As an English teacher (literally, from England), I am faced with an embarrassing predicament. I’ve lectured several hundred children around the world to have a voice, to tell their story with honesty and passion. After wrestling with how to approach telling the amazing story of Peer Village, I froze. Play it safe? Check out some non-profit websites and mimic the “done thing”?
Instead, I am defaulting back to what I recommended my Grade 12 student just yesterday, here in America, writing an essay entitled, “Where Am I Going?” Simply, tell the truth. It was the best four paragraphs she ever wrote.
I hope my own advice pays dividend and an honest retelling gives you a new perspective on the future of global education, perhaps even offering some insight into the transformative potential of building a Peer Village. Different perspectives and new insights, after all, is kind of our thing.
When we formed a lunch club to get Peer Village off the ground, one student Googled “Malawi + News”. There was an “outbreak” of vampires, according to numerous reports, that had caused panic in villages in the south. Okay… Let’s talk about it. In real time. With Malawian students. Work out the technology, connect students of the same age in both countries and start a dialogue.
I later jumped on a plane and was about to tentatively bring up the subject of blood sucking to a Malawi class when a young girl stood up behind her desk and stopped me in my tracks. “Why are your students shooting each other?” As an Englishman who had just witnessed my New Jersey class stage a walkout as part of the American national protests (following 17 deaths in Florida), I was neither the right age or nationality to answer that question with the insight of a young Floridian protester. I quietly rehearsed a less accusatorial tone for my vampire question.
Both sides of the Atlantic have some conversations that could sure use some outside perspective. But I felt I could, as a teacher, help enable a meaningful collaboration. The academic research on peer-to-peer learning is getting a welcome shot in the arm thanks to its new natural home, the internet. The modern teaching role is also evolving, shifting educators from our role as “knowledge-dispensers” (thank you, Wikipedia), towards “facilitation”, where peers are guided to discover and contemplate together.
While the roots of this pedagogy precede the internet, we have been unable to bring peers together from such utterly different cultures and perspectives for virtually zero dollars. Live. Until now. Like in the same room, live.
With just a minibus, a broadband connection, and a co-written lesson plan, Malawian children- without internet or electricity in their own villages- can visit our Peer Village center in the capital city, Lilongwe.
When seated in a beautiful auditorium with customized seating, webcams and microphones, they become the first in their village to start talking to Londoners or New Yorkers about the right to bear arms, China’s role in the world or what makes us hopeful for the future. And, simultaneously, students in America get exposure to a new perspective from thousands of miles away, beamed right to their classroom, as they work through the same lesson plans as equals.
This stuff makes me tingle.
If you feel that tingle too, then welcome to the club.
As a motley crew of American high school teachers, our Peer Village team spend countless hours scratching our skulls, wondering how to harness the ubiquitous technologies currently rewiring of our students’ brains. These adolescent digital guinea pigs are hyper-connected, yet also isolated and, often, polarized.
As teachers, we wanted to figure out how to build the right platform to both connect those still truly isolated by the digital divide (the so-called ‘bottom billion’), and create a revolutionary environment that brings creative new perspectives into the classroom.
Meeting the chief: Opening our
first Malawi school (2006).
An alternative point of view, delivered by a virtual peer somewhere on another continent, is now as accessible as if it came from a colleague sat at the next desk. That is a profoundly different classroom to the one I remember. We had chalk.
You can and should meet our motley crew, along with our Malawi team who will run the center on the land we purchased, at our Meet Us page. I’m able to bring some experience building schools to the table, while the rest of our American team provides many decades of experience across subjects, special education and the vital skills needed to build this special village, offline and on.
But it is one Malawian, Grieve Massa, who first used the word ‘village’ with such distinction. As we sweated away together in the early years, trying to get our first classrooms built in Malawi, we bonded partly because of our village roots - his to the north of Lilongwe, mine to the south of London.
Sat in a Lilongwe boardroom, we were surrounded by numerous ‘important people’, and the one suit that had made it into my suitcase felt suitably unsuitable. I ‘ironed’ my jacket with the palm of a damp hand and tried to remain as invisible as possible. Everybody else was dressed according to the climate, but such was my uncertainty in the company of such prestigious major donors and education experts, I steadfastly refused to loosen my tie.
When the rotation of the introductions finally arrived at my drenched chair, I breathlessly trotted out my name and a laundry list of highly inflated achievements. With Grieve’s turn next, he waited a beat, lent back, and simply uttered, “Oh, I’m just a man from the village.” Pause. The guy next to him, from the World Bank, shifted in his seat and began his patter.
Fast forward a decade, and I was sat in the office of my new principal, Dr. Tom Gorman. I explained how the teachers had come together to flesh out a revolutionary new idea, connecting villages in Southern Africa with our students in Ridgewood. He explained to me the large ‘town’ of Ridgewood was in fact a village, a quirk of history in how its governing body was established. I think our Peer Village name is both global in nature as well as inspiration.
Building a classroom in Malawi's capital, Lilongwe (2008).
With Grieve’s Malawi team and our dedicated teachers in America, our duty together is to fulfill our mission: To expose young global villagers to fresh perspectives that inspire new insights.
The other day I chastised one of my seniors for leaving an assignment to the last minute. He had one sentence, that I could see, on his Google Doc. Senioritis, a “...supposed affliction of students in their final year of high school, characterized by a decline in motivation or performance”, seemed to be the culprit. 45 minutes later, he handed in the assignment by the skin of his teeth. I asked him what he had been doing for the previous two periods. He smiled as he picked up his laptop, packing his bag. “Thinking deeply.”
We think deeply about Peer Village and what technology can bring to our children in this incredible factory of ideas, the modern classroom. But we don’t think alike.
With your support as teachers, students and advocates for this new village, we can shift a perspective, burst some bubbles and better prepare our students for a life of thinking.