I’d like to share with you how learning can become interesting to young students if focus on learning derives from questions raised by the students rather than the teacher. I was teaching a mixed group of students in grade four and five in the Swedish compulsory school system. The students all had very few contacts with native speakers of English or with students from other countries. I wanted them to improve both their written an oral English and thought of different ways. It was in the middle of the annual summer vacation and as usual I spent time thinking of the coming school year. Isn’t that typical for a teacher? I know I’m not the only teacher who spends time planning for future teaching while their off of school.
Anyway, I thought of the idea of getting some kind of pen-pal for each and every one of my students. At this time I had just got my first personal computer through work and I wasn’t very familiar with how to use internet as a resource. I was therefore searching for different websites in order to find addresses to PEN-pals. It wasn’t until I came across the website http://www.epals.com with the very new word #epals, that I realized that PEN-pals were completely outdated! I was thinking like a dinosaur! Briefly, Epals is a website where teachers or students or for that matter teachers AND students can get in touch with each other in order to collaborate in different projects. It doesn’t have to be international projects, but in my case it was.
From the start I didn’t plan to collaborate at all with any American teachers. I was focused on the UK, since I was going to the UK in September in 2000. I spent a couple of hours reading different profiles in the epals website and then I wrote my own profile. Already while I was browsing the site, I got a few mails in my inbox. There were two of them from American teachers and one of them was from a British teacher. They all seemed very nice, but since I was in a hurry to get my project going, I wrote to the British teacher, telling him about my plans to go to the UK and I also fired off my question about the two of us meeting each other to plan our future collaboration with our students. I wrote “Since I come to the UK in September, I hope we can meet and plan for our mutual project!” Then, since I was in a hurry and also because I know that teachers don’t like to spend time doing the wrong things, I wrote back to the two other teachers politely telling them that unfortunately I had already found a teacher in Britain whom I wanted to collaborate with and thus I didn’t need to write to them…
The “British” teacher replied to my email saying something like “It’s not that I don’t WANT to meet you, but how exactly did you think we could meet if you go to the UK and I live in New Jersey?”
Anyone who gets an email with that comment could have given up, but I’m not that kind of person. I wrote back. The “British” teacher wasn’t at all British and the REAL British teacher, whom I mistaken for being American, was of course already lost and gone, so what options did I have??? I started off brushing up my own English, by writing back and forth to this particular American teacher, who seemed to be a nice person already from the start. He was a teacher in a class in the same age span as my students, so after a few weeks of planning we started off writing emails between the two different schools.
At first, we instructed our own classes to write more general letters about themselves and share photos and details about the school system or what the school looked like. But gradually as the students got to know each other a little better, they started to ask their own questions and compared the learning situations in Sweden and New Jersey. My students, who were used to several breaks during school days, were shocked to notice that the students in the American school had fewer breaks and also lacked a nice lawn and a playing-ground at school. Outside the American school was instead a parking lot.
There were a lot of similar topics that gave students in both ends of our mutual collaboration a chance to challenge their language skills. In the American end students had a more cultural based viewpoint to our project, whereas in Sweden the focus was mainly on language and how to express oneself. One thing lead to another and the American teacher and I also visited each other’s schools and got the opportunity to see through teaching what it was like to teach in a completely different school setting than the one we were used to, respectively. I remember from MY teaching during one single day in the American school, that it was weird to be addressed with my Mrs Olenius. I also found it interesting to interact with the student in MY way, rather out spoken and joking, and notice how a few of the American TEACHERS frowned. It seemed to me as if they were taking their ROLE as teachers much more seriously than I do, which was interesting to note.
Later, my American friend visited me and my class in Sweden. He had brought with him a few interesting lessons to teach and one of them was in Physics, where he wanted to show the students how an American Hurricane builds up, by using two large bottles that he quickly moved in order to make it seem like a hurricane within the bottles. An interesting thing with his experiment is the obvious difference between the ways we would do such and experiment and the way he did. He ended up getting eager students around him who wanted to do the experiment themselves, not just look at him doing it. In Sweden I’d say most teachers would give their students the opportunity to try out such an experiment by themselves. Another thing the American teacher probably noticed is that his usual reference to the famous Wizard of Oz didn’t work in Sweden. Why not?
A Swedish student in grade five generally wouldn’t know what kind of movie that is.
I’m happy to say that this American teacher and I have been friends for a long time now and thanks to him, I have learnt a lot about America that is more positive than I could ever imagine. Maybe it was meant to be that I mixed the American teacher with the British?