes of professor.

After the first year of working on the project, we convened a board meeting and demonstrated the materials. One of the people started to ask things like "Have you talked to any teachers and have you created any curriculum for this?" We hadn't. That's when I started to understand that technology for education that is developed in a vacuum is useless. From then on, we began the adventure of working with people outside of MIT.

We got in touch with Mary Rudder and Maria D'Itria who beta tested the materials and developed the first version of the curriculum. We are also working with the Children's Museum to take their curriculum and integrate it with the national standards for Social Studies. Finally, the package is being installed in the Boston Public Schools and other places this fall. Mary Rudder and Maria D'Itria are here to describe how they use these materials in their classes at the Harvard Kent School.


Mary Rudder: As a kindergarten teacher, I wanted to do a unit on Japan in my class of 24 students where only half speak English as their first language. I saw this was more like real life than just using a book because the students could really see the trains and listen to the people in Japanese. We started with the part with the train, because we used the premise of a trip to Japan. We began by preparing passports with their pictures and determining which places we would visit.

Last year, I was very nervous about letting the students use it, but this year I just said, it is your turn to go to this site, and they figured out how to maneuver all those little buttons better than I did after a year. During the time when I was doing my preparation, I got an Internet connection, and I decided to use the Web to learn more about the festival and different places in Japan. This eventually led me to become an Internet junkie. Last year, I had one computer, but I signed up for a grant and now have five.

Everyone says you can't get teachers to do this. The problem is that they don't have any time. It has to be very quick and easy to learn for them to use it. You also need to make them feel comfortable about it. People see me using it, and they say, " I can do that."

Maria D'Itria: I teach Fifth Grade Social Studies, and I have a large Asian population in my classroom. When I introduced Japan as part of her multicultural curriculum, we began by talking about what the students knew and felt about Japan. I found that some of my students had strong negative feelings, because they had heard stories from their parents or grand parents about how the Japanese had treated the Chinese, and so I had to be very careful about how I presented things.

We began the unit by learning how to fill out an application for a passport, then we used the passport to record the books that they read about Japan as we went along. We basically went through the professors family tree, and we traced his journey on a map.

I encouraged my second language learners to look at that question of cultural identity, because I didn't want to put them into the melting pot that I was put in when I came from Italy in 1956. At one point, the professor asked "am I American, am I Japanese, am I a bridge between the two cultures?" I know that when I go to Italy and visit family, I am the American, but when I come back here, I am the Italian. I think Star Festival helps the kids understand that you can be both.

Finally, I had one little boy who was in a special education class, and everybody had given up on him, and I almost did too, but he was really excited about using the Star Festival. Yesterday, he returned to see it again, and it wasn't the first time. I even had one child who was motivated to read 35 books during this unit. I am willing to do anything to get a kid interested in what I am doing, and I think it is really great to have a CD-ROM that can have that kind of an impact on children.


Gilberte Furstenberg: A weekly section of MIT's The Tech called "Viewpoint" recently posed the question: "Do MIT students need to know more about world events and cultures?" An MIT senior named Aaron Moronez responded: "You cannot get knowledge about a culture by reading about it." He is right. Then how can you make culture -- which is abstract, elusive, and essentially invisible -- become visible? This is the challenge addressed in the project named Culturawhich embodies a methodology that takes advantage of the World-Wide-Web to bring together and juxtapose a large variety of materials from two cultures in real time.

We are ending our fourth semester experiment in which MIT students have been working with students in France, and we will do a similar experiment with High Schools next fall. We begin by administering on-line questionnaires to both groups of students, and then they view the responses side by side to observe and analyze the cross-cultural differences.

Students need to be guided in doing cross-cultural analysis, so we help them to see what words and concepts often recur on one side but rarely on the other, look for emerging patterns, unearth cultural references and figure out what the equivalent of the English word such as "caring" might be in French. For example, when asked the question: "what is, to you, a "well-behaved" child" (un enfant "bien-eleve" in French), students noticed that French answers tended to emphasize the notion of politeness over any other, whereas the word "polite" did not appear on the American side at all. By looking at responses to other questionnaires where the notion of "politeness" appeared, students discovered that the concept of "politeness" differs in both cultures. In the French frame of reference, politeness is of a social nature (acknowledging someone's presence; saying than you, etc.). To American students, someone being "polite" is, above all, someone who respects other people's feelings. The importance placed on "feelings" in American culture comes out in many different contexts.


This type of discovery leads students to become progressively aware of their own diverse cultural assumptions and the use of their own language. After the students analyze the differences in their responses to the questionnaires, they participate in on-line forums where they share their comments, ask questions and respond to the queries of the foreign students. The classroom is where ideas and findings are brought together, confronted and discussed. Outside of class, students analyze films, read articles and communicate with their partners on the Internet. Our role of teachers is to orchestrate everything, coach the students, guide them, encourage them to pursue discussions on the forums and expand the student's knowledge through the reading and analysis of various other materials and texts.

This allows students from those cultures - in our case American and French - to interactively and collaboratively construct understanding of each others culture by comparing the materials. The sheer process of that juxtaposition allows variations that would otherwise stay buried and undiscovered to emerge and be revealed. In addition, this method changes the nature of teaching and learning about culture. It isn't based upon being "taught" by the teacher what American or French cultures are like, it doesn't reduce culture to a series of facts about the other country, and students aren't told how the French tend to think and see things. Instead, students observe, analyze and discover by themselves some traits of French cultural attitudes. Our goal is to have them form hypotheses and then to constantly question and refine those in a never ending process. Students are at the center of their own learning when they take a body of diverse materials and create their own web of interpretation.

Compiled by Mary Hopper

wiring the classroom    abstract    agenda    speakers    summaries