See what the University of Irvine California wrote about the Roddy Scott Foundations project to bring Journalistic skills to the children of Pankisi and start the process of literate self advocacy.
In the Pankisi Valley of Georgia, students in a foundation-sponsored English Language program are enriching their language study by generating an online English language newspaper – Pankisi Times. Since the paper’s inception, student engagement in producing the Times has served as an example of the type of “self-generated learning” associated with Sugata Metra and his “Hole in the Wall” experiments in India. By researching and writing articles for the newspaper, Pankisi youth are not only improving their language acquisition and gaining computer skills but also distancing themselves from the effects of recent conflict while countering their geographic isolation.
Pankisi Valley from Roddy Scott Education Center
The Pankisi Valley, situated in North Georgia, bordering Chechnya, is inhabited primarily by ethnic Chechens – called Kists – who came to the valley in the 19th century, and by recent refugees from the wars in Chechnya. The Russian-Chechen Wars (1994-1996 and 1999-2009) encouraged not only an influx of refugees from the intense fighting that spread throughout Chechnya but also the intrusion of Chechen fighters and foreign militants looking for a place to train and regroup. Refugees and militants both brought their fundamentalist Islamic beliefs, with Wahhabism from Saudi Arabia introduced into the historically Sunni Muslim community previously identified with the Sufist branch linked to Central Asia.
By 2002 the Valley had gained an international reputation for kidnapping, drug-dealing, and arms-trading, with governments, including Georgia, banning travel to the region. This also was the year when freelance British war journalist Roddy Scott, in the company of Chechens, was killed by Russian troops.
Introducing an English Language Program: A Memorium and a Counterbalance
Roddy Scott Foundation
Five years after Roddy Scott was killed, his parents and friends chose to honor his memory by establishing the Roddy Scott Foundation to provide English language instruction for children in the Pankisi Valley. It was the intention of Mr. Scott’s parents, Robin and Stina, and Vlad Lozinski, former international news journalist, that participation in the foundation’s language program would stimulate children’s interest in the outside world and thus counter conflict and ignorance. Local teachers, who were provided summer training at the American Academy of Tbilisi, were solicited to teach an initial class of 45 students.
As the program progressed, it gained support from private individuals and organizations, with the embassies of The Netherlands and Estonia, among others, donating computers and helping with building restoration.
Emergence of Pankisi Times
As students became more familiar with using computers, they expressed a desire to “do something” with their developing language skills. At the same time, Mr. Lozinski was observing that enthusiasm among the English language teachers seemed to have plateaued. With encouragement from Mr. Lozinski, students decided to create an online newspaper, in English, and thus Pankisi Times was added to their language study activities. The students selected their own topics, conducted their own research, and composed their own articles in the English language class. Mr. Lozinski agreed to serve as grammar and spelling editor; but, as he explained during his 2013 TEDx presentation in Tbilisi, he provides minimum correction in order to maintain the “student voice.”
Presenting at TEDx Tbilisi
Observing a Sunday Session
Currently, the Roddy Scott Foundation is providing English language instruction to about 200 young people – elementary through high school – from 12:30 to 2:30 or 2:30 to 4:30 on Saturdays and Sundays.
Fourteen of the more advanced students (generally 11 to 14 years old) contribute to Pankisi Times. During their afternoon sessions, they alternate language instruction, where they write news articles by hand, and time on the computers, where they type in their stories.
Once the articles are written, the students send the articles to Mr. Lozinski (who may be in London, Sydney, Warsaw, or Paris) via a radio link (dongle) since the Valley is not yet wired. He reviews the articles and establishes a time to Skype with the students while they are in the Saturday or Sunday classes. During the Skype session that I observed, Mr. Lozinski suggested grammar corrections and then challenged the student to think about how they might have been changed by producing an online newspaper. Recently, I noticed that one of the articles in the latest edition of Pankisi Times is titled “The Result of my Learning.”
Since the first edition of Pankisi Times, students have continued to select their own topics for the newspaper articles, which, on the day of my visit, included Forests in our Valley, the Star Spangled Banner, Environmental Pollution, Sights in my Village, the Importance of Friends, and the Power of Ads. Mr. Lozinski commented that he has observed an evolution in content since the first edition, from initial articles that reflected adult-influenced themes, to articles about what the students and their friends were thinking, to more recent analyses of global issues – e.g., climate change.
The Roddy Scott Foundation English Language Program and Pankisi Times rely upon donations from private individuals and from foundations and embassies to maintain the program. Aside from expenses associated with servicing donated computers, paying English instructors, and maintaining the facility, the cost of producing an online newspaper is minimal, particularly when considering the benefits. As demonstrated in the Pankisi Valley, an online student newspaper can be an effective means of deepening student engagement in their language learning while incorporating computer skills, stimulating interest in issues beyond the immediate environment, and connecting communities with people and places in the world beyond.