PictureFrom National Geographic's 2013 Year in Review
“…it is quite enough if [educational exchange] contributes to the feeling of a common humanity, to an emotional awareness that other countries are populated not by doctrines that we fear but by people with the same capacity for pleasure and pain, for cruelty and kindness, as the people we were brought up with in our own countries.”  --Senator J. William Fulbright

Teachers trying to globalize their practice often ask me how to develop a successful, socially responsible collaboration with a teacher, classroom or sister school elsewhere in the world.  To be honest, I’ve been frustrated by how many potentially excellent partnerships I’ve seen tank over the last few years, so I no longer promise anything beyond making introductions and sharing strategies.  There is no magic wand in this work--there is a lot of trial and error, a lot of struggling and risk, and a lot of work involved in building a successful global educational partnership. 

But there’s also no question that students are moved by real human connections more than anything else we do in our increasingly global classrooms, so it’s worth trying to bring authentic partnerships into that mix.  In this article, I’ll explore a few strategies which I hope might help educators build their own partnerships successfully, though I hesitate to suggest that I’ve figured out the perfect formula--I hope readers will share their insights in the comments as well.

Look first to existing networks, relationships and organizations for your ideal global partner.  Finding a good partner teacher, classroom and even sister school community can be much more of a crap shoot than most global educators would like to admit.  Even wonderful, established organizations like iEARN and TakingITGlobal--and well-developed programs for partnership like Flat ClassroomChallenge 20/20 and Global Partners Junior--have plenty of train wrecks in their track record.  The bottom line is that it’s hard to develop a deep and collaborative relationship with colleagues in our own buildings, much less with unknown strangers across the planet.

I’ve found that the best partnerships come from existing connections in the teacher’s life and extended community.  Have any of your former colleagues moved to work in schools in other parts of the world?  Did any college friends end up doing unusual work globally?  Have current colleagues taught abroad or do they know people who are doing so now?  These questions can lead to much more personal, individualized connections--and are more likely to succeed because they will more likely spring from the vested interest of both educators. 

I also know plenty of educators who have found good partners by advertising under the #globaled and #globalclassroom hash tags on Twitter, however--my point is just that deep collaboration requires full investment on both sides, and this isn’t easy to find.  In terms of finding like-minded educators, I love the yearly online Global Education Conference, and its year-round community network hosted by Lucy Gray and Steve Hargadon.  The conference community functions as a Professional Learning Network, offering a forum throughout the year for seeking global partners and sharing project ideas, and the conference itself often leads to new connections and collaborations (recordings of previous years’ sessions are available on the community pages).  Similarly, international webinars and e-courses such as the one I teach for TakingITGlobal for Educators can be an ideal forum for developing projects, getting feedback on project ideas, and finding a global partner with similar interests.

Establish your partnership based on socially responsible and culturally responsive foundations.  One of my biggest concerns about global education is the tendency of educators in the developed world to see the rest of the world as something to be explored for the sake of their own curriculum.  There’s a level of exploitation suggested in this common paradigm, if not intended, which leaves one partner classroom working for the benefit of the other.  Mutual benefit and opportunity is key to a socially responsible and culturally responsive partnership, and this requires that both educators come to the table with an empty plate.  What I mean is that educators need to approach their partners as equals, with a willingness to start the conversation without too much of their own personal agenda, with a curiosity about the needs and interests of the other teacher.  The best partnerships grow out of collaborative, equal dialogue between educators--and students.  Furthermore, mutually beneficial projects, such as having both communities work on a problem they share, can go a long way to helping our students see that global education isn’t about saving or even helping others so much as collaborating toward a better world for everyone through the gifts each person brings to the table.

Educational consultant and friend Tim Kubik and I wrote on the topic of avoiding exploitative, even imperialistic forms of global partnering in a simultaneous blog posting in Fall 2012.  We agreed that the biggest danger of global education is the emerging paradigm of developed schools exploiting less-developed communities for their educational advantage in a way which dehumanizes the less developed by suggesting they don’t have as much to offer a global collaboration (see Tim’s “Global Education as THE Dialogue Among Civilizations” and my “Our Messy World: Learning From and With, Not About”).  If we want students to stop “othering” and start seeing the world’s cultures as possessing a richness and history we can learn from and engage with, we have to start by making the global relationships themselves more important than any educational or curricular agenda.

