How to Create a Successful International Classroom Partnership

I’ll never forget reading letters aloud from students in Washington D.C. to my students in Sofia, Bulgaria.

“Do y’all have Walmart?” I read one day, then looked around at the confused faces in my room.

“What’s a Walmart?” they wanted to know.

Of course, chatting about the surface of the cities they lived in was just a tiny piece of the puzzle. When kids get to know kids in other countries, there is so much they can learn – about both what’s different, and really, what’s the same.

Today on the podcast, I’m happy to share a conversation with Andrea Greer, long-time international teacher in Japan, who is now running a wonderful project that bridges students in five different countries as they learn about books, life, and each other. You’ll come away from this episode with ideas for designing the nuts and bolts of an international project, but also with inspiration for why it’s so worth the effort.

You can listen in to episode 158 below, click here to tune in on any podcast player, or read on for the full post.

Home Base: Japan

Andrea has been teaching in Japan since 2010, when she first hopped on a plane with her ten-year-old son to start a new chapter in their lives. She’s been there through the earthquake, and now through COVID.

Why try an International Project

Before we get into the structure of her current project, let’s take a second to talk about the benefits of an international collaboration.

Here are just a few:

Authentic Audience: Students know their peers are reading their work, watching their videos, and listening to them in conversation. This provides a special motivation to step it up.

Diverse Responses: Students get to see how people feel differently about big ideas and big questions across many cultures, and learn from each other’s diverse experiences.

Leadership: As students in each location realize that their international peers know very little about the country where they are, they step into a role as leaders on where they are at the same time that they become learners about the other place.

A Five Country Collaboration

Since 2017, Andrea has been running a collaboration that now spans five countries. She first began to design it in grad school, crafting a global project in which students would read about different cultures and world issues, then discuss them across international lines.

Then, when one of her colleagues moved to England, she knew she’d have one rock solid partner. She advertised for another in the Creative High School English Facebook group and was careful to, in her words, be “very bossy” so that she would have another partner who really understood the commitment. So then the group spanned England, Japan, and The United States.

Together, the three teachers figured out systems that would work well to connect their choice literature groups online. Student would choose the novels they wanted to read from several options, then share their lit circle discussions online with Flipgrid and their written analysis with Padlet.

As the project grew and solidified, they added partners in France and Vietnam.

The five groups added more layers, like doing Mystery flips at the beginning to reveal their locations, having some of their meetings out and about in their home countries to add more depth to what they could share about their locations, and even exchanging goodie boxes in the mail.

Students sharing more about where they’re from with their partners through their video locations

Structural Milestones

Andrea and her team start the project in third quarter, once they’ve developed relationships with their students and introduced all the tech platforms they’ll be working with. Her class does a mini collaboration with partners in France in quarter two as a warm up, and she hypes the project leading up to quarter three.

Once they introduce the choice books and find out which texts students are interested in, they all spend some time on a short story mentor text leading into the unit so the teachers have time to form the groups and assign the texts. Andrea suggests creating groups with many students rather than one-to-one partners, as it’s much easier to keep the momentum of conversation going if you’re not just waiting for one person to post or respond.

Next, each group does a mystery flipgrid video so their partners can guess where they’re located.

Now that the students are familiar with the tech, know where their partners are located, and have chosen their books and warmed up to their unit through the short story, the project can begin. It’s a lot of frontloading, but that’s what makes it work. By day two of the collaboration, the reading and conversations really take on energy and the kids are engaged. It’s important to set up this type of project carefully, so the enthusiasm for it doesn’t peter out.

As students begin to talk to each other, they pick up on others’ reactions to the text, and also on what others notice or do not notice that may be different from their own reactions.

For example, when reading Enrique’s Journey, the ideas about immigration shared by students in Japan and Vietnam where very different from ideas in France and The United States.

Helping kids prepare to respect cultural differences and differences of opinion is an important part of any international project.

As the project wraps up, students continue to share pictures with their teachers to a private collab Instagram feed. Some students stay in touch, and the classes in general have a new awareness of other parts of the world. Some students connect on social media or play online games together. The five participating schools share goodie boxes through the mail as a final celebration of their work together.

Tips for Getting Started

The first step is to find a partner and come up with a vision for your project – large or small. Consider starting with a quick and easy collaboration that doesn’t involve too many moving parts, then as you develop a relationship and experience with your partner you can consider adding more depth.

Watch out for the two most common stumbling blocks:

One teacher gets overwhelmed and gives up: Keep it simple at first, and leave flexibility so that if someone doesn’t get to something on a certain day, there’s a bit of wiggle room. Things happen.

Technology gets too tricky: Make sure your students have learned how to use your collab platforms in advance, so the actual sharing is easy and smooth.

Finally, remember to consider time zones. If you’re working with an overseas teacher, chances are you will not be able to create live interactions, but that’s OK. Build in ways to connect that don’t involve live video.

Global collaboration is amazing! It can change your classroom and bring you and your students so much joy. Andrea hopes you’ll step into that discomfort zone and push through the initial steps so you can find out just how wonderful it can be.

Ready to find a partner? Hop into this thread in Creative High School English to find a partner and ask Andrea any questions you might have.

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