Distance Learning between a Thai High School and an American High School.
|From the Lodi Enterprise e News [Wisconsin, USA]
Tale of two schools
By Jennifer Fetterly
Beef and green curry sizzle in hot woks as Lodi High School students prepare lunch on a cold December morning.
As the strong aromas rise to the students’ noses, it’s clear it’s not just another typical school day.
Teens, some who have never had Thai food before, are bridging a cultural gap tens of thousands of miles away as teacher Karnteera “Tuke” Ingkhaninan, warns them of their first time experience.
“Maybe you should just start with one tablespoon of curry paste, and go from there,” she cautions the Lodi students about her homeland’s fiery spice via Skype.
But far from being timid, the students jump right in, not only to the food but to the distance learning program, which started this year, with sister school Sa-nguan Ying in Supan Buri, Thailand.
As part of the arrangement, Lodi High School teacher Mark Kohl instructs Thai students in U.S. History and Tuke reciprocates by teaching Lodi students the Cultural Geography of Southeast Asia.
Senior Breanna Smith enrolled in the class after visiting Thailand on a school trip last year, eager to learn more.
“It is really cool being taught by a teacher that is actually in that country, who can clarify things, compared with learning from a textbook. In a normal class, if you have questions you have to look on the Internet, but Tuke just knows, so it is more true to me,” Smith says as she cuts vegetables for the beef curry recipe.
Other students who are part of the class have never been to Thailand but their curiosity for learning enticed them to enroll.
Besides teaching Thai cuisine, Tuke has brought the students a harsher reality of Southeast Asian history like the genocide of the “Killing Fields” in Cambodia, where the Khmer Rouge killed millions. The students also learn about how the harvesting of palm oil, found in peanut butter and chewing gum, is destroying the jungles, along with the orangutans that live there.
Janel Anderson, who is the Lodi resource teacher for the Southeast Asia class, says the students’ intent interest is enough reason to continue the two-year pilot program.
“Students start to understand that they are participants in this whole global community, that we are all connected, that is what I want them to understand,” Anderson says. “In some ways it is easier for Tuke to get them to see it, she is part of the world and she has more credibility, not like an American teacher telling them how bad things were there.”
While distance learning in Wisconsin’s public and secondary schools isn’t new, Lodi’s international spin is setting precedence. According to Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) the Lodi initiative is the only one in the state where students are taking a credit class taught by a foreign teacher.
And it’s all done on a shoestring budget of $2,000, money that was used to purchase a laptop computer where teachers can interact with students via Skype, a videoconference Internet system. The Lodi School Board approved the program on the condition, other than the one-time technology budget, that there wouldn’t be any additional staff costs.
Kohl, who teaches in the evening, for Thai students who must be in their seats by 7 a.m. because of the 13-hour time difference, says he thought the biggest challenge would be technology but there have been only a few instances of blurry video and dropped connections.
While the Thai school has excellent equipment, the distance learning concept, with less equipped schools may hinder its expansion.
“I think in some ways international distance learning is part of the future but I think that we are far off from this being the norm because there are lot of infrastructure issues. I have tried to do this with teachers in other countries and one of the problems on their end is having the technology and expertise. We are wealthy and technology rich as a nation but the people of some other countries don’t have that,” Anderson says.
But aside from the challenges, supporters of the learning concept, says it teaches so much more than a curriculum.
This January, Kohl taught 22 Thai students in seventh-12th grade about the civil rights movement. The last class before test time, fell on Martin Luther King’s birthday, so pictures of the African-American leader giving his “I have a dream speech” in Washington D.C. finished the class.
Some of his Thai students respectfully call Kohl “the smartest history teacher” ever.
“It is great to learn more about U.S. history’s real stories, truths and gain more knowledge thoroughly from the expert like Kru (Mr.) Mark,” says Piyaorn Kamwhan.
Other Thai students have learned more far-reaching concepts in the sought-after class.
“As you had seen in our class we don’t have enough self confidence to ask questions because when we was young if we have some stupid question our friend will laugh at us,” says Non Bunsrisuwan. “In Thailand the student must respect the teacher and it like our culture and it makes us far away from teacher. But in distance learning we get so close with Kru Mark. He is like one of our family what we had to see every morning.”
Kohl, says the relationship is so strong, that when some Thai students were left homeless from a Chinese New Year’s fireworks explosion in January, he rallied school staff to raise money to help those affected.
As the program gets ready to enter its second year, supporters are hopeful it will continue.
“After talking with staff here and in Thailand we all agreed that this has exceeded our expectations in every facet, the technology, how we relate, the quality of instruction and it was a good investment. It has been very successful at both ends,” Kohl says.