Skype connects Hampton, Polish students

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"Maybe next time, we can have a jam session."

It's an invitation that teen musicians share with friends all the time, but this one came from Max, a student approximately 4,500 miles away in Poland to students at Hampton High School.

The Hampton students shared a classroom discussion Friday afternoon with their peers at Liceum Ogolnoksztalcace, a private high school in Warsaw. The Skype session was arranged through the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, in conjunction with a visit from Ambassador of the Republic of Poland, Ryszard Schnepf.

Mr. Schnepf was on a visit sponsored by the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh, the Polish Cultural Council and the Polish Falcons of America. His stop in Hampton was part of his three-day tour. It was his first visit to Pittsburgh.

"I am enjoying it here," the ambassador said. He continued with compliments about the American school.

"Your school looks fantastic. I wish all of our schools looked the same as this. It is impressive," Mr. Schnepf told the Hampton students.

The ambassador introduced the students in English and Polish, and said that he hoped the friendship would encourage visits to each other's country.

"It is great to have this contact with this video conference," he said.

The ambassador told the students from his hometown in Warsaw that he knew of their school because his residence was close and he invited the students from Hampton to visit their "new friends."

"It is a very historical place and is definitely one of the most elegant tourism places in the whole city," he said. "It is good to know them so they can be tour guides."

Due to the six-hour time difference, the Polish students were gathered at their school at 8:15 p.m. The ambassador thanked the Polish students for coming to school on a Friday night to meet their U.S. counterparts.

"We are honored," said Mary Lou Ellena-Wygonik, gifted support teacher at Hampton. Ms. Ellena-Wygonik and Kelly Emmett, English teacher, had gathered the 25 Hampton 10th-grade students for the conversation.

Ms. Ellena-Wygonik is of Polish descent and is active in the Polish Cultural Council of Pittsburgh. She was instrumental in arranging for his visit.

"We want the students to have these kinds of opportunities. And the video conference is just the beginning of a partnership, we hope. We want the students to know we are more alike than different," she said.

Maria Staszkiewicz, the executive director of the Polish Cultural Council, worked with Ms. Ellena-Wygonik to identify a school in Poland for the exchange.

"I am from Warsaw and know the director. It is a private school that looks to do things out of the unusual," she said.

Ms. Staszkiewicz said the organization helps to promote the Polish heritage in America.

"This is a region with a lot of ties to Poland, so this type of exchange makes a lot of sense," she said.

Steve Sokol, president of the World Affairs Council, said they often host high-level officials from other countries to initiate culture conversations.

"Having the school participate introduces to these types of cultural conversations," he said, "With Mary Lou's interest in Poland and her own heritage, this is a natural fit."

Mr. Sokol said for the students to see each other's classrooms is another method to facilitate cultural awareness between the two countries.

"When they see that the Polish classrooms look a lot like ours and that things are pretty much the same, it opens the dialogue," he said.

The ambassador only had a few moments to spend with the students, but the inter-continental conversation continued after he departed.

Two of the Hampton students played their instruments for the Polish students, at their request after Devon Lawson, 16, told them he enjoyed playing the cello. After the short "international concert" as one of the students called it, the students continued sharing their interests and facts about their countries.

Charlie Bares, 15, of Hampton, played the violin.

"It was fun, but I could have done a lot better if I had my own instrument," he said.

But despite his trepidation, the Polish students enjoyed the concert. They clapped and suggested the future jam session.

Devon, the cello player, said, "I've never been outside of the country so this is kind of like traveling in space -- it seems unbelievable. It is great to see them while we are having the conversation," he said.

It is a conversation that the two schools hope to carry through the next academic year.

"We would like to continue this exchange between their school and our European history and honors English classes. It is a great opportunity for both groups of students," Ms. Ellena-Wygonik said.

As the two schools wrapped up their discussion, Ms. Ellena-Wygonik assured the students the conversation would continue.

"I hope to see you again soon," said Agatha, one of the Polish students.

Max, the young man from Poland who initiated the invitation to "jam" said, "I'm going to keep in mind that jam session."


Kathleen Ganster, freelance writer:


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