I first fed my interest in faraway countries in a bright yellow geography classroom at St John the Baptist school in Woking, Surrey. Maps, documentaries and school trips all helped to answer my questions about why some people go hungry while others build food mountains; and why teenagers will walk 10km just to go to school.
So when my VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas) placement in Cambodia was confirmed, I started to think about linking St John's present geography students with students in Cambodia. Before leaving the UK I took an assembly and lessons with a Year 9 group on Cambodia's history and general development issues. I used PowerPoint slides to illustrate the evacuation of Phnom Penh, 30 years ago this month. The Khmer Rouge encouraged fear of the educated and, by the end of Pol Pot's brutal regime, teachers and schools were a rarity. The Year 9s' initial excitement at the thought of not having to go to school soon faded as they imagined leaving behind their ambitions and friends, to be forced to work in rice fields. Suddenly walking 10km to school didn't seem so crazy.
It was arranged that when I'd connected with a secondary school in Cambodia, the students would exchange monthly letters via my email address.
Once in Cambodia, the choice of which secondary to use as the linking school was determined by there only being one in my province with both computers and electricity. I met the headteacher, two deputy heads, the English teacher, the caretaker, the school guard, and a few other key participants, to explain what the link was. It earned me undeserved thanks for "choosing" their school. I then arranged some introductory lessons with their Year 9 group and booked some time in the donated computer lab. It was a good opportunity to use creative teaching methods, which, in the rote learning environment of Cambodia's classrooms, are considered revolutionary.
The excited Cambodian students drew Big Ben and burgers - things they associated with England - to illustrate maps. The introductory lesson on England turned into an introduction to English and the class prepared questions ready for their letters. As I tried to explain the grammatical construction of, "Do you have rice in England?" and "Do you know David Beckham?" I realised the link with England had, in many ways, already been made for these students. Adverts, pop songs and badly dubbed soaps already provided limited answers to their questions about distant countries.
The letter exchanges will hopefully challenge the Cambodian students'
perception that all western teenagers eat burgers not rice. However, perhaps there's a deeper dimension to linking schools. In communicating directly with western students, who automatically assume their rights and opportunities, students in developing countries can learn that they too have the right to realise their ambitions and to challenge systems that thwart them. Linking students across the globe can raise international awareness, thereby encouraging questioning and enabling a generation of critical youngsters to challenge the perceptions they inherit and demand explanations for global inequality.
Hannah Snowden is working for VSO's youth development programme (www.vso.org.uk) in Cambodia . The TES Make the Link campaign promotes partnerships between British and overseas schools. Campaign details at www.tes.co.ukMake_the_Link