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September 1, 2009
Vol. 67
No. 1

Clicking Across Cultures

Today's digital tools help language students make global connections from their classrooms.

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I want to make sure that English-speaking children get foreign languages. This world is becoming more interdependent, and part of the process of America's continued leadership in the world is going to be our capacity to communicate across boundaries, across borders.<ATTRIB>—Barack Obama</ATTRIB>
As President Obama noted during the 2008 presidential campaign, a new generation of internationally savvy citizens will increasingly need to know multiple world languages. And they will need to have more than a technical facility with these languages. As the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (2009) framework states, future citizens will also needglobal awareness: the ability to learn and work collaboratively with individuals representing diverse cultures, religions, and lifestyles in a spirit of mutual respect and open dialogue in personal, professional, and community contexts. World languages are a core subject in the partnership's framework of essential skills.
The Standards for Foreign Language Learning in the 21st Century affirm these ambitious goals, noting that students cannot truly master a language until they have also learned to understand the cultural contexts in which the language occurs. These standards, known as the 5 Cs, focus on communication, cultures, connections, comparisons, and communities as essential elements of skill in foreign languages (National Standards in Foreign Language Education Project, 2006).
How can we not only teach foreign languages but also further such sophisticated global awareness? In the past, only a few lucky students who could study abroad had the opportunity to learn in authentic cultural contexts. But today's technologies make authentic international connections both necessary and possible for any student in an Internet-connected classroom.

How Teachers Connect

Often without leaving their language classrooms, teachers are using technologies such as Skype, wikis, and asynchronous conversation tools to foster bilingual conversations and dissolve cultural barriers. As a journalist observing teachers' practices, I have seen some inspiring examples of cultural exchange.
When Leslie Davison, a Spanish teacher at Dillon Valley Elementary School in Colorado, wants to teach her students where Chile is, she is just as likely to use Skype to call a friend in Chile as she is to pull out a globe and point. In fact, she may do both.
Skype, a software that enables users to make free international telephone calls over the Internet, can, with the addition of an inexpensive webcam, enable callers to see one another in real time during the conversation.
"One student was talking to my friend Claudio," Davison recalls, "and as he was there on the screen before her, she was moving her finger on the globe to ask where he is in Chile. He was responding 'arriba, abajo, arriba' [higher, lower, higher] as she searched to find the right spot." Such moments of human contact make geography, culture, and language real for students.
In teaching Spanish to students in kindergarten through 5th grade, Davison uses Skype to help students interact in the target language with native speakers, as well as to create a sense of global community. She places calls from the classroom, often on the spur of the moment because of questions her learners raise. As the conversations spin out, aspects of daily life in other countries emerge. For example, when Davison's 1st graders wanted to know what the tooth fairy does in other countries, she had the students ask Claudio, who explained that in Chile, the tooth fairy is a mouse. Claudio went on to remind students "You need to brush your teeth"— in Spanish, of course—which led to learning new vocabulary words.
As they talk through Skype, students can see the surroundings of the person they're chatting with onscreen; the camera can be turned to look out the window and show geographical features or into the room to give a glimpse of the speaker's house or classroom.
To work around time differences, Davison also uses asynchronous communication methods. When some of her students traveled to Mexico, she set up a blog they could post to, to tell their classmates back home about what they experienced and observed in that culture. "We put the blog up on a big screen, and the 2nd graders were all eagerly asking questions about everything their friends had done and seen," she says.
Davison also teaches 4th graders who are learning English as a second language. When they have international contact with students who are learning English, they are motivated to practice their language skills. Davison connected with an English class in Turkey through a site called Around the World in 80 Schools (www.aroundtheworldin80schools.com) and created a wiki to communicate with these learners. A wiki is a Web page that groups can edit together online. Wiki content may include text or images. On their collaborative wiki, Davison's language learners and their Turkish counterparts shared photos and swapped information about history, favorite games and hobbies, and cultural traditions such as food and holidays.
After she connected her English class with this Turkish group, Davison's students began to care about someone else across the world. When there was an earthquake in Italy, Davison's students all wanted to know, Is that near Turkey?
Davison teaches classes to help other language teachers integrate technology in their classrooms. The focus of digital tools in language classes must always be on facilitating language acquisition, not on simply using high-tech skills, she warns. As Davison puts it,We're not "Skyping." We're communicating with our friends in Turkey. . . . We want technology to enhance language learning, as in the 5 Cs; that's the whole point. When you are talking about [giving students experiences with] "communities" and "collaborations," 21st century tools like blogging and wikis are absolutely perfect.

