Friday, April 2, 2010
The CCHS-Turkmenistan connection deepens
Few high schools may claim involvement in international diplomacy, yet since April 2008, Concord-Carlisle High School (CCHS) has fostered a relationship with Turkmenistan in conjunction with the U.S. State Department. The project has consisted of Turkmen exchange students attending CCHS, as well as faculty trips to the Central Asian country, including one by several teachers recently in February 2010.
CCHS English teacher David Nurenberg is largely responsible for the success of this relationship. Two years ago, he was selected from among four teachers nationwide to participate in a trip to Turkmenistan sponsored by the U.S. government. The nation has a long history of being “one of the most isolated and least-accessed countries in the world,” according to Nurenberg, largely due to decades under Soviet oppression, but the country has since opened itself to the global stage, and the United States responded by opening lines of diplomacy, prompting this first visit.
CCHS students made a scrapbook and video, which Nurenberg took with him to Balkanabat, Turkmenistan, a city located in the northwestern Balkan region, where he stayed with a family. He shared these materials with the Turkmen students, and they reciprocated with a video of their own. The success of this interaction led Nurenberg to facilitate plans with the Turkmen school’s principal to establish a sister-school relationship between CCHS and Balkanabat School #17 comparable to the relationship CCHS already maintains with Japan. Nurenberg identifies “phase one” of this program as the enrollment of four Turkmen students at CCHS over the last few years, and envisions expansion of such exchanges as well as visits by CCHS students to Turkmenistan in the future. More immediately, Turkmen teachers will visit CCHS in October.
The February trip by a handful of CCHS faculty began simply aiming to continue the growth of this burgeoning relationship, but as Nurenberg explains, “became something much bigger.” Turkmenistan’s equivalent to the U.S. Department of Education welcomed the teachers, and they personally communicated with the nation’s “analog to our Secretary of Education.” The visit received national press coverage, and culminated in a private dinner with U.S. Charge D’Affairs in Turkmenistan, the highest-ranking U.S. diplomat in Turkmenistan. “This is big stuff,” underlines Nurenberg, “unprecedented in U.S.-Turkmen relations, and CCHS is right at the heart of it all.”
Jane-Sarah MacFarlane, a librarian and media specialist at CCHS, was a member of the team of faculty on the February trip. She, too, emphasizes the novelty of the event. “While there are some Americans living and working in Turkmenistan,” says MacFarlane, “they have never really invited a whole group of Americans in as guests all at once. You need an official letter of invitation from the government to even enter the country.”
She marvels at the nation’s progress in “forging a new and independent national identity for itself,” which has included investing “heavily in schools, universities, and developing the capital city as a beautiful place filled with parks, fountains, and amazing monuments.” In particular she enjoyed exploring a “big crazy outdoor bazaar called Tolkuchka Market,” the namesake of which literally means “to bump and jostle,” an experience that provided “an authentic glimpse into the real life of Turkmenistan.” It was during such cultural excursions that CCHS faculty had the chance to reconnect with the Turkmen students who have attended CCHS.
The bulk of the visit comprised the teachers attending many conferences with educators from Balkanabat, Charlestown, Massachusetts, and another Turkmen city called Mary. These events, and the entire visit, took place at a hotel in the country’s capital, Ashgabat, which is located along the mountain range bordering Afghanistan and Iran. The teachers exchanged presentations about their high schools and education styles, as well as their nations in general.
According to Nurenberg, many differences exist between Turkmen schools and American schools, although there are significant similarities too. Among differences are the fact that all grades attend classes in the same building, meaning there are no divisions between “high school,” “middle school,” and “elementary school,” and the fact that uniforms are mandatory. Additionally, students must become fluent in Turkmen and Russian while learning some English. Graduation happens in tenth grade, and Internet access is quite limited. As for similarities, Nurenberg states, “Some things about the schools are universal: kids are still kids. Teachers are still teachers.” He explains that students experience the same social and academic pressures as American students, and the teachers found similar common ground.
MacFarlane “enjoyed learning from the Turkmen teachers, making new friends, and absorbing the culture,” and praises “the sense of camaraderie among both American and Turkmen teachers” and “the spirit of friendship” as “the most powerful benefit of this trip.” She sees the visit as having “laid down some serious tracks into creating an inroad to a relationship that spans continents, religions and politics.”
Nurenberg ultimately views the trip and the overall relationship between CCHS and Turkmenistan similarly. “In this era of heightened tensions between the West and many Islamic societies, it seems so important to me that Americans and Turkmen, who are Muslim, get a chance to see each other as human beings and not stereotypes or threats,” he reflects. “I believe this is how peace gets made – people from two different cultures breaking down barriers of ignorance and learning from one another. Whenever you see the leaders of nations sign treaties, that’s just the ‘for show’ part of peacemaking. The real work, I believe, takes place between ordinary people like our students, in small little programs like this one.”
A documentary covering the February trip will air on local cable station CCTV sometime over the next couple months, and the group of faculty will present to the Concord-Carlisle Regional School Committee in May. ∆
© 2010 The Carlisle Mosquito