Teacher exchange for a 21st century education
Preparing our students for the 21st century and its demands is a global challenge. We cannot forget the importance of preparing a citizenry who will be able to work across borders and join with international colleagues in a global society, and we need teachers who are taught themselves to support intercultural understanding. This is a tall order, but these elements are at the center of the international project we are conducting at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.
This past year, we have had the privilege of working side by side with teachers and school administrators in the United States and the Primorsky Krai region of Far East Russia to examine effective ways to help teachers bring international learning experiences into their teaching, enriching learning in K-12 classrooms here and in Russia. A primary goal has been to support both U.S. and Russian teachers to develop new approaches that extend beyond the scope of their immediate classroom and develop ways to incorporate a more international focus in their work with students.
The project, funded by the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs, involves both Russian and U.S. secondary school teachers of Foreign/World Languages (FL/WL) and Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). Twenty Russian and five U.S. teachers engaged in specialized, hands-on professional learning while spending time in one another’s schools in both countries. The Russian teachers spent five weeks in Northern Virginia in the fall of 2010 in the foreign language, science, technology and mathematics classrooms of 16 teachers at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. In May 2011, five U.S. teachers from Northern Virginia and North Carolina spent time in the partnership schools in Vladivostok and the Primorsky Krai region of Russia.
The teachers have learned from one another’s educational practices through on-site visits and continued communication by e-mail. They have compared effective teaching approaches, conducted research in their classrooms and have begun to present the results. At the project’s International Teacher Research Conference held at Asia Pacific School, Vladivostok on May 14, the U.S. and Russian teachers presented classroom research and joint projects. This conference made visible some of the results of the exchanges of knowledge and cross-cultural projects. Presentations included such topics as the implementation of multiple intelligences in Russian classrooms, joint foreign language communication projects between English classrooms in Russia and Russian classrooms in the United States, portfolio implementation for both teachers and students in Russian schools, and a field-based biology project that incorporated interactive, experiential learning. A panel comprised of teachers from both countries ended the conference; the group provided additional insights into the teachers’ thinking and shared both culminating ideas and plans for ongoing collaboration. It was the overwhelming consensus that the teachers from both countries share many more commonalities than differences: They are committed educators who are focused on their students’ learning and want them to grasp their subject’s content, they want to reach beyond their classrooms to incorporate new technologies in real life learning and they themselves want to keep on learning through continued collaboration.
The Russian teachers talked a great deal about the interactive learning approaches in U.S. classrooms and came away with deeper understandings about student-centered, experiential learning. At the same time, the U.S. teachers remarked on the knowledge of strong content promoted in the language classes of Russian schools. The U.S. teachers also expressed their admiration for the strong levels of English-language proficiency displayed in the Russian language classrooms.
Russian schools begin to teach English at a very early age and incorporate it increasingly as students progress through the grade levels, teaching it through content-rich prisms such as environmental science issues, American history, music appreciation and literature. Communication is a strong goal of their language programs. It was an amazing experience for the U.S. teachers to realize that in most of the schools we visited, we were the very first Americans to visit those schools, and yet the students surrounded us anxious to hold a conversation in English.
Preparing a citizenry that can meet rapid global changes will not happen with the snap of a finger. A well-considered plan calls for new opportunities in teacher professional learning that include up-to-date knowledge in the content areas they teach, as well as in cross-cultural capacity. In this project, we have explored how the realities of far-reaching geography, language and cultural differences among a group of international teachers have become positive enhancements to intercultural exchange.
The person-to-person components in the United States and Far East Russia have provided a strong foundation for the relationships that could sustain dialogue and explore teaching practices across cultures.
At this writing, new projects are emerging for groups of teachers that we hope will be sustained beyond the scope of our project. We plan to return to Primorsky Krai in fall 2012. In the meantime, we are sharing the current results of our work and implementing it in our work at the university. We are also using the research to contribute to a growing body of literature focused on new ways that educators can incorporate international cross-disciplinary work into designing and implementing meaningful experiences for current and future FL/WL and STEM teachers.
Rebecca Fox and Wendy Frazier are co-directors of the U.S.-Russia Teacher Professional Development Program. For additional information, please visit the project’s blog at http://usrtpd.wordpress.com.