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The view from South Waikato

Schools all over the world are taking a closer look at their surroundings for a global e-mail project, writes Pat Davidson.

Imagine that, instead of a postcard, you're sending a word picture of the view from your window. . . or perhaps you'd rather give your 'view' on world events, or people . . ." That is the suggestion I've been sending over the past year to everyone who has subscribed to "My-View", the Chatback project currently running on the Internet.

"Views" have appeared via electronic mail from all corners of the world from New Zealand, Hawaii, Estonia, Belgium and Denmark, Hong Kong, South Africa, Canada, the US and Britain and been shared with everyone on the list.

Chatback was originally set up in 1987 to provide opportunities in over 100 schools in this country and abroad for children with physical or emotional difficulties to communicate with one another by electronic mail (e-mail).

The personal exchange proved to be invaluable; children showed considerable improvement in their communication skills in the classroom and home as well as on e-mail. One boy with emotional difficulties who had not previously communicated with his teachers or peers was eventually able to rejoin mainstream schooling.

Next, educational projects were introduced to provide greater stimulus for writing. More teachers and schools became interested, and Chatback now has people of all ages and abilities from all over the world taking part. I can only guess at the authors by their addresses, quality of writing or from private messages sent to my personal mailbox. Otherwise, I have no idea of their age, sex, colour or ability.

Projects have been "Breakfast-Second Helpings", "A Different World", "Remembering", "Far Star", "Time Capsule" and the "Steel Yacht Race". Replies have mostly fallen into three categories: a physical description of the view from the window of a car, school or home; a comparison between the beauty of nature, as seen in the "view", and the imperfection of human beings; a personal "view" on someone or on some event.

Vivid word pictures conjure up places which have been only names to me, until now. From the United States: "My view as I walk down the street in Minneapolis sometimes amazes me. My feet lead me through mazes of tremendous structures and architectural masterpieces. I travel along sidewalks created with thousands of bricks, each one different, but enough the same to create an even and symmetrical effect. There is an aroma of fresh coffee that lingers on the air, surrounding every tiny cafe along the busy urban sidewalk. The constant noises of city buses and shiny cars fit perfectly with the bright colours of the frequently changing traffic lights . . . " From New Zealand: "The South Waikato is well-known as a dairy farming region. From our windows we see rolling hills, distant forests and, in the foreground, a mill where the timber is processed for export to Japan and the Pacific Islands . . ." Finally, an excerpt from the "View" sent by the present and last Governor of Hong Kong, Christopher Patten, in which he compares the view from Government House in 1855 when it was first built, as illustrated in a painting hanging in one of the rooms, with the present view: "The sweep of buildings that fills my view is extraordinary. It marks Hong Kong as one of the most vigorous and exciting communities on earth, but I don't imagine my predecessor in 1855 ever dreamed that anything like this would ever happen. I wonder what he would make of it if he saw it now."

In one composition on nature and humans, the author sees himself as in a painting: "As I stand there gazing into the golden-clay sky, and at endless pale blue mountains, everything becomes clearer. At that instant I step out of the painting, I am no longer just another part of the scenery. I am able to step back and become an observer . . . Though I still see myself in this picture, I also see a hungry child, a lonely man in a street corner, a boy with a gun in his hand . . . a baseball game. Most of the time we are too caught up in our own lives, and forget that life is going on all around us. We are merely a drop of paint on its great canvas."

Some responses can be unintentionally funny: "Hello, I'm a student and I'm only learning how to participate in Internet projects. I was to ask too: can hier, in this project, write also in germani? I can't write in English gut."

What do teachers and parents think of the project? One teacher wrote to my personal mailbox address: "The students are so troubled by problems, both global and very near in their environments. They seek first the negative, and only after much thought and discussion, can they find positive. Their school life is tough, as they, in lots of ways, don't fit into "the norm", as labelled by society. It is readers who view the world through a positive focus. . . who can reach these gifted learners and make a statement, 'It's OK to be different'."

Travelling the world by electronic mail, and looking at it through the eyes of others, is a rewarding experience. Next year's e-mail projects are still under discussion, but will probably include indigenous peoples and how the English language differs according to where it's spoken. Do join us next year and make friends from all over the world.

Pat Davidson, educational advisor, Chatback.

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