A group of educators from Belarus (a former Soviet republic who is often referred to as Europe’s last dictatorship) visited Michigan this September through a global exchange program via Global Ties Detroit, funded by the U.S. State Department. Interestingly, these educators were seeking to learn about best practices in entrepreneurship education in Michigan with the hope of putting some of these same practices into action back in Belarus, where private business is pretty much non-existent.
Fellow Oakland Schools Consultant Kim Kocsis and I spent time preparing an overview of the hard work being taken up by teachers across the county, with an emphasis on the shift that is happening toward more inquiry-based instruction. We were prepared to talk about a great case study of teachers from a local district taking up project-based learning in meaningful ways with fourth graders while also sharing what we had learned about supporting educators in meaningful ways.
What we were not prepared for was an emotional day of connecting with strangers from across the globe as we discovered we had a common vision, driven by common values.
We arrived at Oakland Schools Technical Campus Northwest in Clarkston where we were greeted by an eager group of women who were anxious to learn and connect with us. Kim and I do not speak Russian, and only a few of the women spoke some English, so we spent our time sharing ideas through an incredible translator named Irena. Comically, we would say a few sentences in English and, in turn, Irena would say what seemed like many paragraphs in Russian. Then, Kim and I would wait to see what to do next based on their reaction to the translation. Pretty quickly we picked up a rhythm and could figure out what to do next based on their expressions or reactions. Sometimes they needed more elaboration on the idea at hand, sometimes they would have questions but, often, they would nod happily in agreement, looking at us and saying, “Da, da, da!”—luckily, the one Russian word Kim and I both knew (yes!).
After the introductory portion of the morning (which took twice as long as expected due to all of the translation required), Technical Campus Northwest Dean Chuck Locklear led us all on a tour of the campus. What an amazing place. This is a school where students learn valuable skills from construction to visual imaging to automotive technologies. We watched as the Belarus delegation took photos of the equipment, technology and hands-on learning experiences available to students, as well as the artifacts that cover the walls of the campus.
It was clear that they were impressed by what they saw.
However, as the tour went on, we could sense a shift from excitement to a feeling that was almost somber. By the time we got to the greenhouse where we could see evidence students were learning about agriscience by doing instead of only reading about it in books, one educator put words to the emotions she was experiencing. She looked at Kim and I teary-eyed and said, “I have no words. I am very happy for your children. But not one child in our country has this opportunity.” Our eyes welled up too as we confessed to her that not all children in Michigan have access to this kind of education and that there is indeed an opportunity gap.
Next, we visited the cafe where students prepared and served food to the entire delegation. Again, the educators from Belarus were blown away. They gushed about how delicious the food was and how beautifully it was presented. After lunch, one educator complimented the students in the culinary program through the translator, “We are so impressed! You must have hands of gold to prepare such delicious food.” The students beamed back a proud smile and thanked them – no translation required. One person asked if they could contribute something monetarily to the students and Chuck quickly produced a donation jar. We watched as every member of the delegation generously put money into the jar, which will be used toward the culinary program’s student club.
Without a doubt, the most powerful part of the day came next when we visited the iTEAM classroom, expertly led by teachers Tom Neal and Ryan Matousek. Tom offered a brief introduction of the program, where students learn skills such as marketing, entrepreneurship, computer networking and web development through a simulated business in the classroom. He then handed everything over to students to present and, once again, the educators from Belarus were blown away. By the end of the session, they were physically gathered around the students asking questions and giving positive feedback to them through the translator. The energy was high and the enthusiasm was obvious. One educator asked the American students if she could record a video message of them saying “hello” to her students in Belarus. Once again, Kim and I found ourselves teary-eyed as we watched the American students smile for the iPhones recording them, wave, and say, “Hello to Belarus from the United States!” We watched as some Belarus educators traded contact information with the American teachers and made plans to stay in contact and floated the idea of using Google translate to communicate in the future. It was clear they did not want the visit to end – there was so much more to discuss.
In just a short interaction it was very clear that every educator in that room was focused on the same outcome: providing authentic, engaging, and joyful learning experiences for students rooted in academic standards.
It was heartwarming to experience such a meaningful cultural exchange, especially in these current times. Who would have thought that a group of strangers from two seemingly polarized countries, who require a translator to even communicate, could walk away from just a half-day of interactions with a sense of connectivity and a deeper understanding?
While there are obvious differences between the United States and Belarus, the truth is there are much more important similarities among educators from both of these countries than there are differences. As it turns out, it is not that hard to find common ground when you focus on the universal desire people have for improving the future of their countries and creating opportunities for children.
As evidenced that day, it does not matter if you are an educator in Belarus or an educator in Oakland County, MI. – our goals are the same. We want our students to have the best chances possible for living up to their full potential in life, no matter what they want to do or become – and high-quality, equitable education is the surest pathway to achieving that goal.
Stacie Woodward is a Content Area Literacy and Social Studies consultant for Oakland Schools.