Learning Across Cultures: From New York City to Rotorua


Claire Schnell and Joan Brodsky Schur

Teachers everywhere are exploring ways their classes can reach out in the world through technology. Although the desire to connect students from different cultures and subcultures is as old as pen pals, e-mail and the web have opened up new possibilities and intensified our search for ways to maximize them.

An important principle of the five-year project described here between classes in the United States and New Zealand was to let students describe their own worlds in their own words. In such a cross-cultural exchange, we cannot dictate or even presume to know what students have to teach one another. But we can set up frameworks within which students can learn in open-ended and creative ways.

Our project began when Claire Schnell moved back to her native New Zealand after teaching with Joan Brodsky Schur at the Village Community School in New York City. The students in our classes ranged from 11 to 13 years old.

Each class engaged in several activities and then passed the exchange along to the next year’s class. Over time, we used all the resources at our disposal including e-mail, fax, videotape, and plain old letter writing. What we learned is that meaningful interactive learning is possible across distances that are cultural as well as geographic.

Our Hopes for this Project
From the outset, our goals as teachers were different but reciprocal.

Joan: My goal was to conclude a year-long course in anthropology with a strong message about the importance of keeping indigenous cultures alive in the world today. I wanted my students to

> learn about the cultural resurgence of the Maori of New Zealand by corresponding with Claire’s students, many of whom are of Maori descent

> value their own multicultural backgrounds as sources of pride as they wrote about themselves to New Zealanders

> investigate ways in which cultures and subcultures (including their own) pass down important cultural values.

Claire: My immediate goal was to give students a sense of pride in their small rural community. If students in New York City said, “Wow, what a neat life you have!” perhaps they would realize this, too. Although I had grown up in New Zealand, it was during a time when the Maori language was forbidden in schools. I had spent twelve years abroad and lost touch with New Zealand. I needed to learn about my own students, and in doing so my goals were to

> increase the sense of pride of all New Zealanders in the legacy of Maori culture

> explore ways in which technology could tie a geographically isolated country to a greater world

> increase my students’ ability to welcome immigrants to New Zealand by exposing them to the multiculturalism of America.

Joan: The study of culture is the first of the ten themes recommended by the NCSS social studies standards.1 As a source for learning that “cultures are dynamic and ever-changing,” we made it possible for our students to exchange knowledge with one another. To “demonstrate the value of cultural diversity, as well as cohesion, within and across groups,” we used our two countries as models. Our mutual emphasis on both Maori culture and the family folklore of all our students helped to teach “how language, literature, the arts, architecture, other artifacts, traditions, beliefs, values, and behaviors contribute to the development and transmission of culture.”


Beginning the Exchanges

Claire: I initiated the first exchange with students I taught in the town of Mamaku in Rotorua. They used to put Mamaku down. I had actually assigned them to write to the mayor of Rotorua to air their grievances. However, I also saw signs that they were proud to be living in Mamaku, and I wanted to give them the chance to say this and be heard. What better way than for them to describe their community to a class in New York City?

The community project was a series of descriptions and photographs about key places in Mamaku. Each child photographed and wrote about one place—the fire department, the bikers’ club, the cemetery, and so forth. I needed to learn about my own students, and by giving them something close to home that interested them, I started to enter their lives.

Joan: What we received was not about the world famous tourist attractions of Rotorua (the geysers and Victorian Bath House, for example), but about the way students actually lived. From New York we responded in kind—writing about our neighborhood and how it provided for our needs, describing the pizza place where kids hang out, and not the Empire State Building where New Yorkers never go.

Far-away worlds became personalized when students in New Zealand could find their partners’ addresses on a New York City street map. On maps of New Zealand and Australia, we could mark where Claire’s students went on holiday and attach the descriptions, photos, and drawings they sent. Our geography studies now had a human face.

Claire and Joan: We paired our students into letter-writing partners, beginning a process we would repeat with any materials we received from one another. We saw that children started to compare themselves to their partners and ask questions, such as, “What do my writing partner and I have in common?” “How are we different?” We would then share all the letters received by reading them out loud or putting them on display, and asking,“What are the patterns that we see in their lives?” “How is life in New Zealand different from and the same as life in New York?,” and vice versa.

Claire: What first surprised my New Zealand students? For example: “How could anyone in New York be interested in us?” “There’s quite a lot of things to write about Mamaku.” “One thing I have learned about the crowded city of New York is the subway. I had no idea that it was underground.” “Matthew has a nice family. He doesn’t celebrate Easter; he celebrates Passover.”

Joan: My students noticed that many children in New Zealand grew up in homes with three, four, or five children, whereas our New York City families generally had one or two. Animals and sports were important to New Zealanders, whose lives appeared full of outdoor physical experiences. New Yorkers lived close together with their senses full of the stimulation of city life. We began speculating on the origins of these differences, in which geography certainly played a role. Ethnocentric attitudes about American and New York City lifestyles changed as—through their partners’ eyes—my students started to see things they sadly lacked.


