REDMOND, Wash., June 10, 2002 — This past weekend, six junior-high students from Washington, D.C., and 10 from Kent, Wash., met for the first time — even though the teens have worked together for the better part of a year. As part of Microsoft’s Washington2Washington program, the 16 students are making their way from Boston to New York June 8-12, during which they will wrap up their program studies.
Students at the SEED Public Charter School in Washington, D.C., learn technology and collaboration through Microsoft’s Washington2Washington education program.
“They’re really excited,” says Paul Neff, a science teacher at Sequoia Junior High School and head of the Washington2Washington program in Kent. “We could take them just about anywhere and they’d be overjoyed. They’re particularly curious about the WTC site, and are excited to travel with the other class.”
It was two years ago that Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates announced the launch of the Washington2Washington program at the SEED Public Charter School’s new facility in Washington, D.C.’s Southeast District. Since then, over approximately 135 students have participated in what Gates termed “the powerful convergence of software, Web services and new devices” integrated with every day curricula. Since fall 2000, classes of seventh-grade students from the SEED School and classes of their counterparts from Sequoia Junior High have paired up each year, using technology tools to learn and share information.
“Whenever I describe Washington2Washington to people I know outside of this SEED community, they’re just awestruck,” says Charlsie Baird, Head of the SEED School. “My personal feeling is that it’s probably — knowing education as I do — a step ahead of its time. The pendulum swings very slowly in education; it always has, and we’re so privileged to have this program here for our kids. I think it’s made an incredible difference in their lives.”
This year, like the last, the two schools joined together to work on “Generation I-Land,” a project that brings together teams of students from opposite coasts to develop a proposal on how best to form an island’s government and populate the land without harm to its natural resources. Each team, composed of two or three students from each school, decided on such things as a name for their island and a national flag design, working through compromises on colors, symbols, mottoes and the like.
For SEED School students like Stevon James, who participated in the program this year at the SEED School, Washington2Washington has presented an opportunity to bond with his peers and grow as a person. “I’ve seen a lot of unity — us coming together as a class, and we all speak more, talk more, among the teams, and it feels like a real group effort,” the seventh grader says. “It gave me self-esteem. That’s what I see in all the Washington2Washington classes.”
Not all students start with the same level of technical know-how, and for those who have little to no experience with technology, Washington2Washington has taken away the intimidation factor when it comes to computers. When Stevie Dew began the seventh grade at SEED, she had barely had the opportunity to turn on a computer, much less execute complicated tasks. Her experience with Washington2Washington has made her as comfortable working with computers as her peers. As an eighth grader, she transferred to another school for a time, and found that her newfound skills were not just ones she could use in her own schoolwork, but were also ones she could impart to others — including her teacher.
“One of my new teachers didn’t know how to talk to others online,” Dew says. “Her sister was online, and she didn’t know how to get to her, so I showed her. And then any time she needed me to do something for her on the computer, she would call me out of class and have me show her how to do it. First the Washington2Washington program taught me how to do these things, and now I’m teaching somebody older than me. That was fun, and really made me think I wanted to come back to SEED to learn more.”
Brandon Lloyd, the civics teacher in charge of Washington2Washington at the SEED School, is delighted by Dew’s progress and believes the program’s impact is long-term and far-reaching. “Stevie — you could not find somebody more computer illiterate at the time,” Lloyd says. “I had to do my whole seating chart around her, to make sure I could get to her, because every five seconds, she would have a question. She was very quiet; reserved, and today, she was cracking jokes. I think a lot of that is from Washington2Washington.
“When she and these other kids are juniors in high school thinking about where they’re going to apply to college, when they think about majors, they’ll have a world in which they can actually consider technology. I think they’ll be more drawn to those fields than someone who hasn’t had this kind of exposure. Without Washington2Washington, Stevie would probably have been intimidated by any technology field — she would never even have considered it. And now it’s a whole new option open to her.”
Lloyd explains that because of the “education pendulum” — wherein schools take a while to catch up to current standards — educators may not be able to fully recognize or take advantage of the technology skills these students possess; however, their social skills are another matter. Like Dew, Durrell Lewis is a SEED eighth-grader who participated in Washington2Washington last year. Described by Lloyd as “the last person you would expect to speak out among his peers,” Lewis has now found a voice.
“Last year was a real good experience for me,” Lewis volunteers. “It opened a doorway for young kids who really want to … well, not just have fun, but learn new things and make something successful out of their lives. The first time we saw the other class over the Internet it was kind of weird, but after a while, it was like we knew them. We got to know them quite well and we shared our thoughts with them and they shared their thoughts with us. It was really fun just to watch people learning things on the computer and learning how to do things.”
Lloyd was born in the same neighborhood where he now teaches, and says that beyond skills in technology, Washington2Washington is exposing his students to a larger world that they might otherwise have never known.
“When you walk the halls, you see our student population is nearly 100 percent African American,” Lloyd says. “And given the neighborhood they live in, they have no way of interacting with a student of another ethnicity, even if it’s still somebody who’s ‘black.’ The people they know here are a certain type of D.C., urban, in-their-neighborhood African American. Certainly not folks from Eastern Europe, or Asia or Seattle.
“They’re still at an age when they can, with some initial reluctance, surpass those boundaries. When you get to a certain age, it’s more difficult to break those boundaries — you start to gravitate towards what you’re familiar with. And this is why I say that early-on programs like Washington2Washington are so important, because it requires not only an exchange of information, but an exchange of culture — ideas, experience, even they way they talk. They can get past matters of race and class, and just deal with one another for who they are.”
From the other side of the continent, Neff agrees. Washington2Washington has expanded the world view of his students in Kent, Wash. “They live in a very closed community; they’re suburban kids — they go to malls and local events, and some of them never actually get much farther than that,” Neff says. “We have a pretty diverse student population, but some of them are from very low economic backgrounds and they don’t travel a lot or get a feel for what the rest of the world is like. Interacting with the kids in Washington, D.C., they get a feel for the fact that there are other kids out there and they have the same struggles that everyone else has, they have the same types of feelings, and it’s a big world, but people are just people everywhere you go.”
The students aren’t the only ones learning. Lloyd and Neff speak on a weekly basis, going over curriculum and daily lesson plans. Their teaching styles are dissimilar; where Lloyd is structured, Neff is more laid-back. Each is trying to learn from the other’s approach, admitting there are benefits to both. In the end, however, what is important is keeping their students interested and occupied.
“At this time of year, when it’s getting close to the summer, the tendency is that kids start to trail off and grades start to fall,” Neff says. “But the kids in W2W are still very much involved. They still come in ready to do work, and are excited to get on the computers and to go on the field trips we take.”