Greenwich Time: A Door to Human Connection

A stream of some 10 fourth-grade girls poured out of a metallic gold shipping container into the bright sunshine at Greenwich Academy. "Oh my gosh, that was so fun," several said, smiles on their faces. Inside, the students had been speaking with students in Honduras through a live stream, full-body video connection.  They talked about their favorite parts of school and what they like to do for fun with the help of a translator. 

The Honduran children said their favorite foods were pizza, fried chicken and potatoes. The Greenwich girls chorused their favorite in unison , "Steak!" 

Greenwich Academy and Brunswick School students talk with students in Honduras using an audio/visual portal at Greenwich Academy in Greenwich, Conn. Thursday, Sept. 22, 2016. The portal, a large gold-painted cargo container, allows students to have a full-body Skype experience with people accessing other portals around the world. The portal will be at Greenwich Academy until December 15 and will link to portals in Honduras, Rwanda, Iraq, a community center in downtown Milwaukee and other locations.

Greenwich Academy and Brunswick School students talk with students in Honduras using an audio/visual portal at Greenwich Academy in Greenwich, Conn. Thursday, Sept. 22, 2016. The portal, a large gold-painted cargo container, allows students to have a full-body Skype experience with people accessing other portals around the world. The portal will be at Greenwich Academy until December 15 and will link to portals in Honduras, Rwanda, Iraq, a community center in downtown Milwaukee and other locations.

The conversation was made possible by Greenwich Academy's Portal, installed last week. The portal is a freestanding cargo container designed for live Skype-style conversations with people using other portals around the world. The Portals Project was pioneered by artist and journalist Amar Bakshi and a team of interdisciplinary artists called Shared_Studios who wanted to provide people a chance to have free, unscripted conversations with strangers in other countries. The first portals opened in December 2014 and connected New York City and Tehran. Today, there are portals in 20 locations worldwide, including Berlin, Gaza City and Kigali and in the U.S. in San Francisco, Austin, Boulder, and one at the United Nations Headquarters in Manhattan. 

Greenwich Academy is the first American school, other than a university, to host a portal. "What immediately struck me about the Portal Project was that it is a completely values-driven initiative," said Head of School Molly King. It is all about facilitating meaningful interactions with others. Recognizing that nothing is more important than developing our character and displaying our humanity, we couldn't turn down the opportunity to be the first school in the United States to host a portal." King heard about the project from Greenwich Academy alumna Carrie Denning, who worked for Shared_Studios, last year. The school worked for the next seven months to bring a portal to GA. 

So far, students from Greenwich Academy and their brother school, Brunswick, have connected with people in Erbil, Iraq and El Progreso, Honduras. Spanish classes have used the portal to practice their language skills. Upper school history classes have taken the opportunity to discuss politics and current events in the Middle East. 

Each 20-minute connection is different said Kristen Erickson, the curator of the portal at Greenwich Academy, who schedules the connections and encourages teachers to use the portal. Some are very lighthearted - like when lraqi children challenged GA students to a dance off or when some GA eighth graders decided to teach Hondurans the dab" and "whip and nay nay” dance. Some connections are more poignant, as when Greenwich students heard about lraqi children describe the UNICEF refugee camp where they live. 

After visiting the portal and meeting people from lraq, I am feeling grateful for all that we are given," said upper schooler Karina Toub. "I realized that the kids in lraq are not much different from us. They enjoy doing similar activities as we do, such as soccer and tennis, and seem happy even with the conditions they live through everyday." Upper schooler Lexi Tramontano said during her conversation, Iraqi children wanted to discuss American music and instruments. "Being able to go in the portal, talk and sing with kids in a completely different country and living a completely different life, without even leaving campus is amazing," she said. King said,"When you listen to the reactions of those classes that have already taken advantage of the Portal Project, everything we envisioned for the students has already been realized.” 

Brunswick School freshman Jack Forrest exits the audio/visual portal after talking with students in Honduras at Greenwich Academy in Greenwich on Thursday. The portal, a large gold-painted cargo container, allows students to have a full-body Skype experience with people accessing other portals around the world. The portal will be at Greenwich Academy until Dec. 15 and will link to portals in Honduras, Rwanda, Iraq, a community center in downtown Milwaukee and other locations.

Brunswick School freshman Jack Forrest exits the audio/visual portal after talking with students in Honduras at Greenwich Academy in Greenwich on Thursday. The portal, a large gold-painted cargo container, allows students to have a full-body Skype experience with people accessing other portals around the world. The portal will be at Greenwich Academy until Dec. 15 and will link to portals in Honduras, Rwanda, Iraq, a community center in downtown Milwaukee and other locations.

Greenwich Academy will host the portal until mid December.  Community members are also welcome to make an appointment to use the portal. Interested individuals or groups should contact Erickson at kerickson@greenwichacademy.org. 

"GA wants to share this incredible resource with the broader community because, fundamentally, that's what the Portal Project is all about: promoting and celebrating our common humanity," said King. "Sharing the Portal Project stems naturally from our theme of citizenship this year and is a way for GA to show who we are as a local citizen in the community of Greenwich."