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, text, and even Skype, so why Portals? And why Portals in schools?

We live in an interconnected world, where information travels quickly, economies are intertwined, and events occurring on a distant continent often feel close to home. We spend hours emailing, texting, and curating our Instagram and Facebook pages. What’s often missing from social media and newspaper reports is the sense of truly knowing someone, the feeling of human connection. The typical American tween or teen leads a heavily-scheduled, scripted life without direct, focused conversations that lead to deeper understanding.

Schools, meanwhile, are increasingly committed to developing global competency, as they seek to engender among students an awareness of different cultures and value systems. Portals create the opportunity for full-­body, face-to-face discussions with people one has never met and may never meet again. They exist in communities all over the world, from refugee camps to innovation hubs to universities and schools, and are staffed by experienced curators and translators. They break down boundaries, physical and metaphorical, allowing us to essentially walk through the Internet. They have been described as "empathy machines." 

When students enter a Portal, they leave behind their own context and feel as if they are in the same room with people miles away. 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 better serve their communities by exploring global politics, economics, and social trends, and Portals provide an effective medium for global engagement. Portals allow educators to address such "21st century skills" as innovation, communication, collaboration, and creative problem solving. They 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

We work with educational institutions to develop Portal-related curricula. We have experience working with children of all ages, and we can tailor educational materials to suit your student body and mission. 

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 students and children in another country study the poetry of their respective nations. 

  • Elementary school 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.

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

  • Criminal justice class meets with formerly incarcerated individuals in one of our Criminal Justice Portals.

  • Americans students and kids in another country create a joint improvisational dance.

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

  • Art students create paintings and bring them to the Portal to be critiqued by an artist in another country.

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

We've worked with institutions to develop a variety of writing, drawing, and discussion prompts. Here are just a few ideas. 

Sample 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…
  • Some questions I still have after our Portal visit are…
  • Dear (person I met in the Portal)... 

Sample Drawing Prompts

  • Blind contour drawing - draw something without looking at the paper and while looking at your partner in the Portal
  • Back to back drawingsit back to back with someone in the Portal and describe an object they must draw

Sample Research Prompts

  • Given the political/economic issues of this country, what are some key issues to investigate?
  • How can Portals help build bridges between the United States and this country?
  • Research and write a brief historical study, focusing on the art or literature of a particular country.
  • Examine a particular moment in the history of this country and prepare a Power Point presentation for the class.
  • Read the newspaper to find out what is happening in this country today.

Sample Discussion Prompts

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

Additional Prompts

  • What does a perfect day look like? (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? 

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.