Joey Duffield, Melinda Leal and Finn Canton, third graders at the Winthrop School, stand in a black room about the size of a walk-in closet, with a gold exterior and held up by blowing air, in the Winthrop School music room.
Two waist-high lights, two or three fingers wide, light the space and on a life-size screen Kathleen Conrad and Karen Manning stand and talk to the students about Richmond, Va. -- because that’s where they are.
Duffield, Leal and Canton speak to the two adults via a portal that connects instantly to locations around the world.
The James River runs through Richmond, Conrad and Manning explain, and ask the students if Ipswich is near a river or the ocean.
The students answer. The Ipswich River runs through downtown Ipswich and the town lies on the Atlantic Ocean.
Canton launches into a brief fishing lesson: “If you go up to Maine, you can get catfish,” he explains.
Manning asks about a beach outing she’s heard Ipswich schools have each year and the students enthusiastically explain it, right down to the lunch served.
Conrad and Manning say goodbye and a cable car in San Francisco appears, which the portal curator at Winthrop, C.J. Morse, explains; Conrad and Manning are the Richmond curators.
A quick flick and a palm tree in Los Angeles shows up on screen.
Next Sunday, the portal will open to Amman, Jordan and all are welcome.
For two weeks, students, teachers, parents and community members will have access to the Shared Studios portal at Winthrop Elementary School. Ipswich residents of all ages come face-to-face with someone in other parts of the world thanks to the portals. They contain video and audio hookups to facilitate real time conversations with people connected through various networks all over the world.
The organization, based out of Brooklyn, N.Y., was founded by two former CNN journalists, Michelle Moghtader and Amar Bakshi. They first connected a gallery in New York to a portal in Tehran, Iran through a shared video feed. Their fleet of portals has now grown to 21 in North America, two in Europe, five in Africa, five in the Middle East, eight in Asia and Oceania and two in South and Central America.
Staff at Winthrop first learned of Shared Studios when they discovered that nearby Andover has a portal in their community.
“Our school librarian, Karen Sekiguchi, is always looking for new and innovative ideas,” Winthrop principal Sheila McAdams said. “She discovered the portal in Andover and said that we have to try to bring this here.”
Most of the portals are created from gold 8-by-20-foot shipping containers and take root permanently in their communities.
But the organization also offers smaller, portable pop-up portals for shorter term use.
McAdams and Sekiguchi secured a grant from The Institution for Savings to bring the portal for a two-week visit to Winthrop.
“The Institution for Savings has always been fantastic to us,” McAdams said. “We’re so lucky that they saw the benefit in a project like this. Without their support it would have been difficult to make happen.”
Every portal, which can hold up to 50 people, is staffed by a curator – someone who facilitates dialogue, provides live language interpretation and works to make the connections between communities personal. Some portals are in public parks. Others are on university campuses. The portal in Iraq is located in a refugee camp.
McAdams said that she and the Winthrop staff have been working on integrating global studies into the students’ learning opportunities at school.
“We really want students to understand that they are part of a larger, global world,” McAdams said. “We want them to be aware and sensitive to the fact that how they live is not how everyone lives. It’s important to us that they leave Winthrop with a much greater understanding of the world around them, both locally and internationally.”
McAdams said that teachers have been brainstorming different ways that they can use the portal with their students. Every student in the school will get an opportunity to participate.
“We might see our kindergarteners sing a song to a group of children in Afghanistan or Iraq, or fourth graders reading stories to university students in Honduras,” McAdams said. “Teachers may talk about integrating technology into classrooms with other adults in Mexico City. Community members could stop in to have a chat with someone in Jordan. The possibilities are endless.”
Most of the connections to other portals will take place during the school day, but McAdams has arranged for open community times, too. Anyone from the local community is invited to attend the open dates. Pre-registration is not required.
“We really see this as a way to connect Ipswich with wonderful communities around the world,” McAdams said. “You never know who you may speak with or what topics might be covered. We hope that the community, like our students, gets a chance to see a new part of the world.”