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Increasing Communication Through Sister-School Programs

Kristal Bivona on how increased access to communications technology through sister schools has created new ways schools can use to develop international partnerships

Among the limits of the traditional classroom are the walls. While educators preach the importance of experiential learning, cultural exchange and mutual understanding in a globalized society, the classes they teach are typically confined to the impermeable box that is the classroom. One way to break outside of the box is to engage in a sister-school partnership with a school or classroom in another country. Sister schools work together in a number of ways to provide a cultural experience for students and to internationalize their education. While some sister-school programs include a travel component, many classes enjoy forging relationships with overseas counterparts through pen pals, video conference calls, email, and chat without the goal of ever meeting in person. Sister schools can connect through third parties or establish their own connections and make their own rules. Some school districts and cities offer guidelines to facilitate establishing sister schools, while individual administrators or teachers can use social media to reach out.

Ensuring a Fruitful Partnership
First and foremost to any solid intercultural relationship, be it between individuals or between institutions, is mutual respect for each party’s culture. There are many ways to demonstrate respect for the sister culture. Faculty should make a point of learning about the partner country’s history, people, politics, economy, literature, music, arts, and other cultural production. This knowledge can be a foundation for engaging in meaningful conversations with sister faculty and can inform lesson content to get students excited about their overseas counterparts. Creating a respectful atmosphere in which students can interact with students from a faraway place will, at its best, instill in them an insatiable cultural and intellectual curiosity about the world and its people.

Like any relationship, a sister-school arrangement must make both sides happy. It is important to have clear goals for the partnership and concrete steps lined up to achieve those goals. For example, in their guidelines for successful partnerships between U.S. and Chinese schools, the Asia Society posits that “An overarching goal for many American schools is to use school partnerships to promote the teaching and learning of Chinese language and culture. To make these partnerships last, however, we must pay equal attention to ensuring benefits for the Chinese schools. A powerful objective on the part of Chinese schools is to improve their students’ English language skills.” Both sides must make an effort to keep their partner satisfied and to make the partnership worth the extra planning and time. Another obvious goal is to ensure the program’s longevity, which requires the involvement of administrators, parents, and faculty.

International Pen Pals
Perhaps the most traditional interaction between sister schools is through letters. Letter writing is an age-old pastime that has given historians an intimate peek into hundreds of years of human relationships and inspired a whole genre of epistolary literature. Writing letters fosters literacy, giving students an authentic writing task that is destined to a reader other than the teacher. Authentic correspondence is an excellent way to motivate students to write and read. Students learn about different worldviews and other cultures, and it can even lead to lasting friendships. Organizations like ePals and PenPal Schools can set up a pen-pal program for teachers and schools. Through the ePals Global Community, more than one million K–12 educators and students from over 200 countries and territories are finding each other and connecting across borders for language-learning practice, meaningful cultural exchanges, and topic-driven project-based learning. PenPal Schools operates with classrooms in over 85 countries to forge an international learning community. They offer standards-aligned courses that focus on culture, global issues, and world language education. Pen-pal programs are an excellent start to a robust sister-school relationship, and can develop handwriting or computer skills, teach computer literacy, and challenge students to think about language in a new way.

Sister-School Project Ideas
Once sister schools have established contact, there are countless projects through which they can interact. The most important key to sister-school success is communicating regularly and dedicating sufficient time for the teachers to plan together, taking into account time zone differences and previously established goals. Sister Cities International offers an online guide for teachers with activity ideas broken down by grade level and how engaged the sister schools would like to be.

Some examples of basic projects for all ages include:

• A disposable camera exchange between the schools. Students snap shots of their school and daily life, then send the camera to the sister school. Alternatively, classes could put the photos online to share virtually. This activity is especially good for sister classes who don’t speak the same language, as they can share images instead of words.

• A culture box exchange. Students can choose items to represent their culture, such as photos of their town, songs, typical clothing, and even nonperishable food to taste. Opening the box as a class will be a fun way to discover the culture together using all the senses.

• A collage. Exchanging country collages with newspaper and magazine clippings and photos that best represent the school’s culture can teach sister-school students about the school’s culture, geography, pop culture, and customs.

• Travel research. Students research their sister school’s city online to create a travel brochure including sites of interest, cultural highlights, and a map to exchange.

• Help with colloquialisms. For sister schools who are mutually interested in language learning, students can create a phrase book based on what the sister-school students want to learn in the other language. Students can include slang, proverbs, and figures of speech.

Examples of intermediate projects for grades five and up include:

• Sister schools who have a command of each other’s languages can send newspapers overseas. The teachers can select some articles for their students to read. This project fosters literacy and also challenges students to think critically about the role the media plays in society.

• Students can create a fact book inspired by the CIA’s World Fact Book about their own city or town to send to the sister school. By compiling the facts for the book, students are sure to learn many new things about their own city, and the sister school will learn even more.

• A sister-school exchange can also be a tool for delivering content in a real-world context. For example, older students studying economics could carry out a project about the sister school’s economy, researching major industries, currency, trade agreements, and resources. Students can compare the two economic systems.

• Language classes with a mutual interest in the sister school’s language present an excellent chance for students to help each other learn. Students can create a language quiz or activity for their peers abroad or attempt to translate from the newspaper.

And finally, some examples of advanced projects for middle and high school:

• Videoconferencing is an excellent approach to connecting students across borders. Teachers can collaborate and plan a lesson together with the students who have a common language, or facilitate a group discussion.

• Students can hone research skills by embarking on a project about their local history to share with the sister school. Students can conduct research at local libraries or museums to obtain a more in-depth view of their own town’s history. Sharing can take place via videoconference.

• Students can analyze momentous events where civil disobedience and activism played a role in social change in both countries. Teachers can organize a videoconference to discuss social justice and international human rights issues.
• Concerns for the environment are increasingly universal. Students can take on an environmental-awareness project and learn about each other’s most pressing environmental concerns. Students can compare how each country takes steps toward sustainable development and resource protection through presentations or videoconferencing.

Kristal Bivona is assistant editor at Language Magazine.

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