My teaching about the fall of communism this week was supplemented by a live video conference with students living in the former Soviet Union.
Tajik students from Qurgonteppa collected oral histories from their parents who lived through this event, then talked to mine about what it was like from the inside. I have been incorporating skype into my classroom since 2008 and have found that students not only get excited about the novelty of the experience, but get perspectives on world events much different than their own. Some of my best “teachable” moments have come from the surprise my students have had during these international exchanges.
For example, today my students asked the Tajiks who they thought the best political leader of the Soviet Union was . From the American point of view, it was astonishing to hear the Tajiks debate among themselves whether this honor should fall on Lenin or Stalin. It was even more surprising when they unanimously agreed that Gorbachev, the architect of glasnost, was the worst. But after the video exchange ended, this gave me the perfect opportunity to explain to my class the historical reasons for this different perspective. No textbook reading could have ever hooked them into content as these video conferences have.
Although the outcome of these video conferences is not always as serendipitous as it was today, they have injected my classroom with excitement and real world relevance more than anything I have ever done.
From Chinese students we learned their perspectives on Taiwan and the Dali Lama; from Koreans, how US policies affect people’s lives there; and from Russians, their side of the story regarding the conflict with Georgia in 2008. (My classes have also had sustained connections with students in Germany, Turkey and Greece.) In some cases, these encounters have embarrassed my students about their ignorance of the world compared to their international peers, and motivated them to learn more. Most importantly, they give my students the curiosity to ask why opinions and beliefs can be so different outside of the United States. And as Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, “To caste answers like stones at minds that have never asked the questions is the greatest pedagogical mistake.”