Collaboration in education is often praised, but it is almost always fraught with complications. How do we meet? What are our goals?
International collaborations are especially challenging.
Over the past three years, I have worked with Ann Rooney, who teaches English as an Additional Language at The Wilderness School in Adelaide, Australia. Her students, who are native Mandarin speakers, work with the girls in Dana’s Literature and Composition I Language Intensive class, which is made up of students from Mexico, China, Japan, Rwanda, Germany, and Korea. The girls have exchanged videos, written about their hometowns, conducted interviews, and created presentations based on our shared experience of studying Whale Rider, a coming-of-age movie set in a Maori village in New Zealand.
One year, Ann and I decided to try to have the girls talk to each other live.
I was terrified. The girls had been exchanging stories of how they were improving their English, sharing the highs and lows of their experiences, and talking about language-learning strategies.
But how would they talk to one another?
Non-native speakers can be shy. How would students leap into conversation with someone they never met before?
And I worried about accents! Would Mandarin speakers be able to understand the English of girls from Mexico City or Japan? I expected many awkward pauses.
Our class met at Evening Study Hall and began dialing up the girls in Adelaide, who were just beginning their day. We had anxious moments with technology. Some calls broke off after a few minutes; others never went through. I was prepared to send the girls back to Study Hall when, finally, some of the students connected with their overseas partners. Looking over their shoulders, I waited for them to begin using the “cheat sheet” we wrote up for starting conversations.
But from the first “Hello?” the girls went off script. Waaaay off script. Fabulously off script. Girls leaned into their screens; two stretched out on the floor. The classroom took on the air of a sleepover. One girl was typing and talking rapidamente. Another was nodding, nearly whispering her responses. I heard a shout from the hallway, where a girl had gone to find some privacy. “No, no, no! You can do it! Listen, you speak very nicely. I understand you.” In a few minutes, this call had quickly turned into a counseling session and a visit from a personal cheer squad.
The calls continued, well after the minutes we allotted for in our lesson plans.
In the years since, Ann and I have continued to collaborate, but sometimes we have been so busy that we haven’t been able to repeat these calls. Looking back on this precious exchange of experience and support, I think it is time to brush up my Google Hangouts skills. Isn’t this a conversation worth having, no matter where we are?