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Bellevue students forge ties with Mideast schools
Seattle Times Eastside bureau
One by one, the children stood in the frame of the video camera, blushing, smiling, stuttering in a language not their own.
First came the class of Jewish students at a school in Kfar Shmaryahu. Then, a day later, came the class of Arab students at a Christian Orthodox school in Ramle.
Though separated by only a few dozen miles, the schools in Israel have no real connection to each other. But they are building a strong connection to students in Bellevue, where a class of fifth-graders is learning about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the children who live it day by day.
"I used to think they were completely different from us, like aliens," said Jack Turner, a Bellevue student who watched the video of the students yesterday. "Now they're more like my next-door neighbors."
As part of a yearlong project, fifth-graders in an advanced class at Stevenson Elementary School are going deep into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, tracing its roots in history, economics and geography.
But as part of that research, the students are also learning the culture of the land through its children. They have exchanged postcards, photographs and e-mails with children at both the Jewish and the Christian Orthodox schools since the start of the year.
The idea for the "Building Bridges of Understanding" project came from Stevenson teacher Paula Fraser, who met teachers from both Israeli schools at a teachers conference on international education this past summer.
For Fraser and her class, what began as a pen-pal project grew over the holidays, when two Bellevue students visited the schools in Israel and videotaped the children in the classroom and on the playground.
Yesterday at Stevenson, student Aviv Caspi gave a presentation to his classmates, showing them the video of his visit.
On it, the Israeli children listed hobbies similar to the students in Bellevue, from swimming to surfing, computer games to cooking.
"I kinda learned that kids are kids, no matter where you go," Aviv said.
He told the class about a game of hide-and-seek with the Jewish students and a game of handball with the Arab Christian students.
At the Jewish school, the Bellevue fifth-graders saw a space similar to their own, with a fine green playground and plenty of desks inside.
In the Arabic school, they saw a space more stark, with tables for desks and concrete for a playground.
The Caspi family, who are Jewish, said they were somewhat anxious about the visit to the Arabic school.
But Aviv's father, Lior Caspi, who grew up in Israel, said he was stunned by the welcome his family received, from the traditional food laid out on a table to the chants of his son's name by the boys on the playground.
"I was a little apprehensive," said Lior Caspi, who had never visited an Arabic school. "And they just welcomed us."
Aviv brought back gifts for Stevenson students from each Israeli class. From the Arab school, he brought a large white cloth with blue hearts and yellow stars, with the words "Peace, Love and Understanding" at the center. From the Jewish school, he brought a colorful paper banner, meant to represent a bridge.
"Isn't that goose-bumpy?" asked Fraser, the teacher.
There were "oohs" and "aahs" and "wows" from the audience. For all the studying of treaties, here was something inspiring.
Apart from the academic benefits, this kind of project gets children inspired to work on the problems of the world, said Kristi Rennebohm Franz, of iEARN. And that, she said, is a crucial part of educating children to be good citizens.
"If we don't provide our young people with a sense of hope in a very practical, tangible way, then we're not fulfilling our responsibility," she said.
The students said they hoped to talk one day with their pen pals about the way the conflict there affects them. But now, they said, is not the time.
"We don't want to put politics in, because it could ruin the relationship," Lisa Souslova said.
The plan now is to send the Jewish school video to the Arab students, and the Arab school video to the Jewish students.
Student Jessica Cheng said she hopes one day the students from each school will see beyond the stereotypes to each other.
"I think it's going to be pretty blurry at first," she said. "But as they get closer and closer, they'll be able to see each other."
Cara Solomon: 206-464-2024 or email@example.com
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