These are questions Chinese schools and Magen David have both been asking for a while. So, the partnership makes sense for us. Through the Beijing Institute of Education, Magen David has made real connections with top schools in Beijing in order to further our students ability to work with the outside world, to help our students become more cosmopolitan, and to teach our students the newest and perhaps most important 21st century skill, connectivity. Connectivity is like communications on steroids. Connectivity is networking utilizing the vast technological applications available in this world today. We want our students to make connections with students across the world and utilize them for the sake of collaboration, to enhance their critical thinking and problem solving abilities, and for further job connections to advance their career. Making contacts is key.
In an effort to enhance our students skills and form connections, Magen David embarked on creating two amazing programs with the Chinese. One was the 20/20 Challenge and the other is a Intercultural Exchange. The first enabled our freshman students first hand to do high level academic research on a scientific and social topic collaborating with an incredible school in Beijing #80 and presenting before peers and experts.
The second major project we have begun with China is our intercultural exchange. This was started with another Beijing school, #171, to discuss Holocaust related topics and focus on the culture and history of the Jewish people during WWII. Our juniors Holocaust elective students have begun to read Sala's Gift and are posting responses to a variety of topics as a result of their reading. Both experiences have been incredibly meaningful and really enriched our students academic performance, widened their views towards another culture, and increased their communication skills.
I highly recommend such connections in really any grade. However, I do think there are a few things a school needs to do to make any communication with another country very meaningful and effective.
One of the major issues dealing with any other nation is the actual day to day communications between partnership schools. There are some obvious ways to communicate that can be limited by time zone differences, but meaningful. Skyping (or QQing) with a Chinese school (or another nation's school) can be a great experience, but the trick is not only timing it so that both schools can participate, but also crafting good questions between the schools beforehand and during the online conversation. Simply "calling" the other school isn't sufficient. There needs to be a real plan of action for what should and will occur during this communication. I suggest starting with a goal in mind. Requiring students to prep via a homework assignment beforehand is also vital. The teachers from both locations should talk beforehand as well to plot out a goal.
Another two ways to communicate are emails and blogs/message boards. Emails seem easy, but depend on the level of ability to access email and there being a set goal to each email. There is also the added issue of the fact that Chinese classes are often much larger than American classes, even public school American classes. So pairing kids is tricky at best. We have yet to create a great solution for this, but I admit pairing is ideal. This will enable the kids to get to know each other and to really work together in a more meaningful way.
However, blogging/messaging boards have real promise. Yet, many are blocked in other nations. A great website to test if a site is blocked in China is: http://www.greatfirewallofchina.org/ (there are other websites which do this for other nations as well) However, this alone is not definitive. I strongly suggest emailing your chinese contact to confirm the site works before the project is even assigned. Setting up a website (even if you have to pay up to $100 to set one up for the year) is vital to any communication frequently occurring. If a website that you create has a section for students to post comments on a given topic, you now have a forum for your students to converse with their students. This is the meat and potatoes of the communication. Fortunately most students we worked with had extremely good English skills. However, thanks to google, if their students don't have particularly good english, it can be translated and tweaked by their teacher so your students can understand it. This posting makes the learning come alive for the kids and they get a huge thrill when seeing a student from over 6,000 miles away respond to something they wrote.
The real task we have now is to take this to the next level creating meaningful connections between individuals in a China and individual students here. Hopefully, the more we engage in these projects and the more opportunity for back and forth, the more connections our students will develop. Who knows, in a few years from now, maybe a student of their and a student of ours will open their own business!