Bilingual Pen Pals – An International Student Collaboration

Is it still a pen pal program if you don’t use pens? Despite the use of keyboards rather than quills and Edmodo instead of the mail, our students were never so excited about writing. This spring, our 8th grade students became international bilingual pen pals with some Chinese-language students at the excellent Carlmont High School in the San Francisco Bay Area.  The resulting pen pal project was a truly inspiring language and cultural exchange and a symbol of the future.

Tina showed her language skills while reading her letter to her pen pal.

Tina showed her language skills while reading her letter to her pen pal.

We first made contact with Carlmont through a mutual acquaintance at Menlo School (with whom we’ve done a number of international student collaborations), but plenty of teachers solicit pen pal partnerships through sites like CILC.org.  Once you have teachers signed on, making the project a success relies on three things: 1) setting a realistic calendar, 2) creating viable student partnerships, and 3) figuring out which technology and media are most effective.

Setting a realistic calendar – consider holidays, curriculum, and testing schedule that might conflict with the project; give ample time for receiving and writing letters (depending on your student population).

Viable student partnerships – teachers can receive introductory letters from the other school and read them before making partnerships.  Consider the language level of the student but also their respective interests.

Effective technology – Dropbox is great for transferring large files; Edmodo can be used for more informal exchanges; Googledocs is great for collaborative documents.  Deciding what’s best for you may have more to do with what you are already familiar with.

For our project, students made time outside of class to create polished letters to send to one another.  They wrote in both English and Chinese to give both groups practice with their non-native language.  For round two of the project they created videos, not only to show a glimpse into their respective cultures, but also to practice oral language skills.  Students were encouraged to give each other feedback in subsequent exchanges.

Students shared about their school culture.

Students shared about their school culture.

The response from students about the pen pal project was incredibly positive, and many wanted to continue to stay in contact with their pen pals next year.  Here is some of their feedback:

Gillian: “I like to make friends with foreign people.  I think writing letters with them is interesting.  My pen pal is funny and she is very nice.”

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Gillian’s bilingual letter to her pen pal.

Peggie: “I think when I made the video with my friends in the mountain of our school it was the coolest part.  All of us made the videos to our pen pals by using a funny way.  We told them about our school’s pond, and there are many large and colorful fish in it.”

Candy: “The pen pal project is a new activity for me.  I can meet different friends and understand things we don’t’ know about foreign places.  The coolest part is that my pen pal sent the video to me.  It was the first time I heard the sound of a teenager from another country.”

Alice: “I think this project is really amazing.  It let us keep in touch with a foreigner, and we also learn about American special customs.  I really want to go study in America!”

Alan: “It’s interesting to learn things from each other.  I learned many things about America and practiced using English to write the letter.”

Andrew: “I can know some differences from them, and I can share some special things in Taiwan with him.   Writing a letter to him helps me learn English, and it helps him learn Chinese too. I think having a pen pal in the USA is very cool!”

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Overall, this project was a great success for all students involved.  Not only did they have the chance to practice their second language skills, but they also connected on a very real level with students in another country, giving purpose to the language they have been working so hard to learn.

Engage Language Learners with Student Blogging – An International Student Collaboration

Writing student blogs can help language learners to improve both their writing and language skills.  If you allow students – especially language learners – to choose their blog topic they will be more motivated to engage with the target language in both reading and writing. Just as importantly, students care even  more about communicating clearly using the blog format because of the expanded audience – writing for the world is more engaging that writing for a teacher’s grade.  The following is from Banyan Global Learning’s Teacher Steve and reports on our success with a student blog unit for language learners:

Screen shot of Kevin's blog about cars.

Screen shot of Kevin’s blog about cars.

We were inspired by Kate Petty’s excellent presentation on student blogging at #CUE13 to do a project of our own. Building on the success of our international student collaborations, we decided to not only have our Taiwanese students write blogs in English but to make the unit our latest collaborative project.

