Contributing Blogger Cathy Healy clears her schedule every year so she can be sure to attend the International Education and Resource Network’s (iEARN) conference, an opportunity for educators to learn more about online storytelling and cultural exchange.
BARRIE, Ontario — I arrived in this cool Canadian lakeside resort town near Toronto with educators from 40+ countries, each of us paying about $700 for six nights, seven days of room, board, and conference fees. This was the 17th annual International Education and Resource Network (iEARN) gathering for K-12 teachers and students engaged in online collaborative work.
We are proof that it is possible to have a jet-set life on a do-good budget, done through volunteer work with international organizations. There are many such international non-profits (you can find many of them at National Geographic’s Global Action Atlas); but my own low-budget-jetset life revolves around two organizations: Partners of the Americas (DC-Brasìlia chapter), which connects volunteers to serve and change lives in this Hemisphere, and iEARN, which represents about 30,000 teachers and two million students in 125 countries working on projects in 30 languages.
iEARN’s projects range from coping with natural disasters to solar cooking, learning circles, river systems, journalism, and video-making. iEARN’s slogan is “learning with the world, not just about it” — and I have seen remarkable results on standardized tests when students produce work they care about for an audience of peers.
I’m not a teacher, but I desperately need to know people who inspire me about the good in the human race. So every July, I journey to the iEARN conference and l listen to idealists whose actions make me smile — even though sometimes I smile through tears.
I’ve been energized by these stories while traveling to Hungary, Spain, Puerto Rico, South Africa, Russia, Japan, Slovakia, Netherlands, Egypt, and Morocco.
Next July I’ll be in Taiwan with my iEARN friends; many of us are already planning to take advantage of the pre-and-post conference home stays being arranged with teachers around the island, a first that’s very appealing.
In Canada, we practiced video interviewing techniques, we got sprayed by Niagara Falls–Wednesdays always are sightseeing days–we applauded performances of traditional dances done in native garb, we danced ourselves, we suffered about the world’s common problems and we talked about our own plans to chip away at the bad and build the good over the next 12 months.
Woven throughout were stories. One favorite: When the two Iranian participants arrived, they hurried up to Ruty Holtzen, co-coordinator of iEARN-Israel, grasped her hands and said, “We’re so glad to see you!” Ruty, a retired science teacher, works full-time as facilitator and trainer for two non-political projects: Daffodil and Tulips, a international planting project run in collaboration with Amy Dwyer from Delaware, and Flying Kites All Over the World, a massive, same-day tribute dedicated to understanding the “other.” More than 70 countries have participated in the two projects over the past several years, including all of the special needs students in Israel–Jewish, Muslim-Christian, who plant bulbs every November.
Of course there are national tensions — iEARN is human, after all, but my experience is that most people make an effort to understand the “other.” Sometimes that’s as easy as laughter….like the night that Josh, a jet-lagged Aussie returned to the dorm after quaffing beer until midnight. He turned on the TV, which featured an Australian horror film about a giant crocodile, and fell asleep. He started awake at 3 a.m. horrified to “see” a crocodile in the room.
Josh leaped to the middle of the bed, threw all of the bedding on the imaginary crocodile and ran. The door locked behind him, leaving him in his skivvies in the hall. The security guard in the lobby was skeptical. “How do I know that it will be your room if I let you in?”
“Because it’s the room with the crocodile in it,” said Josh.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Upon returning home, I received a note from Laine DeFreece, a childhood friend who is a reading/writing specialist from Colorado, who roomed with me in Canada. Her thank-you note sums up what I’ve experienced with iEARN conferences:
“I learned so much about international connections and their implications for both academic skills and cultural understandings,” Laine wrote. “I truly believe miracles occur in the small moments of our lives.
“Remind me to tell you the story about the Pakistani man who directs an education project.”
Nice. I’ll call her in a few minutes.
Cathy Healy blogs about her travels at Newstorytelling.org. Photos by Koen Hofman.