One of my greatest endeavors as an educator is to create a classroom community that encourages my students to celebrate diversity and inspires them to cultivate a sense of global awareness. This year, I was lucky enough to stumble upon an opportunity that would not only reinforce this goal, but make it a truly memorable learning experience for my kiddos. As part of a course I was taking at a local college, I was able to join forces with several inspiring and motivated young ladies to connect with a school on an international level. This led to a rather lofty, but profoundly meaningful, goal: Forge an educational partnership between nations that could enrich instruction, provide opportunities for student and professional collaboration, and allow little learners to develop an increased understanding of their local context and how it relates to the world around them. Sounds like a lot, right? Well, like many educators, I have too much ambition for my own good…so, of course, I jumped right in! Here’s how we got started on our quest to build friendships across borders.
So It Begins: As I mentioned earlier, the opportunity for this wonderful experience just happened to walk through my classroom door on an afternoon much like any other. An educator from a local college was recruiting teachers to accompany her on a trip to the Toledo District in Belize to volunteer in an area school. Additionally, this educator works with a foundation run by a couple of fantastic ladies who raise money to support school-aged children in Toledo and have a long-standing relationship with this particular school. I eagerly volunteered myself to accompany them to Belize and immediately started dreaming of all the wonderful, authentic, educational experiences that could come of this exceptional venture!
Step by Step: Because the scope of this project was huge and spanned over a significant length of time, I began by breaking it down into smaller, more manageable steps. Leading up to my trip to Belize, I wanted to lay the groundwork to get my students invested in creating a lasting relationship with their international peers. My first task was to introduce our cross-cultural study to my second graders in a way that kindled their excitement for our future work. My kiddos and I live in rural New Hampshire, which, as you may have guessed, is quite a long way from Belize. Therefore, my second goal was to familiarize my little learners with the country of Belize and its rich cultural history. Once my superheroes were equipped with a little background knowledge, my third objective was to begin building a rapport with our new friends through some letter writing activities.
The Hook: To kick off our study, I read my class a great book entitled Everybody Cooks Rice by Norah Dooley. The story follows a young girl as she travels through the homes of her neighbors in search of her brother. Each family she encounters invites her to share a bite of their evening meal and, in doing so, gives Carrie a taste of their heritage as well. Her neighbors offer meals that are prepared by parents and children alike, some served with silverware and some with chopsticks, and each made just a little bit differently than the last. In the end, Carrie realizes that, although her neighbors have distinguishing customs and traditions, they all have at least one thing in common: everybody cooks rice. This resource was a rich example of valuing the underlying similarities that bind people together, while also celebrating the inevitable differences that make us unique and was an excellent way to inspire an appreciation for diversity at the onset of our cross-cultural adventure. Story time was followed up with a brief geography lesson and some videos introducing the kids to the various cultures of Belize.
The Letters: I used another wonderful text to introduce the concept of pen pals to my second grade superheroes: Same, Same but Different by Jenny Sue Kostechi-Shaw. As part of a class project, students Elliot and Kailash find themselves unlikely pen pals from two cities across the globe. Through their letters to one another, they realize that each of their lives is a little bit different, but also surprisingly the same. Though the trees in their countries don’t quite look alike, both Elliot and Kailash find that they love to climb them. Both cities are overrun with traffic, although one is filled with cars while the other has an abundance of animals in the streets. Elliot lives with a small family, while Kailash’s family is large. Both boys take the bus to school, but one is driven by an engine while the other is pulled by a bike. By the end of the story, the pen pals
decide that though their worlds may not appear to have much in common, they really aren’t so different after all. This book was an excellent tool for inspiring my young learners to look deeper at the many cultures that make up our world. While it’s always easy to recognize the numerous differences from place to place, this text shows them that, with a little consideration, the connections between people will always emerge. My kiddos absolutely LOVED this book! With ideas from the story and newfound knowledge of Belize under their belts, the class set to work writing letters to their future friends.
The letters were then sent to our partner school in Belize with copies of both the books we read as our first step toward building a lasting friendship.
Let me know what you think of our cross-cultural project and stay tuned for next steps!