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Videoconferencing Current Events: What's Happening Now!

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Vermont students get a racial reality check from Alabama

By Jenna Pizzi
Staff Writer, The Barr Montpelier Times Argus

Published: June 12, 2011


A class of Vermont freshmen recently talked with students at an Alabama juvenile detention center about “To Kill a Mockingbird” via video conferencing, sparking discussion of how racism is still alive in today’s society, even in ways they didn’t expect.

“I knew that there is still racism present today,” said Madison, a student in the Montpelier High School freshman English class taught by Jamie Koehnlein. “I wasn’t aware of the extent.”

The Montpelier students are all white, said their teacher, while the students at the correctional facility are of different races.

Madison and classmates Ben and Madeleine said the most shocking thing to them wasn’t that the students on the other end of the camera were incarcerated, but the story one boy told about how as a white student in a predominantly African-American school, he had been discriminated against for being in the minority.

“I’ve been to places where I’ve been the minority, and I can completely understand what he was saying,” said Madison, referring to a visit she took to Nicaragua in February as part of a cultural exchange.

She said that trip was the first time she felt she stood out in her white skin, but that no one taunted her or treated her badly because of it. That, she said, kept her from making a full connection with the student in Alabama.

Madison and the other Montpelier teens are being identified here only by their first names because the school administration has safety concerns.

On the day of the discussion with the Alabama classroom, students were told not to use their last names or wear descriptive clothing that would give away their location.

While Ben said he thought some of the restrictions were a little dramatic, he was shocked when he first saw all of the students in orange jumpsuits on the other end.

Montpelier High School librarian Susan Monmaney helped put together the video discussion and used social networking like Twitter and teacher websites like the Center for Interactive Learning and Collaboration to find the Alabama classroom. The long-distance conversation, which took place in class May 17, was the first of its kind at the school. The video equipment was paid for with a grant from the Learning Network of Vermont, through the Department of Education.

The students first practiced video chatting with another English class at Woodstock Union High School, which Koehnlein said helped them feel more comfortable with the process and work out the kinks. Both classes had read “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which is the focus of the Vermont Humanities Council’s statewide one-book reading program this year.

The Montpelier and Alabama classes discussed the movie version of “To Kill a Mockingbird” rather than Harper Lee’s novel, because some of the students in Alabama could not read. But the most important themes were still there, said Monmaney.

Because Vermont is mostly white, this experience allowed the students a half hour outside their “bubble,” said Koehnlein.

Madeleine, the student, said the conversation inspired her to see that we live in a very diverse country, despite Vermont’s standing as one of the whitest states.

“I would definitely like to travel and see different people,” she said.

Koehnlein said Madeleine’s reaction was typical of many of her students.

“They will have to make a decision about wanting more diversity in their lives,” said Koehnlein. “If they stay (in Vermont) they are going to be comfortable.”

Koehnlein hopes to continue video conferencing with more classes in the next school year and hopes other teachers will be inspired to incorporate similar technology into their curriculum.

Monmaney said some other teachers at the school have already followed in Koehnlein’s footsteps and are looking into using the technology next year.




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