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'Pen pals' who Skype make the world smaller

Fifth-graders at Ben Franklin School in Grand Forks wave to fifth-graders at their sister school in Norway via Skype during breakfast at the school Tuesday.

GRAND FORKS -- Standing in front of a computer screen, fifth-grader Hannah SnoBeck of Ben Franklin Elementary held up a page of her homework. Above her, the blurred image of students in Kongsvinger, Norway, filled a projection screen.

"This is what our math work looks like," she told them. "We're working on circle graphs in math. On the back, we have long division problems for practice."

Using video conferencing software Skype, the two fifth-grade classrooms bridged thousands of miles between them Tuesday as they displayed their notebooks, textbooks and other bits of their daily life to each other in a more modern version of a pen pal arrangement.

Ben Franklin is the only school in the district that currently uses Skype for international discussion, and the results have been positive.

Students that day were willing to start school at 7:30 a.m. just to hold the talk, and their counterparts in Kongsvinger, which is an hour south of Oslo, stayed after school, said Ben Franklin teacher Alice Smith.

"What they get is that global awareness -- that there are kids in another place in the world that are just like them, with the same interests, wanting the same things, liking the same things," she said. "They just get a better picture of the world and that we're not limited to what we have just right here."

'Small world'

Ben Franklin students dressed in pajamas as part of the early morning chat but weren't too tired to ask questions ("Do you like Justin Bieber? Do you have Google Chrome there?"), sing "Happy Birthday" to a fellow Norwegian student or share vacation spots.

Most of the exchange was done in English so the foreign students could practice, though Ben Franklin students said they liked learning the occasional Norwegian word, such as "sprak," which means language. And while several Ben Franklin students had relatives in Norway, they were surprised to hear one Kongsvinger student was distantly related to former North Dakota governors.

"What a small world," Smith said.

For the past year, the two classrooms have traded homemade videos of their schools, written on a school "blog" to each other and raised money together to buy books for students in Ethiopia.

The cultural exchange was made possible through a connection to former Grand Forks native Jen Avastad, who is now teaching the class in Kongsvinger.

The experience prompted some to think in a much broader context. When asked for additional projects they could do together, Ben Franklin student Riley Menke said holding more Skype talks like this could bring world peace.

"Mrs. Smith was saying our friends in Norway are worried for us because of the things in North Korea," said Menke, referring to the threats of nuclear attack the country has made against the United States. "So, I just thought we could do it with more classes around the world, like England and North Korea."

His classmate Austin Clausen finished the thought, saying they could change the world if all children could gather in "one big clump" and talk.

"Some people say change is coming and our generation is able to do this," he said. "I think I have the hope that we're actually going to be able to make it happen."