After looking at WordPress, Blogger, Tumblr and some other sites, we decided that KidBlog was the best choice for this project.  It is very straightforward for both teachers and students and is a breeze to maintain.

Kidblog teacher interface.

Kidblog teacher interface.

Now it was time for the kids to start blogging!  First, they brainstormed and chose a topic.  We then had them write three separate blog posts about that topic:

The Introduction Post:

The students introduced themselves and their topic.  The goal here was to convince their reader that they should take the time to read their posts.

Rita's introduction post.

Rita’s introduction post.

The Narrative Post:

The following week, students told a personal story about their topic.  For example, students writing about Japan told an interesting story about getting lost in Tokyo, and students writing about desserts told the story of eating the best dessert ever.  We focused on the characteristics of narrative writing such as plot, setting, characters, use of dialogue and of course, conflict and resolution. It was amazing to see how motivated they were to craft a tale that would hook their readers.

Selena's narrative post about learning to make pastries.

Selena’s narrative post about learning to make pastries.

The Opinion Post:

The final post was a persuasive essay. They presented an opinion about their topic and then – taking a page from a writing course by Professor Amy Gutmann at Princeton – they  summarized the opposite opinion before providing at least two counterpoints to tear it down.  Lastly, they supported their own opinion with at least two arguments.

Arial argues that between chocolate and cookies, chocolate is better.

Arial argues that between chocolate and cookies, chocolate is better.

Then, using Linda Yollis’s excellent student video below (also obtained at CUE), we discussed what makes a good comment before students left messages on their classmate’s blogs.

The last step was to include the Chinese language classes at the Menlo School in Northern California. Our students each created a 30 second “commercial” to introduce themselves and their topic and explain why the Menlo students should visit their blog.  They posted the videos to our Menlo/Tsai Hsing shared Edmodo page with a link to their blog.  The Menlo students watched the advertisements and chose which blogs to visit.  They commented on the blog and then posted an audio comment in Chinese to the Edmodo page. Extra care was taken on their comments because they knew we’d be listening.

This unit had everything. At its core, it was about creating a series of quality pieces in multiple styles about a single topic. The blog format expanded the audience but the collaboration with Menlo made that expansion personal. It was perhaps our most successful writing unit to date, and will surely be repeated next year.

International Student Collaborations – This is How We Roll

BGL facilitated yet another amazing international student collaboration between Tsai Hsing School and the wonderful students and teachers at the Menlo School.  We modeled the current project – a physics experiment entitled This is How We Roll – after our very successful Cubic Foot Project from last fall.

This report is from BGL’s Teacher Steve:

With physics being a common element of the 8th grade curriculum at both schools, the goal of this collaborative project was to have both classes answer the same scientific essential question: How is the acceleration of a rolling object affected by the steepness of the slope on which it’s rolling?

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Small groups from each class were paired with a group from the other school.  Students got to know each other on the project’s Edmodo page where they posed and answered questions and then posted introductory videos about themselves and their campus.  The pride each student felt for their respective school shined through as the audience was expanded beyond the campus walls.

The groups then posted the procedures that they would follow to answer the experiment’s essential question.  Here is one group’s experimental steps:

Procedure:

1. Gather materials

2. Create a data table

3. Place small wedge underneath the track

4. Place speed meter before the break in the track

5. Place car at the top of the slope on the track

6. Push “start” on speed meter

7. Release car from the beginning of the track while simultaneously starting the stopwatch

8. As soon as the car reaches speed meter, stop the stopwatch

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9. Record time and velocity for trial one in data table

10. Repeat steps 3-9 with the medium and large wedges

11. Find the averages of the times and velocities

12. Use those averages in the the acceleration equation (Velocity final minus velocity initial divided by time) to find the acceleration.

