George Lucas Educational Foundation

Making Global Exchanges an Integral Part of Elementary School

When students connect virtually with peers around the world, they not only learn about other cultures but also prepare themselves for the future.

April 5, 2024
Ariel Skelley / iStock

With the rapid rise of globalization, an increasing number of jobs require  interactions with colleagues around the world. With this comes the need to comfortably communicate and engage with colleagues of varying languages, behaviors, and values.

Few educational opportunities are more impactful than a personal interaction, a human contact to learn about a country and culture. What better way to cultivate understanding of another country than to have cultural exchanges with international people who are physically in a country outside of the United States where the ways of life and worldviews are so different? This is particularly beneficial in rural districts where students may have less exposure to international people. Global exchanges give students an opportunity to ask questions and directly learn from others across the world.

Finding international exchange partners 

Send an email to staff in your building to see if anyone has international connection—particularly in a part of the world that’s related to your class curriculum. It’s likely that someone in your building or district might be able to connect you with someone outside of the United States who may be willing to communicate with you. 

Contact departments at your alma mater (education, international programs, world language) and/or a nearby university to inquire about connections that they may have with educators abroad. 

Post a note on your personal social media about seeking a friend or friend of a friend who is international and would be willing to volunteer to represent their home culture. You may be surprised by how connected your network is and how willing people are to volunteer as a sort of ambassador of their country and culture. 

Global videoconferencing and video exchange 

Videoconferencing with a guest who is physically in another country, where you can see the environment behind them, gives students a literal glimpse into that place.

A few years ago I began teaching a Chinese enrichment class to elementary school students as a volunteer. I quickly realized that what was lacking in the class was a connection to a person in China, something that I had had a lot of experience with through years of living in China. Much of what I’ve learned about culture and language in China came from the people with whom I interacted face-to-face in the country.

I posted a note on my WeChat page, asking for any friends who were in China if they would be willing to volunteer to make a short video to introduce anything about where they were living.

A former student of mine who has since graduated from college made a beautiful video about her apartment in Shanghai. She walked through the apartment, showed the view from the window, and introduced many elements found in apartments in her area that are typically not seen in apartments in the United States. It was especially fascinating for the students to see her cabinet of Chinese snacks. At the end of the video, she invited students to send her suggestions for follow-up videos. Students were full of ideas and inquiries, and this exchange continued for a few months. My former student happens to be a teacher in training, so this activity was especially interesting for her because it developed her own skills as a teacher of English and Western culture in China.

Another option is to invite a guest to have a video call with your class to talk about their country and answer questions. I couldn’t do this with my colleagues in China because of the 12-hour time difference.

If you can’t videoconference because of schedule conflicts, have students write a list of culturally appropriate questions, send it to the recipient, and ask them to either write answers or, preferably, send a video or audio recording replying to the questions. 

Scaffold this according to the students’ age. Here are some examples of culturally appropriate questions: What hobbies do you have? What are typical hobbies of children in your country? What do you value most (what is most important to you)? What is your favorite food? Can you tell us any similarities and differences between the U.S. and your country? 

If your guest is a teacher, offer to do the same in exchange for their students. I’ve been fortunate to have situations where people who I communicate with internationally are willing to volunteer their time for us because it is their pleasure to share their culture with students in the United States.

Afterward, have your students make a handwritten thank-you card with drawings and mail it to your guest, or take a photo and email or text it to them. 

International (online) pen pals and video pals 

I pair my students with a colleague’s elementary school class abroad, and they write individual letters as pen pals. I take photos and then use email or WeChat to send them to my colleague in China, and she prints them and shares them with her students, who write replies in turn. If we have different numbers of students, we have students work together to send a shared letter. 

These exchanges are also opportunities to share languages—encourage your international partners to share common vocabulary in their home language with your students—both written and aural. 

Because writing can be a long and tedious process, and time is limited, I also sometimes have a template of a letter for the students to complete. 

In addition, students work in groups to write a paragraph about their typical daily routine. They then record themselves reading this, I send it to our partner class, and they send audio recordings of their routines in exchange. It’s great fun to listen and learn from them and identify the similarities and differences between our countries and cultures. 

I print some of the letters that we receive and post them on bulletin boards in the hallways so everyone can share in this activity. 

There are countless benefits to international exchange opportunities in the elementary school classroom. Students learn names of international peers and develop an interest in and understanding of diverse people, places, cultures, ideas. Such experiences highlight and amplify underrepresented demographics and expose students to diverse languages. 

The exchanges are also an opportunity to make connections between the curriculum and the world outside of the classroom—a goal that surely benefits any lesson. 

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Filed Under

  • Diversity
  • Culturally Responsive Teaching
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary

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