Imagine walking into a high school classroom and listening to a class discussion about Human Rights. Sounds interesting but not unusual, right? Now imagine that the students are not only from the Pittsburgh area, but also Texas, South Africa and Brazil. That is exactly what my social studies students at Cornell High School and students from other high schools in Western PA have been doing since 2009 thanks to an ongoing collaboration between The World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh and the Allegheny Intermediate Unit’s AlleghenyCONNECT.

I’m sure right now you are thinking about six or more schools being connected through a webcam and Skype. Maybe a group of teenagers huddled around a monitor. This isn’t Skype, these are high definition videoconferences where students are able to see the facial expressions of their peers halfway around the globe. Imagine watching Ken Rice on KDKA and him being able to see and hear you as clearly as you see and hear him.

What I find most exciting about these sessions is that there are these intense moments, like when the students in South Africa talked about a recent march to end violence against women or when the students in Brazil talked about picnicking in common areas of the city to try to make them safe. Mixed in are also lighter moments, like when Dr. Steven Sokol, CEO of The World Affairs Council, began an impromptu conversation in German with a foreign exchange student who was at Riverside High School.

The power of these video conferences really struck me last school year. We were all watching the Occupy Wall Street protests. In class we had been talking about the difficulty in identifying culpability for the recent mortgage crisis. Who is more at fault, the bankers who lent money to folks they knew would have difficulty paying back or the people who were borrowing more money than they could afford? The next day we are in a videoconference with students in Athens and they were talking about the riots over the financial crisis. Students are making these powerful connections between their own life and experiences with their global peers and it is adding this interesting dynamic of intensity and anticipation to class. Everyday class discussions are richer because we are exploring and learning together.

The World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh offered their first videoconference to schools in 2009 during the G-8 Summit. Since then, they offer frequent opportunities for schools on a wide variety of topics and with policy experts. Last year they started an experiment that has evolved into the International Youth Forums. The IYFs are a series of videoconferences with the same participants five times throughout the school year, all moderated by Dr. Sokol. This year the focus is on topics related to the One Young World Summit. The students voted on five topics they want to discuss. The World Affairs Council puts together background materials for students to review and during each meeting two schools host, a local school and an international school. The host schools are responsible for making a presentation on the selected topic. Students are able to share PowerPoint slides or student-created videos for their presentations; the world is truly their stage.

Through these conversations our students are beginning to realize that we are all in this together. Although we might live a world apart, things such as poverty, access to education and healthcare, national security and the economy are all going to play a tremendous role in our collective future. We are finding common bonds and that is truly the most important lesson. One of my seniors, Jessica, put it quite simply when writing about our most recent videoconference, “It made me want to change.”