This is a guest post by Michael Bernstein.
Hey everyone — Michael Bernstein here. I’m founder of PenPal News, a web-based app that uses news to spark conversation between middle and high-school-aged youth around the world. Through our guided Common Core Standards-based curriculum, we facilitate six-week classroom-to-classroom partnerships that engage participants in local, national and global current events. Our mission is to make it easy for educators to connect learners in fun, substantive and illuminating cross-cultural exchanges.
PenPal News began pilot-testing at the beginning of this school year (2011-2012). Since that time over 2000 young people and 50 educators in 15 countries have used the platform.
This fall, PenPal News is leveraging an investment from and partnership with Hive NYC to launch PenPal News Red/Blue. This is an initiative that will partner youth groups and classrooms in Red States, Blue States, rural communities, urban areas and everywhere in between to learn about election-year issues. In six-week online exchanges, middle and high schoolers will correspond with penpals about the economy, immigration, the environment, education and health care.
Check out this one-minute demo:
Participants will read, watch or listen to news stories related to the topics and engage in a written and multimedia discussion with their penpals. PenPal News will provide news stories to choose from, as well as prompts to get discussion started. Educators will also have the opportunity to select content they would like participants to discuss. In the sixth week of the exchange, penpals will go beyond discussion and produce a final project that looks at a particular subject in the news in greater depth. During that portion, we look forward to making use of Mozilla tools like Thimble and the Popcorn Maker Newscast template.
The PenPal News program is designed to run for approximately 45 minutes every week. The first six-week exchange will occur between September 25 and Election Day.
The goal of Red/Blue is to open up lines of communication between communities who would not typically interact with each other, either online or offline, thereby finding common ground through exposure to new perspectives. At the same time, the exchange will promote digital and news literacy, critical thinking and informed citizenship.
We believe that the political and cultural divide that creates inaction in government, and animosity and misunderstanding among people is fundamentally an information-silo problem. In essence, the media we consume and people who surround us, reinforce and constrict our worldview. (If you really want to geek out about this, check out “The Echo Chamber” a great radio piece from the NPR show I used to work for.) Anyway, we hope that PenPal News can do its little part to make prospects for the future a bit brighter.
Hive NYC’s involvement with PenPal News is signifcant for several reasons. It gives us the opportunity to significantly upgrade and scale PenPal News’ platform to make it more accessible. For example, we’re creating an algorithm to automatically match classrooms and youth groups according to size and location and other criteria (previously the experience of matching groups was like putting together an 1000-piece puzzle blindfolded). We’re automating other things that previously were manual as well, like reminder emails. Boring, right? But getting many groups of people in different locations to participate in six-week online exchange program is like herding cats — now we’ll be able to automatically send those cats emails to remind them about things they need to do to make the exchange work.
We’re also open-sourcing PenPal News so that others can use the system we set up for connections or curriculum of any type they like. We believe PenPal News can be adapted to the specific needs of youth educators (and any other organization that wants to connect its members internally or externally).
Of course, the Hive NYC-PenPal News Red/Blue collaboration will provide an opportunity for Hive member organizations to get their youth into dialogues with each other and with other teen organizations around the country. This is really exciting not only because you’ll be able get involved this fall, but also because of the value-add that many youth organizations can be in helping us shape and grow PenPal News in the future.
For example, the joint effort provides an outlet for media-producing Hive member organizations to showcase the work that is already being done by their youth. We’ve already started to do this. In an exchange we ran this fall between classrooms in New Jersey and Lebanon, we anchored discussion around a Radio Rookies’ documentary by Norhan Basuni about growing up as a Muslim in New York after the 9/11 attacks http://www.wnyc.org/shows/rookies/2011/sep/08/.
Here’s a brief excerpt of one particular conversation it provoked:
After hearing Norhan’s story, I must agree that life in America as a muslim is very difficult. People have made preconceptions that Muslims are all terrorists, which is entirely untrue. Following the devastating events of 9/11, Americans lost the safety they felt as U.S citizen. I realize now that Muslims living in America during 9/11, had also lost their feeling of safety. I can recall many situations in my life where people have shown prejudice against Muslims. To this day,over ten years after 9/11, I have still encountered people that show hatred towards Muslims. However, I hope that you don’t think America is full of these people. Many have grown to understand the Islam religion.
I think that America is really the land of opportunity as they say about it and everyone wants to live in it. One can make his dreams come true, and that is very important for an individual in a country, but all of us as Muslims worry about the reactions of the American citizens for our traditions, clothes (hijab) and we worry the we are going to be mistreated for the only reason that we are from a different religion…like Norhan
We’re also interested in leveraging Hive NYC member organizations to make curriculum models to be used in PenPal News exchanges. For instance, it could be really cool to construct six-week interactive modules that examine specific issues in more depth, like immigration, the environment, or digital literacy. It would be great to get your teens to help us out building and coming up with ideas for these.
But anyway, getting back to a more fundamental point, how can you sign up your youth for PenPal News Red/Blue? Our website www.penpalnews.com is a great place to start. Just enter your information and we’ll be in touch with further instructions about how to get the ball rolling. If you know other educators, either in New York or around the country who may be interested in getting involved, I’d be much obliged if you sent them a link to the video or this blog post.
If you’re interested in discussing ideas about potential partnerships and collaborations, please feel free to contact me at michael [at] penpalnews [dot] com.
I’ll be posting updates throughout the summer about organizations and schools that get on board, as well as more details about exciting new developments of the platform’s interface.
Thanks for reading—and stay tuned!