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Janet Sheridan: Opening minds, opening hearts

Two teachers

In 1969, Mike, a fourth-grader of sparkling eyes and raucous behavior, contributed to a class discussion: “What the heck? Why wouldn’t white people drink from the same fountain as black people? That’s dumb. I say spit’s spit.”

As Mike’s teacher, I danced on the inside. His comment followed our reading of a story about George Washington Carver and drew giggles and agreement.

Today, I remember Mike’s forthrightness, motivated by my choice of material for a reading lesson, and admire the more complex and sustained lessons of teachers like Cheryl Arnett and Rawya Shatila.

But they, too, had lessons to learn.

Cheryl described their growth to me:

“Rawya and I hadn’t met face-to-face before we roomed together for four days at the Microsoft Forum. During that time, we had tough conversations about politics and religion — the elephants in our shared room.

“As a result of facing our differences, we solidified our friendship. We realized that though we may disagree in some areas, we relate as professionals working with young children and as humans navigating a shared world.

”Looking beyond cultural differences is key to our collaboration. Rawya and I both believe if children could meet each other when they are six and share their lives with each other, there would be less hatred in the world.

“My mind has been opened as much as those of my students.”

Editor's note: Craig Daily Press columnist and Denver Post contributor Janet Sheridan wrote the column below about Sunset Elementary School teacher Cheryl Arnett. The column originally appeared in the Nov. 7 edition of the Post.Editor’s note: Craig Daily Press columnist and Denver Post contributor Janet Sheridan wrote the column below about Sunset Elementary School teacher Cheryl Arnett. The column originally appeared in the Nov. 7 edition of the Post.

Editor's note: Craig Daily Press columnist and Denver Post contributor Janet Sheridan wrote the column below about Sunset Elementary School teacher Cheryl Arnett. The column originally appeared in the Nov. 7 edition of the Post.

When I was seven, my teacher clasped her hands in front of her prominent bosom, wobbled her chins and exclaimed, "Aren't we fortunate to be citizens of America, the greatest country of all; and to live in Utah, the best state of all!"

At first, I glowed with pride at the marvelous double play I had achieved. Then a question popped into my mind and pierced my rosy glow: What about the children who live in faraway places?

Our reading text was "Distant Lands." It contained stories of Juanita, Sharif, and Pierre; of children in the Alps and the Andes; of children living on islands lapped by waves or plains swept by wind — of children who seemed as happy with their lives as I was with mine.

Why, I wondered, was I so blessed and they weren't? It didn't seem fair.

My mental musings about children of the world and fairness ended with the shocking sight of Ruthie Tuckett eating toothpaste. I corrected her in a fierce whisper, smoothed my plaid dress over my knees, and wondered if the cafeteria ladies had baked cinnamon rolls for lunch.

My moment of personal enlightenment faded as quickly as it had flourished.

Then, last month, I heard about two teachers whose students, each year, meet children in other countries and get to know them: a straightforward, sustained activity that contrasts with attitudes and behaviors reported in our national news.

Across the United States, people protest the building of a mosque and community center near Ground Zero; Christians talk about burning the Koran; news magazines explore the reasons Muslims hate the United States; and pundits discuss the ease with which terrorist organizations recruit Arab youth to attack us.

But in Craig, Colorado, and Beirut, Lebanon, two rooms filled with curiosity and wriggling offer an antidote to hatred and mistrust in both cultures: the classrooms of Cheryl Arnett and Rawya Shatila where students with missing front teeth form friendships across borders.

On Aug. 2, at Microsoft's 2010 U.S. Innovative Education Forum in Washington, D.C., Cheryl and Rawya received top honors for teaching their first-grade students to use wiki sites, webcams, and digital stories to become 21st century pen pals; children who like each other and learn from one another: small ambassadors to the world.

Recently in Cheryl's classroom, I watched youngsters busily writing to their friends in Beirut. They wrote about four-wheelers skidding in the grass; the art of catching black-and-white spotted frogs; and a dog, adopted because it was a boy, which turned out to be a girl.

I heard their enthusiasm: "When I finish, I'm going to draw a big gardener snake on my letter, just in case they've never seen one," and appreciated their insight: "We have to spell right, because they're in a different country and might have trouble reading wrong words."

As I listened, I wondered if they would remember new thoughts about children in distant lands longer than I had. Could it be that youngsters who spend a school year with those of another nation will resist mindless mistrust of one another's cultures in the future?

A tour of last year's shared work gives me hope. Two youngsters not much taller than a yardstick showed me around.

Seth took me to the wiki sites the two classes shared. Business-like and bright, he competently maneuvered through folders, sites, and video clips at a pace that sent my technology-challenged head spinning.

"This is my favorite thing all day," he said, "Because we make friends in other places. We get to know them really good by writing letters and asking questions.

"Like, last year I wrote my favorite food is enchiladas and asked my pen pal about his. He said pizza. Funny, huh? When I said I liked to play football, he said he did too. But he was probably talking about soccer."

After asking if I'd seen enough — he must have noticed my whirling eyes — Seth returned to his writing and Logan rolled over in a wheelchair to continue my instruction. A youngster nearby informed me that Logan is the best in class at Google Earth because he uses it to examine Craig for good motorcycle jumps to do when his leg heals — the leg he broke doing motorcycle jumps.

My adventurous new guide approached his task with flying fingers and confidence, manipulating an iPod to zero in on Lebanon: "There's Beirut. That's where our friends live."

"What do you think of their city?" I asked.

"It's cool. Different from Craig. There aren't many trees and stuff, though."

Maybe Logan will someday discover that Beirut isn't as green as Craig because war has stripped away most of its trees. Maybe he won't. But I am confident he will discover friendships he'll take with him as he leaves Cheryl's class: friendships to serve as an antidote to an automatic dislike of those who speak less-than-perfect English, live in houses not shadowed by trees, play soccer instead of football.

That evening, on Rawya's website, I watched a video clip the children in Beirut made for their friends in Craig.

To practice speaking English, they read aloud a story, "The Lucky Seed," along with a slide show of its illustrations. In the story, a seed falls out of a farmer's bag. It is planted by a footstep, watered by rain and nurtured by the sun.

"All day the seed sat in the sun and grew taller and taller," children's expressive voices piped to a picture of a seed basking in the sun, wearing cool shades, with a green shoot sprouting from its head, growing tall.

As I watched, I appreciated two teachers with open minds and open hearts who each year plant seeds and nurture them, so their students can stand in the sun, wearing welcoming smiles, with understanding sprouting from their heads — growing taller and taller.