Grapevine third-graders make friends around the world

Posted Monday, Feb. 18, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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GRAPEVINE -- "There's Frank!" exclaimed Kristi Wagner's third-grade class at Grapevine's Dove Elementary School.

A smiling boy wearing a school uniform appeared on a video with two friends, and the trio waved and spoke in English.

Frank was in his own classroom in Pamplona, Spain, communicating through a Web-based educational program called ePals Global Community.

Think pen pals, without the pen. Or paper.

Frank's face time with the Dove students was not in real time, but it was reflective of the global bond forged this school year between Dove and a British school in Spain.

"I like Frank because he's nice and he's very funny," smiled Kristian Aquino, 8. He and his classmates all agreed that Frank's Harry Potter-like accent was a big favorite, and it has spawned a rash of imitators in the Dove classroom.

"We're creating global thinkers with this," said Wagner, who found the free ePals website before school started and decided it was just the thing for her reading, social studies and language arts students, who would be using iPads and MacBooks this year.

She created a classroom profile and matched it with similar classrooms in Spain and in French-speaking Reunion Island off the coast of Africa.

"We now have requests from a classroom in India, and two girls in a home school in England," Wagner announced to the class, which responded with enthusiasm.

The ideal student-to-student ratio is one to one, but Wagner said she has paired ePals on a two-to-one ratio as well.

"My Spain pen pal is named Elena and we found we have a lot in common. It's basically like email," said Emma Vertachnik, 8. When Elena spoke haltingly on video later, Emma moved closer to the screen to hear her.

One class sent the Dove students a group picture of themselves and a set of clues to try and guess which student was which.

The Dove students sent back a biography video and PowerPoint presentations on Texas.

Samantha Acosta, 9, made a nine-page PowerPoint of all things Texan to send to her pal in Spain.

"In Texas, we like to grill, a lot!" read the entry at the top of the food page, showing a barbecue pit with ribs and burgers. A flash of computer-generated fire over the image set the proper mood. She included pictures of bluebonnets, longhorns, a mockingbird and pecans, along with a footnote on what desserts can be made with pecans.

On the weather page, she described the climate and included a fearsome picture of a tornado.

"It took me about three days," Samantha said of preparing the presentation, which played out upon an Old West-themed background.

The PowerPoint she received from Pamplona includes information on the San Fermin festival (which includes the Running of the Bulls), a local Three Kings legend, and a listing of Pamplona's best food and restaurants. A map located the city near Spain's northern border with France.

"I like ePals because it gives you a chance to learn other cultures without even traveling there," said Jessie Farbisz, 9, though she admitted it makes her want to go to the places her ePals describe.

The students have been surprised to see how diverse the classrooms are, something they didn't expect.

"They're just like our classroom," Wagner said.

"I like that we can communicate with them and see what they're like," said Jacob Wirick, 8.

The education media company ePals developed the project-based network for K-12 student collaboration in a protected online environment.

Teachers on both sides review the outgoing and incoming communications in advance.

"It's a safe, enclosed system," Wagner said. "There are cultural projects that teachers can join, too."

The program has so far connected about 1 million classrooms in 200 countries and territories. Sponsors include National Geographic, the Smithsonian, International Baccalaureate and Cobblestone & Cricket magazine.

Online: www.epals.com

Shirley Jinkins, 817-390-7657

Twitter: @startelegram

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