Why Portals

A video about Portals created by Greenwich Academy.

Portals are gold-­‐painted shipping containers that provide live connections to individuals around the world. Today, we can pick up a phone and call someone, we can text and even Skype, so why Portals?

We live in an interconnected world, when information travels quickly, economies are intertwined, and events occurring on another continent sometimes feel close to home. What’s missing from our Twitter feeds, Facebook posts, and newspapers is the sense of truly knowing someone, the feeling of human connection.

Our schools increasingly embed global competency into their mission statements, and certainly it is as crucial as ever to engendering in our students an awareness of different cultures and value systems. But the typical American tween or teen leads a heavily scheduled and often scripted life, without the direct, focused conversations that lead to deeper understanding.

To put it briefly, today’s youth communicate constantly but rarely engage. Portals encourage full-­‐body, face-to-face discussions with people one has never met and may not meet again. When you enter the Portal, you leave behind your own context as does your partner, and external sounds are filtered out. Both parties feel as if they are in the same room. Many report that time stands still. The intensity of the human interaction is the real power of Portals. Children, it turns out, have the same hopes and dreams all over the world.

Matching Your Mission

Public and private schools have recognized the importance of fostering global competence in their students. Schools can serve their communities and foster a deeper understanding of global politics, economics, and social trends by engaging students through dialogue with educational institutions around the globe. Portals address 21st century skills such as collaboration and teamwork, creativity and imagination.

They can support learning across all grade levels and in various academic disciplines, including but not limited to:

  • Social studies and history
  • Geography
  • Foreign language
  • Fine and performing arts
  • Civics and government
  • Criminal justice

Working with Greenwich Academy, we are developing a unique Portals pedagogy. Some examples of K-12 classes, lesson plans, and activities follow. These are suggestions for education-based Portal engagements. We’ve seen these in action and can provide you with more ideas.

  • American and Iranian students study the poetry of their respective nations. They are given a prompt and write their own poetry, then share and compare their responses in the Portal.

  • Elementary aged students read their favorite storybooks or sing songs to children in another country.

  • Foreign language classes engage in dialogue on a chosen topic in the target language.

  • Study diversity group holds a meeting in the Portal to explore issues with children in another American city.

  • Class studying criminal justice meets with formerly incarcerated individuals in the Milwaukee Portal, which was established to focus on these issues.

  • Americans and Afghanis create (and videotape) a joint improvisational dance.

  • A joint talent show is hosted in the Portal, with students trading acts.

  • Art class creates paintings and brings them to the Portal to be critiqued by an artist in another country.

  • Children engage in robotics or engineering project through the Portal, using different materials but similar instructions.

  • A play on "Exquisite Corpse" - a method of collectively creating a piece of writing (such as a poem) or an image. Usually, how it works is that one person writes a line on a sheet of paper, then folds it over to conceal it, and passes it to the next person and then he/she adds another line. It can also be done with a single image, where each person adds something new to the image. While in a portal, you couldn't share a single piece of paper, you could have each student write a line in his/her own notebook and then go around and read them aloud and them maybe collect them all together. You can give the students parameters--for example, everyone must use the word "shimmer" in their line, or, everyone describe the image you see when you hear the word, "shimmer." Or you could do this with no parameters at all, and simply create a surreal or "nonsense" work of art collectively.
  • Listen to a song together and have students write a poem while listening, or they can simply free write/free associate what the song brings up for them. Then the two sides can share and compare reactions to the music.

  • Start with a shared image. Participants on both sides can look at the image and write on a series of prompts, such as: What do you see in this image? What do you not see (what seems to be missing)? Write a letter to a person or object in the image. Then imagine that the person or object could write back to you---what would he/she/it say?

  • Participants on both sides could swap favorite lines/quotations from books, songs, poems, speeches, etc. and then write short pieces based on another person's quotation. Before teaching each other about the context for each quote, they can discuss how they reacted to the quote without any context for it at all--what it made them think of, etc. 

  • Participants could create a character together and then write short, creative pieces from the point of view of this character. Decide together on the character's main features, qualities, fears, desires, etc. 

 (with thanks to Aisha Gawad!)

Blind Contour Drawing Portraits

  • An activity in which students draw something without looking at the paper
  • Students look at an object or another person (say, another person in the Portal)
  • They draw the person they face without looking at their paper
  • They can stand or sit
  • They draw in a continuous line without picking up pencil
  • They have a short time (say 3 minutes) to complete their drawing
  • This forces students to look carefully at the person in the Portal
  • At the end, they share their drawings by showing them to each other

Back-to-Back Drawing

  • Have a student sit back-to-back with someone on the other end of the Portal
  • One person has a shape/image on a sheet of paper (the other person isn’t allowed to see it) 
  • The shape/drawing could be simple - maybe: 
  • A star, moon, sun
  • A cube, spiral
  • A flag
  • The person holding the image must describe it so the person on the other side of the Portal can duplicate it exactly
  • You can vary this - one person giving directions to a group, for example 


Five Dots Game

  • Students are told to draw 5 dots anywhere on the paper (no other instructions)
  • They are then told to make one dot part of a head (eyes? nose?)
  • They must then incorporate two dots into arms/hands
  • They then make the last two dots part of legs
  • The results are often crazy, twisted up humans (or animals) 


“Exquisite Corpse” (a technique invented by the Surrealists)

