On February 17, 2022, students from Lubny Specialized School 6 in Ukraine and students from Whitney Young Magnet High School in Chicago met for the first time as part of a video conference on civic participation. “Our students seemed to like each other immediately,” said Yulia Nikul, assistant principal at Lubny. The teachers exchanged contacts in the chat, with plans to engage further.
A few days later, war broke out.
After news about the Russian invasion spread, Whitney Young students created videos for their peers at Lubny, offering messages of support and hope in Ukrainian.
“At the time, my students and I didn’t know what was happening. We were scared and vulnerable,” said Nikul. “Many students left the country in the first days, moving to western regions [of the country.] School was canceled. Nevertheless, I shared the videos with my students.”
The videos launched a year-and-a-half-long exchange between students from both regions. Students at Whitney Young sent posters, photos, videos, and emails during a time of uncertainty and unrest. The “kindness, support, and mutual understanding inspired further collaboration,” said Nikul.
To continue cultivating a deeper and more meaningful relationship between their students, Nikul and Anne-Michele Boyle, a Global Citizenship and AP World History educator at Whitney Young Magnet High School, turned to the HomeStories project.
The HomeStories project is an outgrowth of the Out of Eden Walk, National Geographic Explorer and journalist Paul Salopek’s storytelling trek around the world. HomeStories features an interactive map where people of all ages in countries across the globe answer the question: Where do you most feel at home? They also post photos and reflect on who they are, where they’re from, and where they’re going. The idea is to have fun meeting one another while using shared experiences of home to foster greater understanding.
“I was hesitant to bring up our initial plan,” said Boyle, "because a number of Yulia’s students had fled to neighboring countries and the students that remained in their hometown were experiencing a “home” that was drastically different than it was before the war. I was afraid that a HomeStories exchange would further the trauma that Yulia and her students were already experiencing … much to my delight, Yulia responded emphatically that she and her students were very much looking forward to it.”
What resulted was a beautiful opportunity to discover new expressions of home, to find commonalities, and to create bonds.
When the region stabilized, Nikul and Boyle worked together to arrange a virtual opportunity for students to present their HomeStories live. Boyle shared that this scheduled time was especially meaningful because it was the first time since the war began that students at Lubny would be back in their school building. On the morning of the HomeStories event, air raids indicating a nearby missile forced Nikul and her students to take shelter. “We were very concerned about Yulia and her students’ safety,” Boyle said. About 45 minutes later, Lubny students were able to return to their classroom and were still excited to connect for their planned HomeStory exchange.
“The next 40 minutes were beautiful,” said Boyle. “Our students, despite being 5,000 miles away, took turns exchanging their HomeStories; some were heartbreaking, some were comforting, and all were inspiring illustrations of resiliency. We concluded the video conference by singing together. Ms. Yulia played her guitar, and we all sang Добрий ранок, Україно (Good Morning Ukraine). Our friendship deepened because of our HomeStory exchange.”
The HomeStories exchange launched a series of online engagements encouraging students to continue connecting. They have discussed a range of topics: education, family traditions, cuisine, arts, and engaging with the news. Sometimes online exchanges resulted in cooperative creation; students have created posters, songs, and videos. They even exchanged Christmas letters and presents.
“This collaboration helps many of us distract from sad thoughts and gain hope,” said Nikul. “My students don’t mind sharing their feelings about the war and the whole situation in Ukraine now; though at the very beginning, it was difficult both for them and for me. They feel like sharing to spread the word about Ukraine and our partners are sure to get truthful facts. They also learn a lot about each other’s cultures and identities.”
Their routine conversations inspired a more profound interest in the systemic issues driving the conflict in Ukraine.
Through the Pulitzer Center’s virtual journalist visits program, both educators invited PBS NewsHour Special Correspondent Simon Ostrovsky, a Pulitzer Center grantee, to discuss global press freedoms, disinformation, and misinformation as it relates to the conflict in Ukraine.
Between their sessions with Ostrovsky, Boyle’s and Nikul’s classes met to discuss media literacy, focusing on a disinformation campaign about the relationship between Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky and U.S. President Joe Biden.
“Now we follow (Ostrovsky) on social media and discuss his new entries,” said Nikul. “We know he visited Ukraine in February. We also exchange news and try to analyze what we read. The meeting proved to be informative, educational, and thought-provoking.”
Nikul and Boyle aren’t strangers to tackling contemporary global issues in their classrooms. Both are experienced educators. They center communication, critical thinking, media and digital literacy, and global citizenship skills. Boyle, a longtime collaborator with the Pulitzer Center’s education department, has always encouraged her students to cultivate a global mindset by inviting journalists to engage with her students through the Pulitzer Center’s virtual visit program and introducing systemic global issues to her students through Pulitzer Center resources.
“It's about encouraging students' curiosity to investigate the world, globally and locally," said Boyle. "It’s about getting students to recognize diverse perspectives, find connections, and have empathy. Global education is about getting students to be able to effectively engage in dialogue with different groups to take action and improve the world around them ultimately. With technology today, projects like the Out of Eden Walk HomeStories [developed in partnership with] National Geographic and the Pulitzer Center, it has never been easier to connect our students globally.”
After nearly a year of connecting routinely, the classes have another HomeStories exchange scheduled for May and are hunting for resources to facilitate an in-person meeting.
“Despite the difference in cultures and languages, we can always understand each other,” said Nikul. “The war impacted it heavily. It triggered compassion and sympathy, sincerity, and trust. We became not only partners but friends. My students value this relationship and often confess that it helped recover from the shock and depression many of us experienced.”
“We are all more empathetic and globally minded because of the experience,” added Boyle. “My students have all become ambassadors for Ukraine because of our exchange. My students talk to family, friends, and neighbors about our friends in Ukraine. They teach them about the limited electricity they now have, they teach them about the challenges our friends face daily, and they teach them about the resiliency and hope that we feel every time we finish a call because we are so inspired by our friends 5,000 miles away.”