Using Family Folklore

Our goals included providing structured assignments that would help students learn more about one another’s cultures, while keeping their personal lives the primary focus. We discovered that family folklore was a gold mine, with loads leading deep into our histories and cultures. We asked our classes to write about the origins of their family and first names, their family histories (whakapapa in Maori), important relatives, treasured mementos, the holidays they celebrate, and the foods and recipes that hold significance at family gatherings.

The recipe books we made for each other’s classes became a tool for long-distance interactive learning. Joan’s class could cook the family recipes sent from Rotorua and begin to savor how New Zealand recipes reflect that nation’s geography and history. In the Kiwi (New Zealander) love of butter and eggs, they could taste its farms; in the porridges, mutton, and butter pudding, its English traditions; and in the Maori bread, its indigenous culture. Claire’s students could savor multiethnic New York as they tasted for the first time Jamaican jerk sauce, Jewish matzo brie, or Cuban arroz con morro. Strange ingredients from far away places, these recipes brought us directly into each other’s lives in a joint project that was fun and highly motivating.

As a learning tool, the theme of family folklore was successful because:

1. It began with children learning and writing about themselves. Students asked, for example, “Why was I given my first and middle names?” “What is the ethnic origin of my last name?” These fascinating questions fulfill one of the first rules for the successful teaching of adolescents: start with me.


2. Children were more willing to share personal information when the primary audience was far away. Initially, Joan found her students reluctant to talk about their Jamaican, Cuban, or Japanese family backgrounds. Now a sense of urgency overcame their inhibitions, as if to say, if I don’t tell our New Zealand partners about my heritage, how will they ever know? Claire found that both her Maori and Pakeha (New Zealanders of European descent) students took pride in teaching Americans about New Zealand’s Maori heritage.


3. We learned more about ourselves as students opened up for outsiders. Claire’s classes were surprised to find so many families, both Maori and Pakeha, celebrating with a traditional Maori meal: the hangi. They noticed that middle names are extremely important to New Zealanders, and that Aunties play significant roles in family life. Joan’s classes discovered that, unlike Christian families, Jewish families never name a child after a living relative, but do so to honor a recently deceased relative.


4. Abstract information became meaningful when embedded in the personal. From the personal, we helped students to see patterns, make deductions, and generalize. This occurred from asking such questions as, “Why are so many names of New York City children of Eastern European extraction?” “Why do so many New Zealanders have names that reflect both their Maori and Pakeha backgrounds?” “Why do New Zealanders have a Queen’s Birthday?” “Who was this guy—Guy Fawkes?” “What do Americans celebrate on July 4th?” The answers to these questions inevitably led us into the history of our two nations. Moreover, they uncovered some common historical experiences. When our classes simultaneously studied the Irish Famine, we discovered families in both countries whose ancestors had fled Ireland during the 1840s. Suddenly a new vision emerged of how the world is interconnected through immigration patterns.


Learning about Indigenous Cultures

Joan: For students in both countries, today’s Maori renaissance provides important lessons about the ability of a minority culture to redefine a whole nation’s identity. It is symbolized by the city of Wellington’s newly opened Museum of New Zealand, Te Papa Tongarewa, whose founding premise is that “biculturalism is central to the New Zealand experience.”2 In America, we struggled to understand what meaning Maoritanga (Maori culture) has in the ordinary lives of New Zealanders today. We found some of the answers embedded in the many family stories and accounts we received from Aotearoa (Maori for New Zealand). From these, we learned that:

> To preserve a culture, you must preserve its language. The motto for Claire’s public school, Kaitao Intermediate, is in Maori and expresses a Maori concept: “Kia Puawai I Roto I te whanaungatanga,” meaning “to blossom within the family concept.” The New York students learned that the Maori resurgence of the 1970s, which included a new emphasis on the Maori language, was partly inspired by America’s Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. This was an unexpected source of pride for black students in America.

> By passing down whakapapa (family history) in the great oral tradition of the Maori, individuals find a place within the culture. One student wrote: “My family name is Waaka. It originated in the Whatawhata, Waikato, New Zealand ... There is a traditional second name, too. It is Tutewehiwehi, which means ‘to stand in fear.’ When people hear that they get scared and run away, but in other words, it means highly respected.”

> In the survival of the marae (Maori tribal meeting grounds) and its traditions, group members strengthen their ties to the community. Kaitao students wrote to us about their week-long school trips or family experiences on marae: “Most people sleep in the Wharenui. When you enter, you must take off your shoes. If you enter with your shoes on it is believed that you’re taking dirt into the body of the Wharenui .... On Christmas the men get up early and start the fire for the hangi [traditional Maori way of cooking ...]”

> Artwork and craft traditions are powerful transmitters of cultural values. With help from Aotearoa, students in New York learned to sing Maori songs, to carve in wood, and to create designs using the Maori Koru pattern, which represents an unfurling fern, a symbol of life. They came away with a new respect for cultures (including their own subcultures) to survive. One wrote: “I had always thought that the majority in a society would totally dominate the culture. Studying the Maori and Pakehas of New Zealand made me realize otherwise.” Another: “I learned that it was quite possible to live according to some old tradition even in this changing world and have a lot of dignity and pride. You can preserve a culture even though it’s so easy to be influenced to believe another way by what’s on TV.”


