World Voices Enliven Classrooms
Listening to overseas shortwave broadcasts helps US students learn about distant lands. EDUCATION: GEOGRAPHIC LITERACY
SILVERDALE, WASH. — ``THIS is the North American Service of Radio Moscow.'' The words sound clearly in the monitor's headphones. The listener twists a dial on the shortwave set and scribbles in a logbook. Before her, colored stickers on a world map mark the Soviet Union and 15 other countries. A CIA listening post?
No. A corner of Barbara Tanno's world geography classroom at Central Kitsap Junior High School in this small town across Puget Sound from Seattle. The headphoned listener is 12 years old. The stickers mark countries the class has picked up.
Although the seventh-grade listening post, installed in January, won't solve intelligence riddles, it may help solve an increasingly serious educational problem: geographic illiteracy.
When the geographic knowledge of 18-to-24-year-olds in nine countries was surveyed last year, Americans ranked last. Another survey asked elementary education majors to locate countries on a map. Ninety percent couldn't find Vietnam. Great Britain eluded 61 percent.
The poor scores shouldn't be too surprising. Memorizing capitals and rivers - the way geography traditionally is taught - is boring. Bringing the world into the classroom, via shortwave, makes the subject come alive.
Public school and university teachers in several states have begun using shortwave to enliven classes in geography, international relations, foreign languages, and other international subjects.
So far, only a few teachers are involved, and the results have not been formally evaluated.
But the teachers say students get excited about other countries for the first time when they listen to international broadcasts.
Beamed to North America in English and other languages, these broadcasts originate in Moscow, London, Beijing, and scores of other world capitals. In addition to world and national news, it's possible to hear Alistair Cooke's ``Letter from America'' broadcast from London, profiles of ordinary Japanese citizens from Tokyo, jazz from the Soviet Union, science from the Netherlands, and sports from Australia.
Whatever program is being broadcast, the simple fact of being tuned to another country turns students on. Mrs. Tanno explains:
``A lot of seventh graders have a narrow idea of what is going on in the world. Narrow down to their own school, their own neighborhood. If you talk about a spot on the map, it doesn't work for them. But shortwave immediately connects them with another country. The country is real; they are listening to it at that minute.''
After discovering a country on shortwave, students want to learn where it is and what life is like there.
Kevin Lawson, one of Tanno's pupils, tuned in Radio South Africa and heard archaeologists describe their latest African discovery. ``It was neat to learn about that,'' he says. Now he knows where to find South Africa on a map (``it's the lowest country in Africa, kind of down there at the bottom''), and he's curious to learn more about it.
Tanno tries other activities, such as planning an imaginary luxury trip to Europe, to involve her students. ``To motivate students to do these activities, I give them a grade,'' she says. ``But I don't need to grade their shortwave listening. The whole class enjoys it and wants to do it.''
College students may be more worldly than seventh graders, but they get their knowledge of other countries indirectly, through American television and newspapers. And they, too, are excited when shortwave gives them a new perspective on the world.
``Listening is a bit of a cultural shock for my students,'' says Michael Fulda, a political science professor at Fairmont State College in Fairmont, W.Va. ``They are surprised that people in other countries view events from a different perspective.''
Dr. Fulda told students in his international relations class that shortwave listening would count for 20 percent of their grade for the spring semester. Their assignment: Tune in 10 countries and think about what you hear.
One student observed that Radio Berlin International, the voice of East Germany, presents a curiously split personality. Programs are slickly produced and current pop music is played. But newscasts show no enthusiasm for perestroika. International analysts agree with the student's conclusion: East Germany wants a progressive image, but resists reform.
Students can analyze broadcasts at home. Fulda's 16 students listened on his 20-year-old portable shortwave set, which each student borrowed for one week. Tanno's students can take four portable sets home. She bought a larger classroom set with a $670 grant from her school district.
Another way to give students access to shortwave is a campus-wide listening post. Last fall, the student government at Denison University in Granville, Ohio, appropriated $549 to buy a fancy shortwave receiver for the school's Global Studies Center. ``Some students who listen regularly are planning to study overseas,'' says Theron Snell, assistant dean of academic services. ``They tune in the country where they will live.''
In a book published this year (see accompanying story), Myles Mustoe, adjunct professor of education at Central Washington State University in Ellensburg, describes 44 learning activities using shortwave. For example, students can compare the way a major news story is reported by, say, Radio Beijing, the BBC, and an American television network.
An especially popular activity is mailing reception reports to stations and seeing what comes back in the mail. Tanno's class has received magazines, stickers, pennants - even a baseball cap - from the Voice of Free China on Taiwan. Fulda's class got a softbound color atlas of East Germany.
The mail makes distant places more real to students.
``When we got the first letter from Moscow,'' Tanno says, ``the kids noticed that it was embossed on the back, because they still use typewriters in the Soviet Union, not computer printers.''
Why are international broadcasts stirring educators' interest now? Probably because shortwave has become easier to hear and programs have gotten more interesting. On modern receivers, digital-frequency displays allow listeners to tune immediately to a particular station. Interference still blots out broadcasts, but less often, thanks to relay stations that pump strong signals into a broadcast's target area. Canadian transmitters relay Radio Beijing and Radio Austria to North American listeners. Other stations use Caribbean relays.
Shortwave programs are more interesting because many countries have replaced strident propaganda with glasnost-style openness. ``There is a global trend toward more candor, although in most countries, the government still has a lot to say about what is broadcast,'' says Glenn Hauser, editor of the Review of International Broadcasting in Enid, Okla.
For student listeners, separating fact from propaganda is a challenging assignment - and certainly more appealing and thought-provoking than memorizing capitals of countries.