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Schools bypassing borders

Video technology allows teachers to bring together K12 classrooms from all corners of the world
WIDER WORLDVIEWS—At Fort Vancouver High School Center for International Studies in Washington, students Skype with their partner class in Brazil as part of UNESCO International’s Youth Virtual Town Hall on Global Citizenship. They worked on projects focused on sustainability, human rights and other topics.
WIDER WORLDVIEWS—At Fort Vancouver High School Center for International Studies in Washington, students Skype with their partner class in Brazil as part of UNESCO International’s Youth Virtual Town Hall on Global Citizenship. They worked on projects focused on sustainability, human rights and other topics.

In rural eastern Kentucky, teacher Jill Armstrong connects her high school students not just with towering historical figures, but also with real-live teens from schools on the other side of the world.

Armstrong, who teaches 12th-grade world history at Greenup County High School in the Greenup County School District, partnered with the City School in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, and Emrawah Secondary School for Girls in Ramtha, Jordan.

The 10- to 12-week project encouraged students to solve a problem in both countries and present their ideas at a school board meeting or another community gathering. This year, Armstrong’s class chose drugs, and explored the cause and effects of substance abuse locally, nationally and globally.

Throughout the project, the students exchanged photos and personal perspectives relating to their daily lives, culture, history and government.

Armstrong collaborated with partner teachers via email, Google Hangouts and Skype to discuss the activities for the project, which was organized by the Global Nomads Group, a nonprofit that has facilitated collaboration between about a million students in 60 countries.

Armstrong describes the international collaborations as an “eye-opening experience” for her students.

For example, her students were surprised to learn that there were cities in Jordan. The Jordanian students were surprised to learn that not everyone in Kentucky lives on a farm, has a horse or attends the Kentucky Derby.

“I want my students to see the world beyond Greenup County High School, beyond Kentucky, beyond the United States,” says Armstrong. “They will realize that a teen is a teen no matter where they are located.”

10 Tips for Teachers

Jill Armstrong, a world history teacher in Kentucky, offers tips for success in an international teaching collaboration program:

1. Find a reputable program that can help you connect to teachers in foreign countries. Depending on the country you want to connect with, governmental obstacles may be difficult resolving alone.

2. Embrace the learning. You don’t have to agree with the culture, but you can appreciate and respect the experience.

3. Be flexible. You’ll have to cope with time zones, security issues and language barriers.

(Continued.)

First-hand information

Such collaborations reflect the growing “virtual exchange” movement, as technology makes it easier for learners and educators from various parts of the world to share ideas and work on projects together, both in real-time and asynchronously.

Even better for educators is that most of the technology is relatively low-bandwidth, meaning rural, less affluent districts also have access, says Tonya Muro, executive director of iEarn USA, an international nonprofit that facilitates virtual classroom collaborations.

Districts are eager to join these programs because students learn to empathize and communicate with their peers from other parts of the world, whose daily lives may be vastly different. And in a world of blogs and fake news, such virtual exchanges allow students to get first-hand information from around the globe, Muro adds.

For districts that haven’t participated in such a collaboration, organizations such as iEarn can share with them lesson plans of teachers who have aligned the activities with core curriculum goals. “This country is so multicultural, we have no choice but to learn about ‘others’ if we want to survive as a nation,” Muro says.

10 Tips for Teachers (cont.)

4. Find another teacher/class in your school to join you.

5. If you have younger students, include the parents.

6. Make sure you have good computer connections, and time to use them.

7. Use pictures. All students of all ages and languages enjoy taking and sharing pictures.

Becoming part of the world

Ben Jatos’ students at Fort Vancouver High School Center for International Studies in Washington, have collaborated with peers in Brazil and elsewhere via UNESCO’s International Youth Virtual Town Hall on Global Citizenship.

The initiative also includes teens from Canada, Haiti, Kenya, New Zealand, Morocco, Palestine, the Philippines, Slovenia and Sweden.

Students worked on seven global citizenship assignments, which focused on sustainability, human rights, gender equality, cultural diversity and non-violence, among other topics. Students in the different countries posted writing assignments as blog posts, and compared their work.

Jatos’ students completed the project by collaborating to write the International Youth White Paper on Global Citizenship. The paper was presented to international delegates at the UNESCO Global Forum in Ottawa, Canada, just last month.

“Many of my students did not feel like part of the world before,” says Jatos. “And now they feel like they are part of something bigger. There is so much power in realizing that these kids are the same across the world.”

Jatos also saw an improvement in his students’ writing.

“They knew that when they write these blog posts there is a genuine audience who is going to read them—other students around the world,” says Jatos. “They put so much thought and effort into it that the product was stellar.”

One challenge was finding the extra time for the independent study project during the school day. Jatos says he sometimes pulled students out of regular classes, and other work was done during lunch and after school.

Jatos and his students have interacted twice with foreign classes in real-time using Cisco’s WebEx platform. Jatos and his students had to get up quite early to account for the time difference.

Jatos’ projects have enjoyed his superintendent’s full support. “Future-ready students need future-ready learning environments,” says Steve Webb, superintendent of Vancouver Public Schools.

“In an interconnected and interdependent world, young people must learn how to understand global issues, communicate with diverse audiences and act as responsible and compassionate citizens.”

International collaborations are valuable for teachers, as well.

“A teacher spends so much of their time within four little walls that we lose sight of big-picture things sometimes,” says Jatos. “Our world gets small; international collaborations remind us that there is so much out there, and that the world is a big place.”

10 Tips for Teachers (cont.)

8. Have a goal in mind as to what you want your class to get out of the experience.

9. Communicate regularly with your partner teacher via email, Skype or Google Hangout.

10. Have fun with it. Your students will remember it forever.

Respect, tolerance and understanding

Longtime educator Christine Terrey, head teacher at Harbour Primary School in Newhaven, England, has participated in many international teaching projects. But one is most memorable: a two-year digital literacy project in which her classes collaborated with Robert Morris Elementary School in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

With videoconferencing, the students shared their perspectives on various assignments face-to-face. “Technically, you could do this collaboration with a classroom in a town next door to you, but what the children found interesting was the cultural differences between England and America,” says Terrey.

Harbour Primary School evaluated students at the end of each year of the project. They had to regularly listen, speak and share their work with students in Scranton.

As a result, students’ scores on speaking and listening assessments increased, in part due to the digital literacy project.

More recently, Terrey has set up relationships with other K12 educators through Discovery Education Network, of which she is a founding member in the United Kingdom.

Her classes participate in “mystery Skype” where students learn about geography with students in the United States, Turkey and Sweden.

“The wonderful thing about technology is that it absolutely brings the outside world into our schools,” says Terry. “It’s important for children to understand the similarities and differences of other cultures—it’s about respect, tolerance and understanding.”