Partner your classroom for the sake of authentic connection over “exotic” cultural differences or distance.  It’s important to notice--and avoid--an “exoticism” mentality if it starts to emerge.  I often work with educators, for example, who insist on finding a global partner from the most distant and/or culturally different country possible, usually in the developing world--not because it’s relevant to their curriculum but because it feels more exotic or “gritty” than partnering with a Canadian school, for example.  However, this mentality can often exacerbate social inequalities rather than combatting ideas about “the West and the Rest,” and in doing so can end in projects which go directly against the equal partnership goals of responsible global education. 

Global educators can’t be blamed for wanting to develop something unique and far reaching for their students, but it’s also important that students learn about poverty and difficulty in our own societies.  The “glocal” education movement asks us to consider important global questions on a local level:  Could your students learn as much about collaborating to end poverty by partnering with a food bank in your own city?  Could they connect to ancient cultures and reach the same level of inter-cultural skills and relationships through a trip to the American Southwest as much as a trip to Peru?  Most of our challenges are shared, borderless challenges, and understanding that helps students stop abstracting issues like poverty and conflict into something which only happens outside of North America--and in doing so opens new avenues of action and engagement in global change at home. 

Don’t expect immediate success--deep, constructive global relationships require a marathon, not a sprint.  The challenges of global partnerships are many, and teachers have to develop the same inter-cultural skills as they hope to foster in their students in order to be successful.  The learning curve can be long--and that means global partnerships are rarely efficient, easy to organize, or completely successful the first time around.  The worst thing you can do, however, is jump from partner to partner in search of the “perfect” pairing--the best partnerships are rarely perfect to begin with.  The moral of the story is to work at it, to think of the partnership as a long-term relationship which will improve with time and effort, and to expect things to be messy for the first year or two.  Whether it’s navigating time zone differences (east to west), school year differences (north to south), trouble-shooting differences in technological access, or just trying to communicate regularly and well, you can expect this relationship to take effort--and to get richer and deeper as you put in that effort.

It’s essential to accept the limitations of technology and work within its potential, but it’s also important to think beyond technology as well.  Global communication and relationships reach their deepest level through in-person experiences--and no matter how much technology has done for the global educational field, it will never replace the value of international travel for teachers and students with relationship-oriented organizations such as World Leadership School.  Whether this is a teacher traveling to connect personally with their partner teacher(s) or students traveling to connect their communities, there is no question that deep relationships--especially on the level of sister schools--require more than email and Skype calls.

Keep your expectations realistic in year one--consider small successes significant successes, and build something bigger from there.  It’s reasonable to say that most teachers go into global partnerships expecting too much their first time around, largely because the prospect of a global collaboration is so exciting and we have trouble controlling ourselves.  Much of the time, however, when teachers try to accomplish too much too quickly, they leave the topics students find most relevant.  By creating a space for less content- or standards-driven dialogue about favorite movies or day-to-day life, we can help build the foundations for much deeper dialogue later by helping kids see what they have in common. Bigger successes and deeper virtual events on global issues and perspectives might come later, but small successes count in the meantime.

Just knowing how to connect Skype doesn’t mean there will be a deep and meaningful dialogue between classrooms; in fact, navigating the awkward silences and discomfort of the first few Skype sessions is often what turns new teachers away from global education. I’ve seen huge, high-tech global events go to heck in a hand basket on million dollar equipment, and I’ve seen a no-budget Facetime call change students’ lives.  Remember that deep global experiences aren’t about fancy technologies and big events--they’re usually about small accidental moments which occurred because the teachers created the right context for dialogue and didn’t push the kids too far too fast.  I’ve had many experiences where a simple, seemingly innocuous question in a video conference drew out something meaningful and helped students connect with the world authentically; if you’re hungry for examples, see “Creating the Conditions for Accidental Learning: Dialogue with Syrians, Palestinians, Canadians… and Wookies.”

