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Leechburg Area students connect with Alaskan kids

| Thursday, Dec. 16, 2010

To travel from Leechburg to Barrow, Alaska, it would require a three-day, nonstop drive to Fairbanks, Alaska, and an hour-long flight into Barrow.

But the more-than-3,500-mile distance was spanned in seconds by Skype video-conferencing Wednesday as fourth-graders from David Leech Elementary School spoke to their counterparts at Fred Ipalook Elementary School in the northernmost city in the United States.

The Leechburg children were curious to know more about life on the coast of the Chukchi Sea where the sun hasn't risen since mid-November, the temperature drops below freezing 324 days per year and a majority of families are of the Inupiat Eskimo culture.

Some examples of the exchange, in which Leechburg children asked most of the questions:

Question : What pets do you have?

Answer : Cats and dogs, but no seals.

Q : Is whale the only fish you eat?

A : A whale isn't a fish. And Alaskans also eat native fish.

Q : Are there cows in Alaska?

A : No, even though there is a brand called Alaska Milk.

Q : Do you like the Pittsburgh Steelers?

A : Many cheers, with some shouts of "Troy Polamalu!"

Q : Do you have Pizza Hut?

A : They have no national chain pizzerias, but several locally owned pizza shops.

Q : Have you seen a polar bear up close?

A : Many of the Alaskan students raised their hands.

"We try not to get too close to polar bears," warned their teacher, Jeffrey Prothero. "They're very dangerous."

Each class was interested in the games, sports, pets and daily habits of the other.

David Leech Principal Cynthia Portman, noting Leechburg Area School District had a two-hour delay on Wednesday due to the cold temperatures, wanted to know if weather ever forced delays or closures at North Slope Borough School District, which includes Ipalook Elementary.

The Barrow children said cold temperatures — such as minus-40 degrees — sometimes delayed classes. Prothero said windy conditions were a more common factor.

"We have whiteouts," Prothero said. "It's possible to get lost even between the bus and the front door."

Leechburg student Matthew Tresco said he was interested to learn Barrow students sometimes had time off for "sun days" -- days when they could take advantage of nice weather.

"I like that they have a different culture than us," said Zoey Rosenberger, who learned Alaskans make boats from whale intestines.

Carrie Klingensmith was excited to learn there was a girl in the Barrow class with the same first name: "I can be in two places at once!"

The students enjoyed looking through pictures of Barrow, especially images of a polar bear, people in fur-lined coats and traditional Inupiat dress, and a shot of several kids sitting atop of a whale carcass.

Josh Ely, a student-teacher at David Leech, said there were several other whale-hunting pictures deemed too gory for the Leechburg children.

Ely, who is assisting teacher Tanya Sherbondy, organized the collaboration with the Barrow school to help engage his students in their geography lessons.

"The whole idea was to teach the students about different states and the people living there," Ely said.

Teachers from both schools said they would continue the correspondence and perhaps arrange more meetings via Skype. Even though the classes spoke for nearly an hour, Sherbondy's students said they had plenty more to ask.

Kat Yurjevich said she'd like to find out if the Barrow students exchange Silly Bandz bracelets. And Tanner Dudek wants to know what restaurants they have.

Students from both classrooms said they'd like to visit the other's hometown someday.

One Barrow student offered some practical advice for potential visitors: "Bring heavy coats and boots."

Additional Information:

Barrow vs. Leechburg

Both communities are part of the United States, but Barrow could seem like a foreign country to visitors from Leechburg.

The sun doesn't rise in Barrow from about Nov. 18 to Jan. 24, and it doesn't set from May 10 to Aug. 2.

The average temperature in Leechburg on Wednesday, at 17 degrees, was below normal. Barrow's average, minus-7 degrees, was above normal.

Leechburg is easily accessible by a relatively quick drive from Pittsburgh International Airport, about 30 miles away. Barrow is hard to access by road; visitors fly into Wiley Post-Will Rogers Memorial Airport from Fairbanks, Alaska, about 500 miles to the south.

Additional Information:

On the Web

To learn more about the information exchanged between the Tanya Sherbondy's classroom at David Leech Elementary School and Jeffrey Prothero's class at Fred Ipalook Elementary School, click here and then click on the Discovering Alaska link on the left side of the page.

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