The Value of Technology

This project helped our students to understand the capacity of modern technology to instantaneously connect the lives of people around the globe. But if you really want to impress your students with technology’s power—begin without it. Letter writing is a slow process, but it allows more time for reflection, as well as being a good lesson in delayed gratification. The forms of technology we used in this project were as follows:


Claire: We began videotaping because we wanted to convey a realistic picture of a small town in rural New Zealand. We started with a major brainstorming session in which all students contributed suggestions about what to film. The number of their ideas was quite daunting. Students signed up to be responsible for arranging the format and presentation of their ideas. I learned that Kiwis living in isolated communities will eagerly open their lives to visitors, inviting the camera into their homes.

We tried to keep the focus on a depiction of our daily lives, filming sections in our homes, our respective schools, and surrounding neighborhoods. Our goal was not to mimic the glitz of TV, but to keep the voices of children true to themselves. It was often the rough spots where kids fumbled or made mistakes that helped their audience to feel close to them.

Joan: The most exciting thing we discovered was the power of video as an interactive teaching tool. Claire included a segment of her students demonstrating a complex Maori stick game. We not only watched that game—we learned it with the help of our music and physical education teachers. We then videotaped it for the students in New Zealand. Now, they could watch us playing the stick game they had taught us. We were also fascinated by scenes of Claire’s class demonstrating the Maori art of carving, and likewise, tried it ourselves. Cooking tapes also made great teaching tools.

In America, we videotaped students singing songs for Hanukkah and Kwanzaa to send to New Zealanders. And, if our neighborhood did not have fields for cricket and rugby, we could videotape a New York City street game played against a wall. However, we did not foresee that the New Zealand students could find no wall high enough to play on. It takes a long time to truly appreciate what living in another culture is like!


Faxing allowed us to respond to each other immediately about world events—for example, with congratulations when New Zealand won the World Cup, and with questions when Mt. Ruapehu erupted.

We used fax to exchange class newsletters that included photos and drawings. This proved a good way to encourage students to describe the more abstract world around them. From the egocentric focus on “me,” students could step out to write about “we”—we our class, our community, our nation, and our world. In describing the problems and issues facing their communities, our students became more conscious of themselves as citizens. Some comparative topics for both nations that can be explored are the following: the fate of indigenous peoples, the legacy of British colonization, immigration policies, environmental issues, and government’s role in social welfare.


We used e-mail to create interactive dialogues about literature. Our students simultaneously read folktales by New Zealand author Jack Lasenby and Yiddish-American author Isaac Bachevis Singer. Students shared their responses and also wrote tall tales for one another.

However, we found e-mail to be the least useful of the technologies we used. This was because neither of our schools was equipped to transmit student artwork and handwritten papers quickly or to send videos via computer. Faxing is not only as fast as e-mail, but for us at this time, a more visual medium as well. This is good news for schools that want to form partnerships such as ours without state-of-the-art technology.


As New Zealand forges a new model of biculturalism, America continues its quest for the multicultural ideal. Since we began this project in 1992, Claire’s school has seen the addition of immigrants from several parts of the world. What they have learned about the immigrant experience in America has helped them prepare to welcome new immigrants in their classrooms. Students in New York have learned that they are not the cynosure of the world they once thought. They have gained both appreciation for a different worldview and new respect for the power of indigenous cultures to yet shape our world.

The most powerful driving force of the project has been the enthusiasm of our students. Never fail to underestimate how strongly students are motivated to work when they have a natural audience. The audience need not be that far away. Even within America, students have much to learn about one another’s cultural backgrounds and local history. We also wonder about the potential benefits of such a project in parts of the world ravaged by war and hate, and where adult prejudice has pre-determined what children should think of “outsiders.”



1. National Council for the Social Studies, Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies (Washington, D.C.: NCSS, 1994).

2. William J. Tramposch, “Exact Imagining: The Museum as a Journey,” Museum News (March/April 1998): 44-53; also see Donna Rosentha, “Through Maori Eyes,” The New York Times (March 22, 1998): Tr 8.




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Chiseri-Strater, Elizabeth, and Bonnie Stone Sunstein. Field Working: Reading and Writing Research. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1997.

Collins, H. Thomas, Frederick R. Czarra, and Andrew F. Smith. “Guidelines for Global and International Studies Education,” Social Education 62 (September, 1998): 311-317.

—————-“Resources on Global Education.” Social Education 62 (September, 1998): 306-310.

Dresser, Norine. I Felt Like I was from Another Planet: Writing From Personal Experience. New York: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1994.

Zeitlin, Steven J., Amy J. Kotkin, and Holly Cutting Backer. A Celebration of American Family Folklore. Cambridge, MA: Yellow Moon Press, 1982.



EDSITEment: On the web, edsitement.neh.gov; America Online keyword: NativeWeb, for links to resources about indigenous peoples around the world.


Claire Schnell is a teacher at Kaitao Intermediate in Rotorua, New Zealand. Joan Brodsky Schur teaches social studies and English at the Village Community School in New York City. This article is an updated version of their presentation at “Connections ‘97,” the NCSS International Conference in Sydney, Australia.

 ©1999 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.