Carrie Harris did not return to school with other teachers following spring break this year, but it was not because she was taking an extended vacation.
Harris, who teaches international business and marketing at Stow-Munroe Falls High School, spent two weeks in Russia as a participant of Teachers for Global Classrooms, a program of the U.S. State Department.
"This experience was truly a life-changing experience for me as a teacher," Harris wrote in response to questions posed to her by the school district. "I feel extremely fortunate to have been able to spend two weeks with amazing, like-minded teachers from around the United States who believe in the value of global education, spanning across all disciplines."
Harris told the Stow Sentry June 26 that for the last few years, she had a teacher from another country in her classroom for a time through a State Department "sister program" and via a collaboration between the district and Kent State University.
"I finally said I wanted to do something in the equivalent," said Harris.
Harris said preparation was not quick and easy.
"This thing was a year-long process. I had to take a class and go to Washington, D.C. for a symposium," she said, adding that the eight-week global education class was online.
"It was very intensive, one of the most time-consuming classes I've ever taken," she said.
Harris said she spent the first week in Moscow, one of a dozen American teachers in her group, then she and a teacher from Florida traveled to Siberia, where they spent the second week visiting a host school. During the trip, she and the other teachers studied the Russian education system, learned Russian history, did some teaching and met with Russian educational leaders. Harris said that initially, she thought she would be going to Ukraine and only learned it had been changed to Russia about two months before the trip, so she did not have time to learn any Russian beforehand. She said she picked up some of the language during her time there.
"I felt like a kindergartner, piecing together words and symbols," she said.
Harris said Russians she met, particularly in Siberia, were friendly and interested in the Americans.
"The teenagers we met in school were excited to meet us. We were celebrities," she said, adding, however, that they had some misperceptions, such as all Americans are overweight from eating just fast food, as well as a belief that "Hollywood" accurately depicts Americans.
"There were definitely skewed perceptions about what we really are," she said,.
Harris said she believes that at least some of those misperceptions, as well any stereotyped views the Americans may have had about Russians, had been at least partially corrected.
Harris said she felt some of the impact of the Ukrainian crisis while she was in Moscow. The State Department would have canceled the trip if it thought it might be too dangerous, she said, and the teachers were warned to avoid large groups of people where there might be issues between Russia and the Americans. But Siberia was different, said Harris.
"There was a police and military presence so I felt the tension in Moscow, but once we got to Siberia, it was so far removed that I felt safe," she said. "Everyone we met was excited to meet someone from the United States and what they saw on television, they knew it was just political."
Her trip is over, but it is not just a memory. As a requirement of the project, she kept a travel blog and has to put together a website on global education, with resources for teachers teaching global studies. It is a work in progress, said Harris, but can be viewed at goingglobal2014.weebly.com. She said she is also looking for ways to incorporate her experiences into her own classes and plans on meeting with other teachers who took part in a post-trip symposium in Washington, D.C. in October.
"We'll share ideas on how we'll take that forward," she said.
She said she is also planning on putting together "care packages" to send to students in Russia, including items of local interest, such as newspapers and buckeyes, and items the students may not have easy access to, including candy.
She said her students have had some involvement, creating videos of life in Ohio, Stow and at the high school and of a tour of the high school that she presented to students in Siberia.
"The Russian students were amazed by our beautiful school and were in awe of the vast array of what our high school has to offer," Harris wrote in response to a question from the district.
She said her students are also developing a pen pal relationship with Russian students via email and Youtube videos.
"I love that my students now will have an authentic experience with those from another country, allowing for them to think beyond the walls of our high school and their personal bubble of Stow," wrote Harris, "serving as a medium for understanding and empathy, offering the chance to recognize others' perspectives, a chance to have personal conversations about human injustice, politics, or simply life as a teen in another country."
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