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February 16, 1997

Pawtucket class travels
Web to Japan, Canada

By Timothy C. Barmann

They call it the Japan Project, but this lesson is about a lot more than just geography.

Students in a 10th-grade English class at Pawtucket's Tolman Senior High have been "meeting" with their counterparts in Japan and Canada in an electronic exchange program for which they never have to step outside their classrooms.

It's part of the Virtual Classroom project, sponsored by AT&T, that uses the worldwide tentacles of the Internet to bring together students from 153 schools, including 41 from the United States.

Tolman is the sole Rhode Island school involved in the program, which began in October and will wrap up this month.

The 153 schools were divided into groups of three to work on a collaborative project. Each group then has to present their work as a Web site (the Tolman group is http://www.jp.kids-commons.net/vc96/vc-40/index.html). The students communicate by e-mail or through live chat sessions that take place on the World Wide Web.

 [Web page with group picture of the Tolman students] Tolman was matched with Brookfield High School in Ottawa, Canada, and with Izumi Senior High School in Sendai City, Japan.

The students introduced themselves to each other last fall. The teacher at the Japanese school broke the ice.

"Hello! I'm Hiroyuki Kasuya . . . Our school is in Sendai City, Miyagi Prefecture, about 300 km north of Tokyo."

Tolman student Mike Pastore wrote back. "Hi Kazuhiro, Hello how are you. Wow I am talking to someone in Japan. Pretty cool. So working on this project should be fun. Well gotta go."

The idea behind the collaboration is to show the students that they have more in common than they might think.

 [Portraits that appear on Japan school's Web page] "One of our primary goals was to foster the idea that kids are kids," said Patricia O'Donnell, who enrolled her sixth-period English class in the project. "Kids are pretty much the same worldwide."

The official language for the project is English, which made for some interesting exchanges.

Tolman student Marie Panciotti recalled one message from a Japanese boy who said that "he hadn't walked for a week and now his dog was fat."

Of course the Pawtucket and Ottawa teens had the home-court advantage of being able to speak in their native tongue.

Despite the language barrier, the students communicated with each other quite well, said O'Donnell.

In fact, many of the Tolman students found themselves drawn more toward the Japanese than to the Canadians because of the language and cultural differences.

"We called this `the Japan Project,' " said Pastore.

One of the lessons Pastore and the other students learned was that Japanese culture is much more influenced by the United States than our country is by Japan.

"They asked us if we knew Meg Ryan," he said. But he resisted the opportunity to trump up a brush-with-greatness story. He explained he knew who she was but he didn't know her.

Marie Panciotti also learned that Japanese have a much more rigorous curriculum than American students have. One Japanese student, Tomohiro Ohno, wrote that he has been studying English for four years. Then he asked, "How long have you been studying Japanese?"

As the students worked together, they found lots of similarities. They surveyed classmates with topics ranging from dating frequency to fashion styles to music tastes. They came up with lists of what students do at home and at school on a typical day.

Buying CDs, watching television, sleeping in on the weekends and talking to friends on the phone appear to be universal teenage activities.

Each school had a section on something unique to their area. That's where "Rhodonics" comes in.

Tolman students Alyssa Nunes and Heather Hilton assembled a section by that name, with some inspiration from columnist Mark Patinkin and artist Don Bousquet. The Web page includes some of the classic Rhode Island phrases, such as "jeet" and "nevamin," which were cross-referenced with their meaning ("Did you eat?" and "Never mind").

Imagine what the Japanese students, or even the Canadian students, must have thought when they tried to make sense of that.

O'Donnell said the project has been valuable not only for the cultural lessons it has taught the students, but also for the computer training as well. Many of her students had never used the Internet or even a computer before her class, she said. Now, her students are designing their own personal Web pages.

Free-Net changes

The Ocean State Free-Net has a new help-line phone number. It is 272-5388. Callers are asked to leave their name, phone number, user name and a message on the answering machine, and someone will call back. The Free-Net has a new address it uses to collect donations. It is 10 Davol Square, 3rd Floor, Providence, R.I. 02903.

Computer calendar

Tuesday -- A representative from American Power Conversion, manufacturer of surge suppressors and battery backup systems, will demonstrate the company's product line at the monthly meeting of the PC Users Group at 7 p.m. in the East Conference Room of the Community College of Rhode Island, Warwick. Cost is free. At 6:45 p.m. there will be a general discussion, along with a question and answer session. For more information, call Louis Stein at 739-2810, send e-mail to louisstein@aol.com or see the group's Web site at http://ids.net/~louissn/ribcs.html.

Saturday -- The Rhode Island Apple Group will hold a beginning class in Quicken, the money management program, from 9 a.m. to noon at the Gordon Middle School computer lab at 45 Maxfield Ave., East Providence. Cost is $20 for members and $35 for non-members. (Membership costs $30 for the first year.) To register, call Maggie Holmes at 433-3192 before Thursday.

Timothy C. Barmann is a Journal-Bulletin staff writer. His column runs every other Sunday on the On Line page. Send him comments via e-mail at tim@cybertalk.com or U.S. mail, c/o the Journal-Bulletin, 75 Fountain St., Providence, R.I. 02902.