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Students then posted on Edmodo the results for each of the variable inclines.  The groups commented on each other’s posts to discuss the similarities and differences between their findings.  Each group then offered a conclusion to the experiment discussing the science behind their results, including the application of Newton’s Law. The final post was a reflection on the merits and challenges of the collaborative experiment. 

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Now for the best part: a town-hall style meeting where students finally meet synchronously via video teleconferencing.  Students started by asking questions of the other class about the experiment and how it could be improved for next time.  Naturally, the conversation steered quickly toward the social and cultural differences and similarities between Taiwan and the U.S.  When not all students had time to participate, some students finished the conversation asynchronously by posting video responses on Edmodo.

 This is How We Roll was another successful collaboration that only strengthens our desire to continue these endeavors.  If your school is interested in participating, please comment below!

International Student Collaborations – The Confucius Project

BGL just facilitated another successful international student collaboration with the fantastic Menlo School in California. While not as extensive as our Cubic Foot Project (it was organized and implemented in just three weeks time), this project is as a good example of what is possible once a collaborative relationship is established with another school.

The following is a report from BGL’s Teacher Jackie:

Banyan Global Learning's Teacher Jackie

Banyan Global Learning’s Teacher Jackie

A 10th grade class at Menlo was studying Confucius and wondered what kinds of insights they could gain from the Chinese students at their collaborative partner school, Tsai Hsing in Taiwan.  They prepared a Googledoc survey that students from both schools would answer.  As I introduced the survey to my Taiwanese students I was impressed at how much they already knew about Confucius’s life and work.  

Students completed the survey, answering questions such as, “When working with classmates on a math, science or other academic problem, I most want to be…” and, “The achievement that would make my parents most proud of me is…”

A few answers from the Googledoc survey.

A few answers from the Googledoc survey.

Later, students at both schools analyzed the results, comparing the Taiwanese and American responses.  On both ends this led to some deep thinking about questions that get to the core of cultural beliefs.  The students were now ready for a face-to-face conversation to hear each other’s answers.

Some genius technical maneuvers made it possible for a real-time discussion based in three locations to run smoothly.  An iPad in a classroom in Taiwan was connected to the Menlo students through a Facetime call, and mounted so that from Los Angeles I could see both the iPad and the rest of the classroom in Taiwan.  On monitors and screens in the classroom, Taiwan students could see both me and the Menlo students.

What followed was incredible to witness and culturally illuminating.  Highlights of the 45-minute conversation included a discussion of colleges and scholarships that showed that American students have relatively greater college opportunities through non-academic areas like sports or music.  The students in Taiwan seemed surprised to learn that so many American students go straight from school to practice a sport, while they themselves remain at school studying, sometimes until 9 pm.  The American students were equally shocked to learn this about their counterparts.

The American students noted that many of the Taiwanese students responded to questions about siblings by saying they did not have any.  An enlightening conversation showed that many Taiwanese families choose to have only one child to maintain greater financial security, and that a new type of family was emerging – the zero child household.  Though many families in Taipei are middle class, there is a perception from the students that these families do not have enough money to have more than one child.  Taiwanese students also explained that their population is shrinking in part because young people are pursuing education and career opportunities in other countries like America.

Students then probed into the survey results related to behavior within group work.  Most Taiwanese students stated that it was most important to be harmonious when working in groups, while Americans thought it was most important to be a leader.  They found common ground when the Menlo students explained that they find a group to be more harmonious when there is a strong leader in place.  Also, American students stated that they feel adults encourage and reward leadership skills, and view that as a sign of strength in a student.

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The conversation rounded out with a candid conversation about Taiwan’s perception of America, and vice versa.  Many Taiwanese students viewed America favorably, and said they would like to live, or at least visit there someday.  In turn, American students admitted that they knew very little of Taiwan, but that this collaboration has inspired them to learn more about their new friends.

International Student Collaborations – The Cubic Foot Project

Banyan Global Learning just facilitated another fantastic international student collaboration for Tsai Hsing School.  This month’s project was with the Menlo School in California, with whom we’ve planned several international student collaborations this year.

