Third-graders use webcam in pen pal program

Mayor Choi speaks to his Choteau, Mont., counterpart during event


EDISON – A third-grade class at Ben Franklin School in Edison briefly made a connection across seven states and two time zones to chat with people at a Montana school through a Web camera.

The project, headed up by third-grade teacher Jayne Levinson’s class, involved making a connection over the Internet with another school, located in Choteau, Mont., in the interests of cultural exchange with an area seen to be vastly different from Edison Township. The centerpiece of the event was conversation between Edison Mayor Jun Choi, who had visited Ben Franklin School Nov. 29 to join the discussion, and his Choteau counterpart, Jay Dunckel.

While the two schools were able to make contact, technical difficulties prevented the exchange between Choi and Dunckel to go on for more than a few minutes. In that time, however, the two mayors told each other about their respective towns and talked about their differences and similarities.

The class’ interactions with Choteau began in the fall of 2001. Anthony Girgenti, a Fords resident, heard about the town through the “Late Show with David Letterman.” The show’s host said that Choteau had been stricken with a severe drought and was appealing to the rest of the country for aid. Girgenti began making contacts in the town when he started organizing charity efforts. Speaking to teachers in Choteau, he worked out a pen pal program between the students there and at Ben Franklin School. Since the start of the pen pal program, the project has made several technological leaps, going from snail mail to e-mail and finally to webcam interactions.

Levinson said the class regularly chats with students and other guests over the webcam, and she was frustrated that this particular day seemed to be a bad one for Internet connections.

“Every week, we’re always connected and it’s never a problem. Today, when the mayor comes, there’s technical difficulties,” said Levinson.

She said the program itself, though, has been a great tool for helping the students learn about a different part of the country, and that the cultural differences between Edison and Choteau helped introduce them to a wider world. For example, she said, many kids in Choteau like to go horseback riding or fishing and people tend to have many, many pets.

“It’s [been] a real learning experience for our kids,” said Levinson.

During the conversation, Dunckel said that while he and Choi were both mayors, their jobs, day in and day out, were probably very different.

“We could compare our jobs, but I don’t think they’d be anything similar,” said Dunckel.

Choteau, he said, has a much smaller population than Edison, hovering around 1,700 people (Edison has approximately 100,000 people), and his position as mayor is part time, as opposed to Choi’s full-time job. The police department, meanwhile, is through the county rather than the town. The big problem in Choteau, Dunckel said, is finding the money to maintain the town’s aging infrastructure.

Choi, after talking about Edison for a bit, pointed out that the two towns probably have more in common than a casual observer might think, such as similar issues with aging infrastructure.

“Edison is facing some of the same challenges,” said Choi.

Shortly after this exchange, however, the Internet connection had technical difficulties, and while people at the two sides could see each other just fine, there was no sound.

Choi spent the rest of the time talking to the class about his job as the mayor of Edison. During this time, the class learned that Choi was born in Seoul, Korea, that his favorite sports team is the New York Yankees, and that he had wanted to be an astronaut when he was younger. He also spent a great deal of time talking about public service and why he does the things he does.

“I believed that Edison could be a much better community,” said Choi, when asked why he ran for mayor of Edison.

Despite technical difficulties, the class appreciated the visit from the mayor and enjoyed the question-andanswer session they had with him.

“I think it was very, very exciting,” said 8-year-old Mario Baro.