Educators That Rock!: Bill Reilly

Bill Reilly in Saudi Arabia.

As the founder of the Global Coalition Project, Bill Reilly has united classrooms around the globe through his vision to promote peace and global understanding. A social studies teacher at Bethlehem Central Middle School in Delmar, N.Y., for the last 16 years, Reilly was named one of Disney’s Educators of the Year in 2006 for his exceptional ability to teach “real world” lessons. Two years prior to that, he was chosen by the American Councils for International Education to represent the United States in a Eurasian/American teacher exchange in Azerbaijan.

FindingEducation met Reilly while attending the New York State Council for the Social Studies (NYSCSS) conference last week. Reilly described watching his students meet another group of students in Belize for the first time through an online video conference. “It was like two groups meeting aliens for the first time,” he said. “They were such different and diverse cultures, and they had such an interest in learning about each other.”

fE: What made you become a teacher?

BR: I was an archeologist for a few years and then an owner of a rare coin store. So I always had a love for history. I then walked into a children’s home one summer, thinking that I would work with kids for a summer until I decided what business to go into, and I never left working with children after that. I teach ancient history to sixth graders.

fE: Tell me a little about some of the projects you’re doing in school.

BR: The largest project I’m working on is the Global Coalition, which is a project that connects schools in about 20 countries around the world. We call it the Global Coalition for Peace, Education and Cultural Awareness. Our goal is to try to reach across the world, not with guns and bomb, but with education and awareness.

fE: Why did you start the Global Coalition Project?

I was present down at the World Trade Center with some students when it was attacked. I realized that we really had to reach across the world not with guns and bombs, but with education and understanding. So I decided to send out some invitations, using project ePals (an Internet site that connects schools around the world) to some schools to see who would like to work on a Global Peace project with me. My first response was from Azerbaijan… And my next connection was with a school in the middle of the jungle in Belize … Over the years, we’ve worked together on a collaboration that’s grown to include many schools, representing almost every region of the world, from the middle of the jungle … to the northern Ural Mountains in Russia.

fE: What was the reaction of these students the first time you held a video conference with another school?

BR: The first time we hooked up a video camera between our school and a school in the middle of a jungle in Belize, it was the most phenomenal thing to watch. The students in Belize were describing the howler monkeys and the jaguars that they see outside the windows of their homes, and they were asking our students what pizza tasted like. My students were describing what a squirrel was, and describing what it was like to go to a movie theater, because some of the students had never been to a movie theater.

It was like two groups meeting aliens for the first time. They were such different and diverse cultures and they had such an interest in learning about each other. They were also really excited to see the person through the camera that they had been e-mailing with. They were like, “That’s my e-mailing partner right there!” So they were waving at each other. It was just a lot of shyness and giggles and just a great interaction.

fE: Does anybody from the Global Coalition ever meet in person?

BR: We’ve had some wonderful opportunities. I’ve had the opportunity to go visit students and teachers in many of the other countries in Azerbaijan, and in Cyprus and in Italy… Probably one of the most meaningful visits we ever had was from a man from Zimbabwe who we had been working with and who came to our school. He described what it was like to my students to be living in a 9-foot diameter hut with no furniture, where he slept on the dirt every night.

He came into my school and went and visited the cafeteria. He started getting tears in his eyes. He told my students how they had thrown out more food in their garbage can in one session of lunch than his students would have to eat in an entire week. That had a huge impact on my students to realize how different our lives are.

fE: How does the global coalition project apply to current events and topics in the news?

BR: Because we now have these connections around the world a lot of news events that would normally be ignored by other students become important to them. When the tsunami hit in the Indian Ocean several years ago, we had a school in Indonesia that we lost contact with for several days. Our students all of a sudden became very worried, understanding the impact of that tsunami on our students there, who luckily we did hear back from a bit later on.

When the terrorist attacks happened in Mumbai, India, many of the students that we have in New Delhi had relatives that were there in the attacks. Those students from New Delhi were posting poetry, and talking about why the world needed peace. When you have a friend in that country where something’s happening, you start paying attention more than you would if you didn’t know anybody there.

So global issues become more meaningful to them. Maybe the way that they try to approach solving those global issues as they grow up and become the next generation of the world’s global leaders will be different, because they won’t see the world in terms of “us” and “them.”

fE: What are some of the things that the kids have been sharing over e-mail and through video conferences?

BR: They talk a lot about small things from their lives. For instance, we have students asking what they see out their window. One student who lives in a ghetto in Marseille describes basically how she doesn’t have any windows in her house.

A lot of the students that we work with from France are actually African immigrant students. And one of the movies that they’ve been talking about a lot lately is “Invictus,” because it has to do with Nelson Mandela. Now my students are learning more about Nelson Mandela because that interest has been stimulated. Those are the kind of exchanges that happen.

We also had a great video conference with students in Belize, who come from a village that actually promotes fair trade. Now our students are a little more globally aware when they go to a coffee shop about why you might purchase fair trade coffee versus commercial coffee, and how that might actually impact the life of the person who’s actually growing the coffee. So it makes our world a little smaller, where people are being more responsible about members of their global community, and not just their local community.

fE: What’s been the most rewarding aspect of this project for your students?

BR: I think that for the students it’s probably the personal connection that they make with other people. There are probably 200 to 500 e-mails exchanged every week between the students in many of the countries. They achieve a sense that they have a friend somewhere else in the world, that they may never meet in person, though a few of them have at times, but they develop an understanding that not everyone in the world is like them. But that’s a good thing.

Watch clips from the interview with Bill Reilly on YouTube.

Bill Reilly’s favorite sites:

E-pals
the Global Coalition

Asia Society.org
Siemen’s We Can Change the World Challenge

Find a Dig
The New Netherland Institute

Related Link Resources
Disney Teacher Awards: The 2006 Honorees
The Global Coalition for Peace, Education and Cultural Awareness
ePals