Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Understanding + Communication = Trust: Cross-cultural blogging helps students challenge their own assumptions

Lack of Understanding + Lack of Communication = Lack of Trust

How many conflicts in the world can we trace back to that seemingly simple equation?  When people do not understand each other and they don't communicate with one another, then it makes it difficult for people to trust each other.  Of course, the nature of conflict is extremely complex , but the concept resonates with students because it is applicable to both global conflicts as well as interpersonal conflicts that they encounter every day.

A couple years ago, I made "Understanding + Communication = Trust" one of the themes of my 10th grade Global Studies/English class.  I actually completely stole this theme from a book that I read and now use in my classes, The Arab-American Handbook by Nawar Shora (which I mentioned in my last blog post).  Shora discusses the concept at length in his introduction, and in essence, the goal of his book is to fulfill the  "understanding" piece of Arab culture and history.

But what about the communication piece?   I figured that this would be a little more difficult, Our rural Pacific Northwest community is not exactly the bastion of cosmopolitanism.  Internet to the rescue!   I began to ask  my colleagues and friends if they had any connections with teachers in the Arab World or Middle East, and to my delight, it only took only about a month to find an English language teacher in Tangier, Morocco, who had about the same number of students and was willing to collaborate with me via Skype and set up a blog exchange for our students.   

Clara and I built our students' blog exchange from the bottom-up; we wrote the discussion questions together, set up the blog together, and kept in touch about when to assign posts and comments. This is our second year working on the project together, and it's still a work in progress. Students respond to discussion questions bi-weekly on their own blogs which are linked to a "home blog."  They write about all kinds of topics:  long-term goals, the ways in which teens in their communities are misunderstood, family recipes, favorite places, interests outside of school, music, books, family, heroes, social media, favorite holidays, the list goes on and on.  And then they spend some time exploring the blogs of their counterparts, leaving comments and asking questions.

So how do my students respond?  Overall, they tell me that they really enjoy the experience.  They are overwhelmingly surprised by how similar they are to their friends in Morocco.  But they are also come out of the project with genuine respect for the Moroccan students, especially because many of them are tri- or even quad-lingual and spend countless hours studying.  My students also come to understand that there is great diversity in both religious and cultural practices among their Moroccan blog partners, not unlike their own class in the United States.

Now, although Clara (my counterpart in Morocco) and I built our exchange on our own, there are many organizations that work towards connecting classrooms, including iEARN, Global Nomads, ePals, and Face to Faith, Skype in the Classroom, among others.

Here are some student reflections on the experience so far:  

"I have learned so much about the culture in Morocco. The students are into the same stuff we do; basketball, cooking, walking on the beach, and so much more similarities. The students in Tangier are also very smart. Some speak up to four languages! That amazes me. I love learning about everyone in Tangier."
"I have learned a lot through this experience so far. I have been able to learn about a variety of cultures and how the people in Tangier live. It’s nice to communicate with people so far away and be able to know so much about them. Along with all the differences I have learned how we are alike in many ways as well. Overall, this experience has taught me many new things."

"It surprised me how they are also obsessed with pizza as well as most Americans. They also have stereotypes about us like how we are all about drinking and partying, I thought that was funny considering I spend my weekend in my room with some netflix and ice cream."

"From what I have heard, I'm surprised how much they knew about us already. It’s also funny to hear what stereotypes they had about us. Also it’s interesting to find out what stereotypes we made that are false. We think they must be so different than us because of where they live, when really they have a lot of the same interests and likes as we do." 

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