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Elmhurst students meet Holocaust survivor via Google

ELMHURST – On May 1, Churchville eighth grade students sat in their chairs, desks pushed to the perimeter of their dimly lit classroom, with all eyes focused intently on the screen before them.

It could have been any other Thursday, but for computer literacy teacher Farheen Beg, the scene illustrated the wonders of technology and American diversity.

"You could have a question about a Holocaust survivor and Google it, or you could ask a Holocaust survivor," Beg said.

Rachel Lezak, 13, stood before a laptop at the front of the classroom and asked Gideon Frieder, 76, who was sitting in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. if he still experiences antisemitism today.

Slovakian-born Frieder responded "yes." He shared his first-hand experience via the Connected Classroom Google Community with 180 Churchville students, as well as students at Swansboro High School in Swansboro, N.C., Lakeland Union High School in Minocqua, Wis. and The Adelson Educational Campus in Las Vegas, Nev.

"We have all these resources," Beg said. "We need to teach teachers and give them the confidence to use them."

She hoped the hour-long Google Hangout On Air would also show teachers how technology can bring the world to their students. Beg believes that the technology engages all students, from those with learning disabilities and behavioral issues to advanced students waiting to be challenged.

"The kid who used to just sit there, not do anything, all of a sudden he's engaged," Beg said.

After the hour-long Hangout, Beg had students approach her asking to send their questions to Frieder.

Emily Schlecht, 14, was lucky enough to get to ask Frieder about a pleasant memory he recalls from the Holocaust, and said she saw the value of his story about a Catholic family that took him in.

"I know a lot of the Holocaust is about the negativity, but we've also heard stories of their hope during our study of the Holocaust," Schlecht said.

Beg hopes to continue bringing opportunities like these to students in all classes. Her students have already created a survey that she put on Google Plus asking educators in other countries to have their students respond. The questions varied from "Have you seen Divergent?" to "How do you feel about Americans?"

Beg received 250 responses from countries across the world, including Saudi Arabia and Hong Kong. Rather than having her students look up the population or climate of other countries, she wanted them to find the answers to questions that can't simply be Googled in less than a second.

"We want them to become independent learners," Beg said.

With access to all of that information virtually at students' fingertips, Beg wants them to take advantage of the opportunities available.

"There are girls in my country who are getting shot in the head for trying to get an education," Pakistan-born Beg said.

The Hangout was more than a demonstration of technology in the classroom for Beg. She said it also spoke to "the multicultural environment of public education" in America. Her face framed by a decorative blue headscarf, the Muslim woman described her ability to bring a Jewish Holocaust survivor to her students as a rare experience that wouldn't be permitted in some other countries.

"I feel like America and technology allowed this to happen," Beg said.

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