Who are we, and how are we alike and different? How does the context of where we are from impact who we are? What choices are we faced with about our futures?
Students connected with teens in Mexico, Central America, and South America as part of a cross-cultural youth friendship project. Who am I? Where am I from? Where am I going? These questions sparked deeper essential questions for exploring issues that students around the world are grappling with. Students engaged in weekly video chat sessions and email exchanges to learn about their peers’ lifestyles, beliefs, communities, and cultures. They also conducted research about their partners’ countries, with a focus on the political, artistic, and cultural factors that impact particular communities.
At High Tech High, teachers co-design semester-long projects for and with their students. Early last Spring, we shared spark ideas and passions in co-designing a project for this Fall, and we realized we had common ground in our love for travel and ethnic studies. We both traveled and lived abroad as youth, learning about different cultures through friendships from around the world. These travels changed us; through our international friendships, we learned new language skills, opened our eyes to different cultures and lands, examined our own values and histories, and discovered new connections with a much wider world.
We wanted our students to have the opportunity to explore new friendships and expand their worldview. We wanted to invite them to see themselves as travelers and ambassadors, and to have them reflect on their own cultural contexts through their new friendships. Over the course of three months, many students cultivated friendships that now extend outside class time. We are certain that many of these friendships will continue beyond this semester.
Students were motivated to learn Spanish that they would use in their weekly conversations and email exchanges, offering an immediate and real opportunity to put their language skills to practice. Student-led research and peer connections also instilled a desire in many of our students to travel internationally. We hope that our work offers foreign language and humanities educators a glimpse into the possibilities for learning beyond the classroom.
Lisa Griffin and Sofia Tannenhaus, teachers at Gary and Jerri-Ann Jacobs High Tech High School and Amigos en las Américas project co-designers.
The aim of our project, Amigos en las Américas, was to learn about different cultures across Latin America through new friendships with students who are our age. Over three months, we engaged in weekly video chats with high school students from México, Chile, Perú, El Salvador, and Ecuador to learn more about who they are and where they are going in their lives. We wanted to learn what it is like to be a teenager in other countries, and what life is like across Latin America. Our essential questions were: Who are you? Where are you from? Where are you going?
Before we started to video chat with our partners, we were excited and nervous. We thought the project would be unique; we don’t get the opportunity to talk to people in other parts of the world very often. We did some basic research about the city and country where our partners live. We read poetry and current news articles in order to understand more about their country and culture. We didn’t know what our partners would be like, and were worried they might make fun of our Spanish because most of us were new to Spanish at that point. Many of us assumed that our partners also wouldn’t know much English; we envisioned struggling through awkward dialogues, full of misunderstanding.
The group chats helped us get to know our partners a bit, but we mostly did one-on-one conversations until the project’s end. In the first few chats, we stuck with basic questions while we were trying to get to know them better and focused less on answering the bigger, essential questions. If we didn’t know how to say something in Spanish, we’d ask our classmates who are advanced or native Spanish speakers. We shared about our families, our cities, and cultures. We were surprised by how many pop culture trends we had in common with them, like dabbing and bottle flipping, and we discovered that most of them were fluent in English. We told jokes, shared Spotify music playlists, and connected over Snapchat and Instagram. As we grew more comfortable, we had deeper conversations about politics, education, and poverty; this allowed us to understand where they came from. We also shared our goals and visions for our respective futures, and affirmed that we had a lot in common.
We learned a lot about ourselves in the process. The extroverts in our groups had an easier time making connections and striking up conversations in the beginning, while people who tend to be quiet came out of their shells over time. We faced challenges as well. It was sometimes difficult to get information in our short conversations, and strange to have a conversation under the pretext of trying to understand and represent our partner; we don’t usually do that with people we meet face-to-face. During our one-on-one conversations it was harder to sustain conversations than it was in the whole-group chats. Sometimes the questions we brainstormed during the week felt awkward to ask, as the questions were often quite personal.
We enjoyed getting to meet new people we likely never would have met otherwise. This project has sparked our desire to travel to different countries and make connections with more new friends. We feel a lot more excited and confident about learning Spanish now that we’ve learned about these countries and have had to use Spanish in real situations. Our partners gave us a personal connection to countries we didn’t know a lot about before. We feel as if we have created bonds with our partners, and built new friendships that will last.
Kyna and Justin, students at Gary and Jerri-Ann Jacobs High Tech High School