Cambodian Children Facing 21st Century Challenges. An Austin Teacher’s ideas Bridge the Gap.

What the Khmer Rouge regime didn’t like, it killed. And that included its fellow countrymen and women who were educated. But a younger generation somehow managed to cling to the idea there was more to life subsistence farming in abject poverty.
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Jan. 12, 2012 - PRLog -- Austin, Texas, January 12, 2012- Windows of Wonder Institute (WOWi)
What the Khmer Rouge regime didn’t like, it killed.  And that included its fellow countrymen and women who were educated.  But a younger generation somehow managed to cling to the idea there was more to life subsistence farming in abject poverty. The Windows of Wonder Institute or WOWi (wow-ee) is introducing the children of Cambodia to 21st century technologies and interactive digital media environments.  

Kim Smith is the President and Co-Founder of WOWi.  He is also without question a Renaissance man.  Smith is devoted to teaching, learning, traveling and embracing change.  At UC Berkeley he earned a Master of Arts in painting.  Later he headed east and traveled thousands of miles to attend Brown University in Providence Rhode Island.  There, he earned a Ph.D. in Semiotics or the study of signs and Art History.

Smith is an inventor, interface designer and holds 20 U.S. patents.  He is the recipient of numerous technology awards that make our lives both better and easier.  His university students are the fortunate beneficiaries of his expertise on the innovative use of the Internet and digital technology at the University of Texas at Austin.

Sarah Venkatesh, of Austin, Texas is interested in WOWi’s educational mandate in Cambodia. Venkatesh teaches at the Trinity Episcopal School.  She is their Technology Integration Specialist.  Venkatesh is a passionate creative educator and video artist.  She teaches grades 5-8 the use of technology and the moving image.  It is her goal to understand an ever-shifting audience and to approach all challenges by connecting ideas, understanding objectives and transcending the tools.  

Recently, Kim Smith, Ph.D., president and co-founder of WOWi spoke with Duane Conder, Director of Communications for the non-profit organization about his impressions of Sarah Venkatesh, who will be assisting the WOWi team in Cambodia in February.  

Conder to Smith: What do you hope her students will get from the experience?

A vigorous exercising and growth of their digital media skills.  An opportunity to coach and mentor their Cambodian peers, who are not as advanced as they in digital media production.  The chance to learn about another very different culture and, in the process, learn more about their own culture. The satisfaction of displaying their work in very public venues, some of which are worldwide in scope. The satisfaction of knowing that their efforts contributed to a greater good, spanning a great physical and cultural divide.   The chance to do creative video production around dance and even the ways that people move in different cultures -- seeing others move, seeing themselves move.

Conder to Smith: Why is it important to help Cambodians recover in a way that is going beyond the basics of food and shelter?  Why help them improve their education and bringing their culture into the 21st century?

Perhaps the best help that one can give to those is distress is to guide and assist them to self-sufficiency. In Cambodia two years ago, my wife Robin and I attended a musical performance in the Jayavarman VII Children’s hospital in Siem Reap. The Director of the hospital, Dr. Beat Richner, performed Bach on cello, pausing between pieces to talk about the five Kantha Bopha hospitals he has founded in Cambodia.

The first he founded in Phnom Penh in 1992.  It had no Cambodian doctors or staff, an index to the brutality of the Khmer Rouge. In 2010, his five hospitals had doctors and staff numbering approximately 2,500. Of this, only two were not Cambodians – Dr Richner and the Director of the Laboratory! This is a clear example of the “teach a man to fish” principle – self-sufficiency through learning -- and it is this model that WOWi intends to follow in building a school of digital media in Cambodia.

Duane Conder followed his interview with Dr. Smith with an interview with Sarah Venkatesh.

Conder to Venkatesh: What would you like people to know about you?

I was a dancer in my younger years and, whether I like it or not, it has silently informed much of what I’ve done in teaching and media arts. Time and again, I rely on old principles of choreography when I’m doing just about anything: theme and variation, experimentation and discovery, selection and revision, and celebration. It shows up in my teaching all the time but it gets especially fun on the weekends when I have downtime with my two young children and husband, an electronic music composer. I think right now the Venkatesh family band, led by Ruby (4 !), calls itself “RedArtCat.”

Conder to Venkatesh: How did you find out about WOWi and what were your initial thoughts about the Angkor Wat project?

I read Keith’s [Hajovski, Director of Overseas Projects] blog on the Wandering Educator. My mother, who is a librarian in the Brookline Public Schools System in Massachusetts, forwarded it to me.  She has traveled to Japan and is always excited to extol the virtues of international professional development. She and I bounce ideas off each other frequently. When I learned that WOWi was in Austin, I immediately went to our school Chaplain and the Director of Multi-Cultural Affairs and said this is something we could learn from. We had just hosted a public film screening on our campus of a documentary called “Fambul Tok,” about reconciliation and rebuilding in post-civil war Sierra Leone and the theme of rebuilding in post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia clearly resonated. So I reached out to Kim [Smith] and we quickly discovered that there were may levels (creative, humanitarian, and technical innovation) on which Trinity [Episcopal School] could engage by being a participant in the project.

Conder to Venkatesh: What types of projects are your students working on?

I teach 5th-8th graders a range of technology subjects: from how to use a computer to netiquette and visual storytelling. Students in a Media Arts class are making 2D digital self-portraits that compiling themselves with available-for-reuse images found on the Internet. Awareness of intellectual property and the ability to determine usage rights in the digital domain are major takeaways from this project. They’re also working on video poems, for which they’ve studied principles of visual composition and how timing and juxtaposition on a timeline affect how images “speak.” A Digital Journalism class is also focusing on visual storytelling right now. They’re practicing “finding the story” by observing 7 visual actions in a room and then capturing each event in a 5-shot sequence that will eventually provide sufficient coverage and points of view for sculpting the story in the editing room.

Conder to Venkatesh: What do you hope you and your students (in the US and Cambodia) will learn from this experience?

That while technology has some given limitations, if used innovatively it can assist people in learning about other cultures and themselves. Also, to contribute your creative energy and to “build” something - a work of art – with another person, even if they’re on the other end of the world, is a powerful form of giving. Trinity students spend a great deal of time exploring their roles as stewards of the planet and WOWi’s vision for cross-cultural digital media creation taps into something that so many children are passionate about: making things. I think it’s a fabulous model for someone to learn about another person while expressing themselves at the same time. The concept of audience is blurred while parties on both end of the line are involved in creation and self-exploration while they gaze upon the other. No one is bound by the role of “giver” or “receiver.”

For more information, contact Duane Conder, WOWi Director of Communications
(877) 992-6636

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The Windows of Wonder Institute (WOWi), a 501(c)(3) org, uniquely combines ARTS+WEB+LEARNING to build & connect communities locally, regionally & globally.
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