The world gets smaller every day.
Thanks to technological tools such as the Internet and e-mail, people in the United States can easily communicate with others around the globe -- if they speak one another's language. Enter Jenny Kopeliof.
Kopeliof, who teaches Spanish at Milken Community High School of Stephen S. Wise Temple, was looking for an opportunity to use these tools in her classroom. She also wanted to help improve her students' Spanish-speaking skills.
"I wanted to apply technology in my classroom," Kopeliof said. "I thought the best way was to have real communication with a Hispanic community."
So Kopeliof created a cross-cultural exchange program between students at Milken and the Colegio Israelita de Mexico in Mexico City.
During the three-phase program, students from both schools first interacted with each other and became acquainted through e-mail correspondence. Milken students helped set up e-mail accounts for the Mexican students on the Milken e-mail server.
Milken students were then given an assignment to converse with their new friends in Spanish and to learn about the Jewish community in Mexico and how the community participates in Mexican society, art and customs. Along with e-mail, students used chat rooms and created Microsoft PowerPoint presentations as part of their assignments.
For the final stage of the project, Milken students will apply all their acquired knowledge and skills to create an English-Spanish children's book. Kopeliof says that at first her students worried the assignment would be too difficult, but those fears vanished once they began interacting with their Mexican counterparts.
"I found the project good on a number of fronts," said Michael Richman, who helped set up much of the program's technological aspects. "I was able to practice my Spanish and be corrected by a native Spanish speaker."
Richman, a 16-year-old junior, said the students "were able to speak about things that were both interesting to us and them"outside the classroom setting.
It also allowed them to converse more freely.
"Here you were able to talk to someone you did not see. You could be more open," he said.
Another student, Diana Hekmat, 16, said, "It is a different way of learning when you speak Spanish with someone your age than from a Spanish teacher. It is a much greater experience."
Hekmat says that besides correcting her grammar, her correspondence with the Mexican students taught her things shenever would have found in her Spanish textbook, such as common expressions and slang.
Her teacher said that was one of the reasons for the exchange program.
"Sometimes books have old ideas," Kopeliof said. "There are also some everyday expressions that are not found in books."
Another reason for the exchange program was for the Milken students to learn about Jewish life in another country.
"I wanted them to compare the way they live to the way others live in another country," Kopeliof said. "They are learning about different cultures and about living as a Jew in another part of the world."
Some 15 students from Mexico who participated in the exchange program recently came to Los Angeles to visit the city and to meet and stay with the Milken students.
"We were able to live in an American Jewish home," said Jimmy Finkler, 15. "We got to see relations between families."
It was also a chance to see the sights.
"It's a great opportunity to come to L.A.," said Jessica Lewinsky, 15. The Mexican contingent went to Disneyland and was part of the audience at a taping of the TV show "Everybody Loves Raymond." The students also attended Friday night services at Stephen S. Wise Temple. Despite coming from a different place, many of the Mexican students said that not much is different between their lives and those of their American counterparts.
"Basically it is the same," Lewinsky said. The connecting bond, she added, is Judaism.
"It is good that you can drop into a home anywhere around the world and you have Torah, and it is the universal language of the Jewish people," she said.
Finkler, echoed his classmate's observation. "I feel good knowing that when I go somewhere else, I see that the Jewish community is similar to the one I grew up in," he said.
For the most part, the Milken students agreed with the Mexican teens.
"There are similarities, like dating, school stress, curfew and preparation-for-college stress," Diana Hekmat said.
Some found obvious differences.
"In a way it seems like [their] society is more dangerous," said. Hekmat. "They are worried about kidnappings. It is frightening to think that you have to worry about being held for ransom."
According to Richman, the Mexican students discussed the dichotomy between the wealthy and the poor. Jews, who are often assumed to be rich, have been kidnapped and held for ransom.
"They aren't able to live as open as us," Richman said. "They can't be outwardly Jewish. They have lots of security around synagogues, schools and Jewish organizations."
The students also found some less-harrowing differences.
Students at Colegio Israelita de Mexico are fluent in Hebrew and Yiddish.
"Their Jewish education is more intense, and they are much more connected to Israel than we are," said Hekmat, who added that virtually all of the students she met had already been to Israel. "Their relationship with Israel and Judaism is much tighter than ours."
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