Creating First Impressions Through Classroom Exchanges

Earlier this year in an EdWeek Global Learning blog post, Heather Singmaster suggested some ways to work toward global competence in the classroom without getting on an airplane. One of her recommendations was to connect with local universities and groups such as World Affairs Councils who often host international visitors. This spring I did just that.

I am fortunate to live and teach in Seattle – international visitors are always coming through town. In recent months, I have tried to create a few opportunities for my students to interact with the world by setting up brief cross-cultural exchanges in the classroom.

In late March, the World Affairs Council of Seattle was looking for a classroom to visit with a group of five community leaders from India. They were in Seattle as part of a three-week Department of State-sponsored project that focused on challenges that different ethnic and religious groups have overcome and continue to face. I invited them to come to my classroom for a one-hour meeting with my students.

I asked our school’s ASB advisor to set up a 15-minute student-led tour of our school to allow me some time to prep my students at the beginning of the period. As my students entered the classroom, we rearranged the tables into a large square. My students sat around three of the sides and left the front edge for our guests. I asked for volunteers to talk about what we were learning in class. And I requested that each student be prepared to introduce him or herself and to indicate if their families are from another state or country. We talked about the importance of speaking slowly and clearly and when to pause for the interpreters.

I didn’t know what to expect. This particular group of students had declined to attend several optional opportunities to engage with guest speakers earlier in the semester. Many of them were struggling with attendance. And even if they did attend class regularly, I hadn’t prepared them for this discussion previously. But when our guests walked in, my students instantly transformed themselves into world diplomats. They sat up straight, made eye contact with the guests, and introduced themselves with confidence.

We spoke for an hour about fresh water scarcity and water pollution, two issues that we were studying in our class. One of the guests explained what it is like to have to bathe in and drink water from a river that is polluted with toxic runoff and human waste. My students and our guests asked each other and responded to several questions and when our time was up, we posed for a group photo outside. As we walked back to the classroom, the first thing out of my students’ mouths was, “When can we do this again?”

The students who appeared least engaged in class the day before now were eager for more opportunities to learn from international perspectives. The short visit ignited a spark that led some students to express a new desire to travel abroad. And for me, I created a new course in my mind: a series of units on various global issues, each anchored by one or two visits from international guest speakers. How fun would that be?

So what made this experience different than a typical guest speaker appearance? My students said afterward that they loved meeting people who had never been to the United States before. In other words, they had the opportunity to help create first impressions.

In my next post, I’ll share another recent exchange between my students and youth their age from Bosnia and Herzegovina.

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