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Building Bonds

HomeFeaturesTeaching Cooperatively across Borders

Teaching Cooperatively across Borders

Kristen R. McLaren examines the impact of cross-cultural activities within the J-1 Teacher exchange program


“Magandang umaga! Kumusta kayo, mga bata?”
“¡Buenos días!”

As students enter their classrooms, brightly decorated with colorful masks, piñatas, or flags, they may be greeted warmly in languages such as Filipino, Spanish, or Twi. These schoolchildren are not entering their classes in the Philippines, Latin America, or Ghana, but schoolrooms across the US, led by experienced professional educators who have come from around the world not only to teach essential curriculum but to share their languages, traditions, and cultures through their participation in the J-1 Teacher program. The cultural activities integrated throughout the exchange are truly the heart of this program, as they help promote diversity, dispel stereotypes, and strengthen international connections among people worldwide.

J-1 Teacher Exchange Program Goals
Cultural exchange programs share a common goal of promoting understanding and respect among nations from around the globe. The J-1 Teacher program, administered by the US Department of State, facilitates the exchange of teachers between the US and other countries.

Through the exchange, teachers utilize and sharpen their professional knowledge and skills as they immerse themselves in American schools. They also have opportunities to participate in cross-cultural activities, sharing their experiences and insights as they expand their understanding of the US and its education system. This integration of cultural activities and education promotes global harmony and enriches the experience of all who participate.

Connecting Cultures, One Classroom at a Time
The J-1 Teacher program provides a unique opportunity for experienced teachers from around the world to teach in schools across the US, sharing their knowledge and pedagogical skills while gleaning innovative approaches from their American colleagues. The teachers do not focus only on meeting academic goals; their influence transcends textbooks, as they also serve as cultural ambassadors.

While content expertise is essential to promote classroom learning, students and staff benefit greatly from the diversity of language, experience, and culture J-1 teachers bring to their school communities.

The teacher exchange program requires that all participating professionals plan and facilitate at least two cross-cultural activities each year.

The first activity requires that teachers share their cultures locally with their classrooms or communities, while the second activity involves the facilitation of an international dialogue between the teacher’s home school and their US host school. Within these broad guidelines, there is an incredible opportunity for teachers to utilize creativity and spark curiosity as they design activities that can make cultural connections in unique and impactful ways.

International Alliance Group (IAG)– affiliated teachers are encouraged to integrate their cultures throughout their programs, enriching relationships, enhancing curriculum, and expanding global awareness and understanding.

Participants must document their activities, providing narratives, reflections, and examples of how the J-1 Teacher exchange positively impacts their communities and, by extension, the world. While the available options to meet this requirement are as vast as the cultures represented, activities that IAG teachers have facilitated include:

• Letter exchanges between students of the same academic level in which students write and respond to peers in other cultures

• Real-time video conversations in which students expand their listening and speaking skills while meeting new friends and connecting on supervised online platforms

• Teaching phrases from the home country’s language and integrating them into the classroom

• Research projects for students to discover and share cultural information

• Recording and sharing video messages between classrooms

• Online book clubs: Students from two different cultures share their perspectives in guided conversations after reading a literary text

• Virtual field trips: Teachers provide a guided tour featuring highlights from the home country

• Learning new games or playing a country’s favorite sport

• Celebrating special holidays or traditions

• Creating cultural art or unique regional crafts

• Reading a folk tale from the teacher’s country and discussing the significance

• Hosting a fashion show to showcase cultural or traditional dress

• Sharing traditional foods and special recipes

• Participating with local organizations in community activities that promote global awareness and cultural appreciation

Educational Enrichment Examples

A Spanish teacher shared about traditional
Colombian art and taught her high school
students how to make masks.

High school math students enjoyed learning
about their teacher’s Nigerian heritage and
seeing him model traditional clothing.

Sixth-grade students learned how to make
a parol, the traditional Filipino Christmas
lantern ornament.

Students in Hartford, Connecticut, read
Dominican Republic travel brochures and
wrote about the information they learned.

A teacher from Cameroon shared videos of
traditional dances and wore her beautiful
native dress.

Elementary students from Colorado and
Mexico exchanged letters.

Kindergarten students made piñatas
and celebrated Las Posadas, a Mexican
Christmas tradition.

A special education teacher taught her class
about Philippine symbols.

Middle school science students had an
engaging lesson about the geography of
Africa.

First-grade students enjoyed learning about
the Colombian Flower Festival and created
colorful silleta arrangements.

Students created art and memories as
they learned about celebrations in other
countries, such as Dia de los Muertos, a
Latin American holiday that honors and
remembers loved ones who have passed
away.

Teachers and their families participated in
community cultural celebrations including
the Feast Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

A Lasting Impact
Organizations like International Alliance Group (IAG) offer international teachers the opportunity to participate in the J-1 cultural exchange program in the US while learning valuable professional skills and the culture and history of the country. Simultaneously, each school that hosts exchange teachers sees its students’ knowledge and global understanding expand as they interact with a teacher from another part of the world. Participants in the cultural activities facilitated by J-1 teachers consistently reflect on how learning about others’ experiences through exposure to art, cuisine, language, or traditions broadened their worldview. The activities often catalyze discussion and promote interconnection in meaningful and lasting ways. One teacher reported that her activity “created awareness and appreciation of similarities and differences among cultures.” Another shared, “The response was amazing! My students were really engaged in the activity, excited to learn about my culture, and many expressed that they would like to visit my country one day.”

International educators expand understanding within their classrooms and communities, and the participating teachers also grow professionally and personally. Through engagement with American educational practices and collaboration with other teachers, participants learn instructional strategies, engage with technology, and strengthen classroom skills they can utilize and share when they return home. The cultural exchange journey also exposes international teachers to new experiences and diverse perspectives, leading to the transformative development of invaluable qualities such as perseverance, resilience, and empathy.

Long after an exchange teacher’s US teaching experience ends, the impact of the cultural integration continues. By fostering deep connections and lasting interpersonal relationships, the J-1 program extends beyond the classroom, empowering all participants to advocate for global cooperation and positive change in their communities and to promote a more connected world.

Kristen R. McLaren, EdD, is director of the J-1 Teacher program at International Alliance Group (www.iagusa.org). As a BridgeUSA designated sponsor of qualified international teachers, International Alliance Group (IAG) with ESI is dedicated to the effective implementation of cultural activities in alignment with Department of State goals. Within the first three years of participating in the exchange, IAG prioritized expanding global connections and sponsored teachers from 16 countries, supporting the creation of a vibrant mosaic of represented cultures.

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