Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Germany: From a 2D Textbook to a 4D Exchange

I conducted a very different kind of exchange with Germany this past year in my school. The students I taught, this time, were 7th and 8th grade students in a more typical small private school. Anti-bias education is a core part of the school’s mission and with that comes empathy. In history class, students spent a great deal of time learning about the Holocaust and World War II. What better way to show how far Germans, especially young Germans, had come from the era of oppressing and killing Jews and other minority populations than to have my students interact with their German equivalent?

We began the exchange through snail mail. It was an opportunity for students to practice their writing skills and for the German students to practice their English writing skills with their English teacher who led the charge. Once again, I found the teacher through ePals, and we quickly established a routine of how these letters would go. The excitement on the students’ faces when they received their first letters in the mail from Germany was contagious! As they read and looked at the pictures that were included, they became curious about what others wrote as well. It was clear that soon enough, these kids across the ocean became real for them.

The German students beckoned from a town just an hour outside of Bremen, which may sound familiar if you’ve ever read the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale, “The Bremen Town Musicians.” It also happens to be a classic Russian cartoon that was a favorite of mine growing up in a Russian household. I showed my students a segment of this cartoon, and I’ll never forget their laughter when the donkey sings, “yeah-yeah-yeah-yeah” at the end. This fun little tidbit even made it into some of their letters back to the German students.

On a more serious note, there was a moment of growth that my students and I experienced in the process of this pen pal exchange. At one point, my students felt that they were not getting the same thoroughness of responses they felt they were putting into their letters. While I hadn’t taken the time to read all the German students’ letters, I did have a fairly good idea of what my own students had written. I glanced over a few German letters and at first reminded them that English was not their first language. They felt there was something more to it, so I inquired with the teacher about what it could be. In her response, the German teacher was shocked and upset by my remarks. She then went into full detail about the effort that some of her students put forth in writing their letters. She explained how she sat with some students for hours at a time deciphering the meaning of my students’ letters before crafting their own response. Others needed to request help from their parents in order to compose their letter. She pointed out how some of my students sent letters that were quite short for native English speakers and without photos to add that personal touch. I shared the contents of this email with my students and there was a moment of pause felt when they realized how difficult it can be to learn a new language and write lengthy responses in that language. Some of my students are already bilingual and many have been learning Spanish from a young age, but some truly took what I said to heart. On my end, I encouraged students to write more detailed responses in which they shared more stories about themselves rather than just recounting individual, unrelated facts.

The art of letter writing is not a frequently applied one, and while it came naturally to some, others needed idea upon idea for how to expand what they had written. In the age of Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram, I wonder how unacquainted some of these kids are or will be with personal or even casual writing that spans longer than 140 characters or a caption on an image. Furthermore, in the spirit of building that personal touch, to end the year, I filmed students saying a few parting words to their pen pal and sent it to the German teacher to share with her students. They reciprocated and even went so far as to film themselves showing off their school campus!

While some students felt they had not gained a great deal from the experience because of the infrequent letters and occassional moments of miscommunication, others wanted to continue the exchange past the end of the school year. Some have shared their social media handles and names they use when playing interactive or online video games. Through the imperfections of the system, I learned about the importance of setting clearer expectations around letter writing and what sorts of things are worth sharing. My students learned about how things can be lost in translation, but also how much they can have in common with kids their age from a foreign country. As many of them enter high school, they know that they have a contact in Germany if they ever need it, and they have just a bit more knowledge of how different Germany is now from the one portrayed in their studies of World War II.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

A Ghanaian Exchange

As a teacher, I always strive to expand my students’ thinking about the world we live in. While working at a residential school for high school students with severe social, emotional, and behavioral disabilities, I discovered a website called ePals where teachers can create profiles and connect with other teachers from all over the globe. You can read other teachers’ profiles, which include a description of the school they work in, the age of their students, how long they’ve been teaching, and what languages they speak.

A teacher from Bolgatanga, Ghana expressed an interest in connecting his classroom with mine. He is a technology teacher who seeks to show his students the positive role technology can play. My goal was to excite my students about the opportunity to practice their social skills with new people outside of our small school, and develop an understanding of a new culture. I messaged him through ePals and eventually we exchanged Skype information. The teacher and I video chatted and discussed the plan for how we were going to bridge the gap between our two classrooms and countries. We shared some information about each other and I spoke to my students about the possibility of this connection happening.

To prepare my students, I showed them where Ghana was on the map and gave them a little context regarding the environment there.  So often we get a singular view of Africa and I thought this would be a great opportunity to break down those stereotypes and meet real people from a country in Africa. As the Special Education Teacher, I was responsible for teaching every subject to this group of seven students. I used it as an opportunity for interdisciplinary work. For reading and writing class, we read a short story by a Ghanaian author. In history class, we read current events articles about Ghana and for science, we read a blog post from a traveler who went there and visited the region in which Bolgatanga is located (Upper East). The blog writer described a great deal about the warm climate and the technological resources available in Bolgatanga. In math, we imagined ourselves preparing for a trip to Ghana and considered all the costs that would go into making such a trip using real airfare prices and tour costs. We had to take the exchange rate into account as well: US $1 = 5.43 Ghanaian Cedis.

After a little over a month of preparing, we were finally able to set up our first Skype call. My students huddled around the computer and eagerly introduced themselves to the students from Ghana. They sat with their hands folded quietly awaiting for the Ghanaian students to pick up the call. We were fortunate that there is only a four hour time difference and the students there are attending a public residential school, which is common for secondary students who have passed the exam and wish to go on with their education. In fact, Ghana prides itself on having a strong education system compared to some of the surrounding countries in Western Africa.

Finally, the Bolgatanga students answered the call. They asked each other questions about their schools and the weather and what kinds of sports they play. There were moments of laughter and enthusiasm that really transformed the atmosphere in the classroom for those 40 minutes while we were talking. In the second half of the call, the students connected over music and sang songs to each other. After each song, the other group of students applauded and cheered for them! Given that the majority of my students at that school were students of color, it was special for them to meet Africans who looked like them and took an interest in them. They realized that they have quite a bit in common with each other - particularly when it comes to their musical interests. They were not being judged for being in a special school or for their work ethic, but instead, were being celebrated for their social abilities.

When meeting separately with their teacher later on over Skype, we discussed topics to cover for our next meeting and decided on music – given the strong interest the students demonstrated. Both the teacher from Ghana and I asked our respective students what their favorite songs and artists were and shared that with each other. We listened through the songs and made comments about what we thought of them. We planned to have a second meeting and had scheduled a time to do so, but unfortunately, government circumstances in Ghana prevented it. I learned much later from the teacher that students had to be sent home for a few months because of the lack of food. Given that it was a public school, the government was responsible for providing not just a quality education, but also nutritional value, and it turns out they were in debt. The leader had gotten behind on payments for the food leaving the school with no other choice. It was hard for me as an American educator to fathom such a circumstance in which students would be deprived of an education because the government couldn’t afford to feed them. I wondered if there was a way to continue the learning from home for these students. This was definitely a teachable moment for me and for my students to truly value the education we have. I imagine the students there were grateful when they were able to return to the school again.