The first of these is the Cubic Foot Project, an idea that was hatched on an illuminating Menlo campus visit in September ’12.  There we found Menlo students to be thoughtful and caring, the staff to be motivated and innovative, the philosophy to be tangibly progressive, and the tech department to be well-funded and filled with supremely capable teacher geeks.  We feel truly honored to work with them.

This report is from BGL’s Teacher Steve:

Teacher Steve teaching via Distance Learning.

Teacher Steve teaching via Distance Learning.

The goal of the collaboration project was to have two classes on opposite sides of the globe answer the same scientific essential question: What kind of life can we find in a cubic foot of earth from our campus?

Each class was split into seven groups and each group was assigned to a partner group from the other school.  Each group then made a short introductory video and posted it to the project’s Edmodo page.  Edmodo has a format that is similar to FaceBook and is therefore a comfortable setting for students to have organic conversations.  This method of introduction was both easy to accomplish and a great way to break the ice.

Menlo & Tsai Hsing's Edmodo Page

Menlo & Tsai Hsing’s Edmodo Page after the experiment.

On to the experiment.  This being science, the students needed to follow the same procedures and control as many variables as possible.  The Tsai Hsing students first came up with a list of procedures that they thought could be used to answer the essential question.  These procedures were posted on Edmodo, at which point the Menlo students discussed the proposals, edited them, and sent them back to Tsai Hsing for final approval.

The final procedures were as follows:
1 – Find a place on campus.
2 – Record characteristics of place including the soil temperature, air temperature, moisture level of the soil, air humidity and the distribution of the trees. Use the following tools: shovel, plastic bag, cut plastic bottle, aluminum foil, wire net, light bulb, water pipe, microscope, and iPad.
3 – Measure one square foot with a ruler and dig down one foot with a shovel to get a full cubic foot of dirt.
4 – Transport the cubic foot of dirt in a plastic bucket to Biology classroom.
5 – Insert the dirt into a Burlese funnel to separate the organisms from the dirt. Run the funnel for 2 days before collecting the samples.

Burlese funnel

Burlese funnel

6 – Post a video of steps 1 through 6.
7 – With the help of teachers, classify the organisms. Post pictures and information on Edmodo as we go.
8 – Post a video of Step 7 once it is complete.

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As students followed the procedure at their respective campuses they also posted results on Edmodo.  Each post consisted of a picture of the insect, the scientific name of the insect, one comment and one question for the partner group to answer.  Students on both ends then went through the posts, answered questions and commented about the similarities and differences between their findings.

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Each small group then did a final reflection video answering the following four questions:
What was exciting about the collaboration?  What was difficult about it?  How did it feel knowing that students in another country were doing the same project with you?  What would you do differently next time?

Then, finally, they met.  The two schools got together for a town-hall style meeting via video teleconferencing (FaceTime). Each class asked and answered five prepared questions.  The students were nervously excited to share their conclusions about the experiment and even more so to ask more get-to-know-you questions of their new friends.  When they discovered a shared interest in dub step pop music, an impromptu dance party broke out at the end of the meeting.  It was truly an amazing thing to watch!

One student summed it up best when she said, “I felt amazed that we could learn about each other’s countries without searching the Internet or leaving the classroom. It was so cool to see people from across the world work on the same project with us.”

We look forward to continuing to facilitate these collaborations with Menlo and other schools.  If you are interested in a collaboration with Tsai Hsing or another school, please visit our international student collaboration LinkedIn group or CILC.org.

Our New LinkedIn Network – International Student Collaborations

We at Banyan Global Learning have been successfully facilitating international student collaborations between Tsai Hsing School and schools across the US. We wanted to create a forum where new collaborations could begin and where teachers could share best practices for the gentle art of facilitating collaborations. Please invite other educators to join our new LinkedIn group – International Student Collaborations.