Future Focus event puts eighth-grade girls from central Maine in contact with Iraqi counterpart, women working their dream jobs
By Charlie Hartman
“Do you like Justin Bieber?”
With a roll of her eyes, Maryann replied, “Oh, noooo!”
Shrieks rang out in response through Given Auditorium at Colby College as 250 eighth-grade girls talked to Maryann Naman in Kurdistan, Iraq, live via Skype. The girls, from four schools in central Maine, were at the morning keynote of Future Focus, an annual conference sponsored by the Waterville branch of the American Association of University Women (AAUW) and the Maine Learning Technology Initiative (MLTI).
A few minutes earlier, Hannah Potter, a senior from Yarmouth High School, had told the girls about how she used her MLTI laptop to break down cultural barriers and develop friendships with students on the other side of the world, especially Iraq.
“My ideas about Iraqi teens were from the media, as were their ideas about American teens,” she said. “When I met these Iraqi teens, I discovered these things that I never considered: They consider important what we consider important.”
Potter then gave the Maine girls from China Middle School, Messalonskee Middle School in Oakland, Lawrence Junior High School in Fairfield and Waterville Junior High School a chance to try out this communication for themselves by connecting to her friend Maryann for a conversation.
The girls had plenty of questions for the Iraqi teen:
- What do you eat? (Mostly rice. She wishes there were a Burger King nearby.)
- What is your school day like? (It runs from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., but they have just one day off per week.)
- Who is your favorite celebrity? (Orlando Bloom.)
Curiously, no one questioned why Maryann spoke flawless English or seemed to notice that her speech was peppered with “like” and “um” and that she frequently fidgeted with her hair just like American teens.
It was as if she were right around the corner instead of on the other side of the world, at least until – without a break or change of inflection – Maryann said about her time living in Baghdad, “I couldn’t go to school for one year because they kidnapped my father. There wasn’t any reason, actually. It’s just like that. You can do whatever you want, but sometimes you’re gonna get killed.”
And that was just the beginning of the day.
The purpose of Future Focus is to allow young women an opportunity to explore a wide range of careers, develop a broader perspective on what they can do, and increase their aspirations for higher education. The conference featured more than 50 women from a wide spectrum of occupations — from physician and politician to musician and insurance underwriter — who volunteered for the day to let the girls know about what they do.
But this day isn’t about standard talking heads with students sitting and listening. It’s about education that’s engaging and hands-on.
The girls attended panels in the morning, each with four women with different careers. But on the recommendation of a participant from a few years ago, the panels were set up as games.
At the start of session, the women’s occupations were posted on signs around the room. The girls placed the women under the signs they thought represented their occupations. Then the women stood under their correct signs, challenging the girls’ assumptions based on appearances. The girls then split into teams, the women asked them questions about their jobs, and the teams of girls competed to answer.
The girls also went to hands-on workshops where they got to try out a woman’s job. These workshops included a police detective having the girls do DNA analysis and make casts of a footprint to a biologist showing them how rats compete in swimming races to a chocolatier letting girls design and make their own chocolate flowers.
The day ended with live music from Maine singer/songwriter Joan Kennedy, who not only got the auditorium and girls rocking with her music but took time to answer the girls’ questions about the music industry and signed autographs as the girls ran to catch their buses back to school.
Charlie Hartman is a project manager with the Maine Learning Technology Initiative at the Maine Department of Education. She was the primary organizer of Future Focus.