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Global Engagement - Great Communication Begins with Connection

Editor's Note: Empatico, an initiative of The KIND Foundation, is a free tool for teachers of 7-11 year olds to connect their classroom with others around the world. Today, Jane Chadsey from Educurious and Travis Hardy from Empatico, share the lessons they have learned to date.

By guest bloggers Jane Chadsey and Travis Hardy

"Great communication begins with connection. What makes us different from one another is so much less important than what makes us alike—we all long for acceptance and significance. When we recognize those needs in ourselves, we can better understand them in others, and that's when we can set aside our judgments and just hear."

Oprah Winfrey

Our world has never been more interdependent: we're all global "neighbors." Yet it also seems as though we are becoming more and more divided. Recent tragedies and divisive politics serve as a reminder of how important it is to build bridges of understanding. Key to this effort is providing opportunities for students to communicate with other young people from around the world who, on the surface, appear to be different from us. Teachers (and the methods in which we bring young people together) play a important role in helping students learn to communicate across culture, language, and distance.

High-Quality Student Engagement in Global Exchanges

Students and teachers can engage in globally relevant investigations and practice perspective-taking in many ways. Particularly accessible are online interactions that are asynchronous (e.g., blogs, sharing artifacts) or synchronous using video platforms (e.g., Mystery Skype, Empatico, Global Youth Debate). Each of these requires different approaches to keep participants engaged throughout the experience, developing meaningful interactions, and ensuring deeper learning.

Most recently we've partnered to create activities that foster meaningful connections between students. In our work with teachers and partner organizations, we've found the following are important considerations to keep the engagement high and the communication productive.

Choose Relevant and Engaging Topics

Young people need to care about the challenge, project, or discussion topic. Our rule of thumb is engagement first. Start with a local problem, issue, or topic that has immediate relevance. Then investigate how others experience this same issue or topic.

Empatico Photo 4.jpgFor example, through an activity on Empatico called Ways We Play, students talk about the ways they play in and out of school. Through a synchronous video exchange, they move from their local context to discovering how young people play across the world. What do we have in common? What are the differences and why? What can we learn from each other? What new ideas can we try?

At Aki Kurose Middle School in Seattle, students in the Bridges to Understanding afterschool program started by examining the global food crisis using digital stories from children in India and South Africa and then looked at local food issues.   

Organize Groups and Structure Synchronized Exchanges

Consider how you will include all students in video interactions. This is challenging when you have a big class, a wide range of abilities, or limited technology. Teachers can pre-organize groups of students in each class. Small groups can then prepare for the engagement. During the live exchange, small groups take turns being the designated speakers to the partner class.  

"I wanted to make sure all students had a chance to talk. Half of my kids wrote questions, half prepared to answer [the other class'] questions, so all kids had a chance to participate." -Monica Naranjo, Weddington, North Carolina

Interpersonal Connection  

While organizing and structuring communication so all students can participate is important, so is spontaneous creativity and self-expression. For example, in one video exchange, we observed students launching into an animated discussion of which book series they were reading. This was a wonderful connection, and it happened because the teacher stepped aside and let the students take the discussion in a direction they were curious about.

If the adults are leading the dialogue, students aren't able to build their capacity to engage in it. Daily practice in student-led discussions such as Morning Meetings provide opportunities for students to practice. Teachers are on standby in the event that help is needed.

"I think we were on for probably 90 minutes! Literally every single kid came and talked to the camera. Our kids showed their kids how we step and dance! It was kind of like a teachable moment, it wasn't just show and tell, more like how we do what we do. And then of course everyone was amazed to find that they play 'rock, paper, scissors!' the same way...the kids couldn't believe they watch the same TV shows, they get the same channels. - Stephen Ritz, Bronx, NY

Reinforce Listening

Communication isn't just about speaking; it's also about listening. Listening includes listening for similarities and differences between ourselves and the classroom we are partnering with and acknowledging what we are hearing. Improved listening can lead to deeper exchanges. In one Empatico exchange about play, a conversation about common interest in playground activities led to students in Arizona discovering that their Hawaiian partner classroom's playground was under construction due to a larger renovation of the school's campus on a U.S. Army base. The initial engagement about play led to a deeper conversation about students' families and lives.

Ask Open-Ended Questions

Because open-ended questions require more than a one- or two-word response, they are vital for inspiring discussion and demonstrating that there are multiple ways to perceive and answer a question. Have students think about the ways they would answer the question before they pose a question to someone else.

Great communication begins with connection. Connection is the glue that bonds people together. When there is an empathic connection, people feel understood, they feel seen. This is how we can build bridges of understanding.

Which of these approaches are you using to build bridges? What have you found to be especially effective in keeping your students engaged in student-led, global dialogue that fosters meaningful connections? Share in the comments section below. 

Connect with Empatico, Educurious, and the Center for Global Education on Twitter. 

Photos used with permission of Empatico. Photo credit: Chris Willard

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