France and Oklahoma: Education Allies

If one teacher can bring the world into her language classroom using a few technological tools, what might a larger, statewide effort accomplish? Since 2007, 24 schools in Oklahoma (mostly secondary, but also a few middle and elementary schools) have partnered with schools in France to make connections using new technologies. This partnership came into being through an alliance between the Oklahoma State Department of Education and the Académie d'Amiens, one of 30 regional education districts in France. The partnership presents a good model for other states looking to pursue international connections and has produced exciting transnational projects.
Consider the Oklahoma Soldiers' Project. Students at Westmoore High School in Oklahoma City and students from Lycée Jean Racine in Montdidier, France, are researching battles of World Wars I and II in which Oklahoma soldiers fought and died on French soil. Groups of learners from both countries (including teachers and parents) each adopt an Oklahoman soldier buried in France. Each soldier's group of learners researches that soldier's personal story, visits the soldier's grave, honors his life with some personal gesture of veneration, and photographs the soldier's grave to include with all the documentation gathered on that person.
Students deepen their understanding of the war by reading literary passages and novels related to World War I, such as Un Long Dimanche de Fiançailles (A Very Long Engagement) by Sebastien Japrisot. Advanced students from the United States read the works by French authors in French. Learners exchange e-mails and share on their wiki information they learn about each soldier and each battle. Eventually, the collaborating classes hope to visit one another's communities.
According to the students' wiki, the long-term goal is "not only to perpetuate the memory of these soldiers and their comrades in arms, but also to reinforce for the new generation of young people our common history and experiences." Another wiki provides a collaborative forum for Oklahoma teachers and their French counterparts to exchange ideas, links, and samples of student work to inspire one another.
Desa Dawson, an administrator involved in the project, believes a wiki is a wonderful tool to use for cross-cultural projects. "It can be monitored by the classroom teacher. . .You can decide who can contribute and monitor how they contribute." Teachers, for example, can modify content in ways the students cannot. Parents can also go to the wiki and contribute or just view students' work.
Culinary students in career tech schools in both countries have also connected online to share their skills. Chefs give one another lessons through videoconferencing. One group is now crafting a joint cookbook accompanied by a DVD, on which chefs from each country demonstrate prize recipes. Four representatives from Oklahoma career tech schools recently traveled to France to meet with their counterparts in the French schools and plan the project. French language students from Oklahoma high schools will help translate for culinary students from their state who speak little French as they speak with the French collaborators in crafting this cookbook. Oklahoma's career tech centers are now considering integrating French into their programs.

Connecting in "Critical Need" Languages

Until recently, Hindi—a "critical need" language spoken by an estimated 400 million people worldwide—was rarely taught in U.S. schools. However, a new program in Edison, New Jersey, is teaching students Hindi, a language that's likely to be an important feature of the international business and technology world. Funded by a federal Foreign Language Assistance Program grant, the Edison Hindi program taps 21st century technologies that connect the New Jersey students with students in India.
The standards-based curriculum that Edison developed offers thematic units, each including a project that demonstrates students' linguistic and cultural proficiency and that involves working and sharing with students in India.
The program operates at J.P. Stevens High School and Edison High School and offers four Hindi classes, including one for heritage language students. The International Education and Resource Network (iEARN), a network for project-based learning with programs in more than 118 countries, is a partner on the grant and has facilitated the connection between Edison classes and students in India.
For the initial activity, Edison students described themselves with PowerPoint presentations and then uploaded the presentations to VoiceThread, so the Indian students could watch the presentations and comment. VoiceThread is a collaborative multimedia slide show posted online that enables asynchronous online conversation—usually conversation related to an image or text posted on the VoiceThread site. Anyone who signs in to the password-protected slide show gets an onscreen icon; by clicking on the icons accompanying each slide, each participant can hear or read what other participants have voice-recorded into the conversation and can respond.
In the second unit, students talked about what a typical student day is like in the United States and heard similar information about their Indian peers' days. Students visit the forums to ask one another questions, talk about school uniforms or favorite books, or discuss other topics on a typical high school student's mind. Although most communication has been on forums and Web sites, the students have also used Skype to interact in real time.
These conversations came to life when a group of students from India visited Edison in April and met face-to-face with their online friends. Each visitor was paired with a local student and shadowed that student for a day, following a typical U.S. high school schedule. Edison hopes to send students to India in the future.
Students say they prefer making connections through the new technologies to traditional activities. "We do more real-life situations. We see kids in India and talk to them," Priyanka, a student, says enthusiastically. Neelam Mishra, a teacher who is a native of India, notes, "I tell them about India, but when they talk to the students from other countries, they get it. The real connection is when they see with their own eyes, interact with their own peers. It's a great learning experience."
Trisha, a heritage language student, believes the class has brought her closer to her own culture and family. "Now I feel like I can go visit India and be very comfortable there," she says.

A New Face on Language Learning

Although the entire profession is not there yet, there is movement toward greater use of digital connections in foreign language classrooms. Toni Theisen, named the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages 2009 Teacher of the Year, emphasizes the need to use technology to help students develop 21st century skills. Theisen has created a wiki and a blog and uses Ning, a social networking site, to model the use of these technologies for fellow language teachers. She notes,Our students want to be a part of the world. They want to use the new tools to share their stories, find out how the rest of the world lives, and much more. . . . How exciting it is to connect students to new tools, concepts, ideas, projects, and people from other nations. . . . As language teachers, this is just the vision we have had our whole careers! (Q&amp;A with Toni Theisen, 2009)
The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages' (ACTFL) National Language Teacher of the Year program is part of a larger public awareness campaign, Discover Languages, which promotes language study through diverse means, including an annual student video podcast contest and a Web site offering the latest language research and program advocacy ideas (see www.DiscoverLanguages.org for more information).
"As more teachers use digital tools to make connections in the classroom, students no longer believe the old stories that 'learning a language takes too long' or 'you have to have a special knack for it,'" says Marty Abbott, ACTFL's director of education. "It puts a whole new face on language learning."

National Standards in Foreign Language Education Project. (2006). Standards for foreign language learning in the 21st century(3rd ed.). Alexandria, VA: Author.

Partnership for 21st Century Skills. (2009).P21 framework definitions document. Tuscon, AZ: Author. Available:www.21stcenturyskills.org/documents/p21_framework_definitions_052909.pdf

Q&amp;A interview with Toni Theisen. (2009).The Language Educator, 4(2), 26–29.

End Notes

1 Skype can be downloaded free at www.skype.com. Skype-to-Skype video and voice calls are free; there are fees for using Skype to text message or call a landline or cell phone.

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