All virtual exchanges are unique, but teachers play an important role in many of these programs. In honor of Teacher Appreciation Week, we interviewed teachers who have brought virtual exchange to their classrooms. Khadija Mezdighet is a high school English teacher at Abtih High School in Morocco, and participated in Stevens Initiative Connected Classrooms. Katoya Johnson and Tracy Jackson teach 8th grade at Sousa Middle School in Washington, D.C., where Katoya teaches performing arts and Tracy teaches social studies. Katoya and Tracy facilitated Empatico’s Coding with Empathy Challenge.
Before diving into each teacher’s experience with virtual exchange, read quotes from our grantees about what makes Khadija, Katoya, and Tracy special.
Jennifer Geist, a trainer for Stevens Initiative Connected Classrooms, shared, “there are many things I could say about Khadija. She has tremendous enthusiasm, perseverance, and an admirable fearlessness. She has the soul of a teacher because she is a devoted learner – most notably she appreciates a learning curve and loves her students deeply. I believe what drives Khadija is a deep curiosity!”
The Empatico team reflected that “what makes Katoya and Tracy so special as educators is their commitment to bringing authentic cultural and virtual exchange experiences to their students. At the end of the program, they even collaborated with their partner facilitator in Cairo, Ahmed, to host a traditional Egyptian birthday party, which included cuisine and activities typical of celebrations in Egypt. There is no doubt at all that Katoya and Tracy go above and beyond to ensure their students have truly immersive cultural learning experiences.”
Why did you want to bring virtual exchange to your classroom?
Khadija Mezdighet: This virtual exchange was an amazing experience since it was my first ever and my students’ first as well. So, both my students and I were able to experience sharing and interacting with different people from different cultures.
Katoya Johnson and Tracy Jackson: Collaboration is a very powerful tool to facilitate student learning and understanding of concepts and projects. Technology is an integral part of society as well as education. This virtual exchange has allowed our students at Sousa the opportunity to connect with students across the globe using the very same skills we incorporate into our teaching styles.
What is one of your favorite moments from your virtual exchange?
KM: The best moment was when both classes were engaged with each other, showing their jeans and clothes to each other, which led to discussion about favorite clothes and styles. At this moment, I felt that fluent communication was being built among both classes that melted away all kinds of cultural barriers.
KJ and TJ: There have been many awesome moments from our virtual exchange. One of the most powerful moments was watching our students here at Sousa Middle School interact with their peers across the globe. Many of our students have not traveled abroad and have only experienced Egypt throughout their class lessons. Having authentic and real time exchanges with students in Cairo, Egypt, is something that they will remember for years to come.
What impact has virtual exchange had on your students?
KM: In general, virtual exchange makes students aware of cultural values and the use of soft skills, a learning outcome I’m going to carry into my teaching approach.
KJ and TJ: This virtual exchange has had a huge impact on our students. I have noticed their inquisitive natures have increased. With our Egyptian luncheon, the students were curious about the food served as well as the local ingredients used to create the dishes. That led them to wonder about the natural resources of Egypt. Now they also have become very open to new experiences.
What lessons or experiences from implementing a virtual exchange will you carry into your overall teaching approach?
KM: For me, all the Connected Classrooms activities were great. Thanks to this experience, I’m totally convinced that teaching students about cultures of the world is really crucial, since they acquire new life skills through co-existing and collaborating with others of different cultures and beliefs.
KJ and TJ: This was a wonderful project to be able to share with our students and we plan to incorporate many of these aspects into our classrooms. Having students use various modes of technology that they normally don’t interact with is powerful. It allows us to assign projects and students will have the opportunity to complete those projects using these new modes of technology. On an upcoming end of the school year project, one of our Empatico participants is thinking about using coding to turn in their final product.
What advice would you give to another teacher interested in starting or joining a virtual exchange program?
KM: My advice would be to approach virtual exchange with patience and the readiness to deal with a lot of difficulties, such as time difference, making students aware of the aim of the project, technology problems, and holding the torch and leading the project’s activities. To conclude, I would love to extend my thanks on behalf of my students to all the leaders of this project who offer students this experience to learn about world cultural values that will make them world independent citizens.
KJ and TJ: For teachers who have agreed with or future teachers that are curious about participating in a virtual exchange program, an interest meeting for all students is suggested. This program can be very demanding, and it is very critical that students understand the time and work commitment that a virtual exchange project will demand. It will help if teachers produce a small-scale example of a finished product and begin to learn the basics of coding themselves before giving the project to students. It would also be very helpful if students had multiple times to engage in live conversation with their virtual exchange counterparts across the globe. It might be a wonderful idea to coordinate a shared experience between both groups where they experience the other groups.
Continue celebrating Teacher Appreciation Week with us by reading quotes from our grantees recognizing the ways that teachers go above and beyond to make virtual exchange possible for their students.