  • An additive drawing exercise, in which each person adds something
  • Each student draws a head (for example, could be anything) and lines for a neck
  • Students fold the paper over to hide head but show lines for the neck and hand paper to the next person
  • Next person adds a body and draws lines for the legs
  • Next person adds the legs and draws lines for shoes
  • Last person draws the shoes
  • Vary this by drawing other objects or by using words to create amusing word art
  • To adapt this to the Portal, perhaps have four children sit opposite four other children in the Portal; have the first student draw the head and show it across the Portal before passing it, etc. 
  • Have the last girl pass the final folded drawing up and pass it back to the first student, who shares it with the group 


Folded Paper Art

  • Students fold a sheet of paper in half
  • They take one flap and fold it backwards, in half again
  • They make a drawing across the folds (see right)
  • They unfold the drawing and fill in the space between to create a variation on their drawing
  • Here’s a website that shows this project: http://craftwhack.com/surprise-ferocious-beings-paper-project
  • These materials will be available in the gallery for use in these project: Paper, 12 Clipboards, Pencils and markers

(with thanks to Erin Riley!)

 The tried and true prompt for a Portal discussion is: What would make today a good day for you?

Additional Discussion or Writing Prompts

  • If you wish, you add to that or alter it… here are some suggested prompts:  
  • What does a perfect day look like? (You could have kids talk, write, draw…)
  • For what are you most grateful? 
  • Of what are you most proud? 
  • What would you like to tell us about your culture? 
  • What do you hear about American culture? 
  • What is a treasured memory for you? 
  • What do you think is most important in a friend? 
  • What is something we both share? 
  • Give the kids the task of completing the sentence “We both…” (or if many are in the room, “We all…”)

Amnesty International has done a project where two people sit in silence facing each other for 4 minutes. They have often paired refugees with a native of a country. The results have been remarkable! 

Suggested Guidelines for Discussion

  • Many of the children you will meet in Iraq have fled their homes. Avoid discussions of possessions, which may have been lost. Avoid questions about the violence and war in Iraq, though if they bring it up feel free to ask questions, but be thoughtful and careful. Some may have lost family members - sensitivity is the key. Their futures are uncertain. 
  • Many of the people you’ll meet in Honduras attend high school (we will likely have younger children for the younger Middle School GA students). Most live in relative poverty. 
  • The Portal is sponsored by the Organization for Youth Empowerment (OYE), so the goal is to break the cycle of poverty and encourage young leaders. We can help give kids in Honduras opportunities to see themselves as leaders, to see an opportunity to make a difference. 
  • Those entering the Portal have hope and want to engage and learn. What can we learn from them? 
  • Remember: other cultures may not encourage people to speak as often, as loudly, as confidently as we do. Give people time… don’t be afraid of a little silence… let the Portal work its magic!

Before the Portal visit

  • Introduce students to the partner Portal location.
  • Have students locate the relevant city and country on a map.
  • Look up the country on Timeforkids.com, Brittanica, or similar.
  • Fill out the geography questionnaire below.
  • If visiting multiple locations, engage in a larger class-wide or school-wide mapping project, placing stickers on a world map.

Student Worksheet: Before the Portal Visit

  • We will be connecting to a Portal in _________________________________ [City, Country]
  • This Portal is located on this continent: ______________________________ [Continent]
  • The major languages of the country are: _____________________________ [Languages spoken]
  • Key geographical features include: __________________________________ [Mountains, Rivers, Deserts]
  • I would describe the climate as: ____________________________________ [Cold, Dry, Warm]
  • Draw the flag of the country here:

Have students write down on notecards two questions they’d like to ask in the Portal. Students can either carry the notecards or turn them in to the teacher.

After the Portal visit

  • If time permits, have students draw or write immediately after the Portal visit.
  • Younger students can write down words or phrases. Older students can write a short paragraph describing their impressions.

Writing prompts

  • After visiting the Portal today, I am feeling…
  • What surprised me most about the Portal visit today is…
  • If I had two more minutes in the Portal, I would have asked…
  • Some questions I still have after our Portal visit are…
  • Write a letter to one of the people you met in the Portal…

Drawing prompts

  • Sketch one of the new friends you made in the Portal.
  • Draw a picture that explains how you were feeling while you were in the Portal.
  • Imagine the Portal could transport you to the other location; what would your journey look like?
  • How many people can fit in the Portal?
    Depends on the size of the people. You can fit four adults easily. You can fit more young children!
  • How long are traditional Portal visits?
    The original idea for Portals involves twenty-minute conversations, usually centered on a universal prompt like "What would make today a good day for you?" But longer times and different types of interactions can be arranged.

  • How does one book time in the Portal?
    Through the website that Shared_Studios, the host institution, sets up.

  • Should we just talk in the Portal?
    Feel free to get creative. You could dance, sing, draw, read stories... the possibilities are endless. Portal curators communicate with each other to help you plan activities.

  • How will we bridge the foreign language gap?
    The folks at Shared_Studios will hire find translators for Portals as needed.

  • How big is a Portal?
    The shipping container is 20 x 10 x 10 feet. However, there are other options including a Portal Screen that can fit into a smaller space.

  • How many Portals are there in the world?
    New Portals are always opening, but on average there are about twenty operating at any one time. Some are established for short-term engagements, others for longer periods.

  • Are there any Portals in the USA?
    Portals were established in downtown Milwaukee, Newark, Chicago, and Los Angeles to focus on police-community relations and criminal justice. Several schools and universities have hosted Portals as well.

  • Can we connect to more than one location?
    Yes, though the Portal network operates most efficiently when two locations are connected for an extended period.

  • Will the Portal require a great deal of technical support from my institution? The Portal requires a standard electrical plug and an Ethernet connection. Most of the tech support can be done remotely.