Consider building smaller experiences and “one-offs” with individuals to fill the gaps while deeper partnerships develop.  Sometimes it makes best sense to supplement the developing partnership with a few Skype sessions with relevant individuals who can help to take the conversation deeper.  People all over the world are involved in creating change in their homes, schools, communities and beyond, and most are so passionate that they’re thrilled to engage with classrooms and inspire the next generation to become leaders in their fields.  Especially in the first few years of developing a deeper partnership with a classroom or school, these one-off experiences can really help globalize the dialogue in your classroom immediately, and speakers can be found in non-profits, non-governmental organizations, and even your alumni directory.

Particularly among higher-level teachers, I’ve noticed a tendency default to Skyping with semi-famous or major “experts” in a given field, and this makes sense when an expert can answer student-generated questions better than a young person can.  However, I’ve found that sometimes more important connections happen when kids get to meet an individual who’s closer to their age and not yet considered important for their efforts.  For example, I often connect classrooms with Yasser Alaa Mobarak, a young Egyptian photographer who has done a great deal of work with iEARN.  He shares his photography, talks about what he hopes viewers will see, answers questions from the kids, and then invites students to continue the photographic dialogue and sharing in a private group he’s set up on Facebook.  Honestly, no number of experts in Middle Eastern politics could ever impact kids as much as just one of Yasser’s photographs because they’re real, raw, and relevant.  Most importantly, connecting with someone like Yasser demonstrates that young people don’t have to be famous to make a difference through their individual efforts and passions.

Remember that communication will take patience and inter-cultural skills, particularly in cases where teachers don’t share a common language.  While language differences can slow down the initial steps in a global partnership, teachers have an opportunity to develop--and model--the kinds of inter-cultural communication skills needed for culturally-responsive global engagement.  By making use of local expertise--among colleagues, students and parents--we can help spotlight the gift of foreign language proficiency among members of our community, and can help students see the value of learning another language in real terms.  By testing (rather than avoiding) the technological tools available for translation, we can also help students become more discerning about their value and better at identifying accuracies.  My suggestion is usually that teachers communicate in their native language and use resources (people, translators, etc.) to understand what they receive, but there is great value in trying and practicing your partner’s language as well--and there is little more valuable for young language learners than seeing the example of adult learners taking risks with a new language.

Be thoughtful about how you handle inter-cultural and personality differences that pose challenges along the way.  Other nuances of communication can also pose challenges, and differences of tone and communication style can often cause more difficulty than pure language use.  I’ve seen teachers from culturally aggressive countries inadvertently offend teachers from more culturally submissive regions, I’ve seen teachers from “nice” cultures politely agree to things they have no intention of doing, and I’ve seen teachers from argumentative cultures create conflict without meaning to.  The best advice I can give is to be transparent.  To meet in a face-to-face setting like Skype can be a huge help, but more importantly transparency means letting your partner teacher know when you hit a road bump.  Try to engage in dialogue rather than avoid confrontation if you’re struggling with an element of the project or communication--let your partner know if you’re bad at answering emails around exam times, let them know how you respond to stress.  Just as we want our students to lean into discomfort and learn to collaborate effectively in spite of--perhaps even because of--our differences, we need to do the same ourselves.

Read what’s out there and learn from what others have tried; more progress happens when we stop reinventing the wheel.  There are far too many good publications for global educators to list them all, but I’ll name a few I’ve been exploring lately--and liking.  I hope readers will add to the list by commenting about books, articles and other resources worth exploring.

Books:
Blogs:
  • Suzie Boss (Regular Edutopia blogger with expertise in Project-Based Learning who often shares stories of successful global partnerships and projects)
  • Silvina Tolisano’s “Langwitches” (Varied Global and Educational Technology Topics from a Classroom Practitioner, The Graded School, Brazil)
  • Kristen Goggin’s “Stories from the Garage” (Global PBL in Middle School Math from a Classroom Practitioner, Town School for Boys, California)


 


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