Have you ever had a student ask you, “Why do I need to know this?” When it comes to learning a second (or third!) language, the answer is easy. When a student has access to more than one language, their ability to communicate with people across the globe expands. Fluency in another language also gives students a competitive advantage in an increasingly interconnected global workforce. There’s a wonderful Spanish proverb that sums it up nicely: “Quién habla dos idiomas vale por dos,” which means “The person who speaks two languages is worth two people.” And yet, despite the boundless reasons why knowing multiple languages can enrich a student’s life, the United States still lags behind in the percentage of primary and secondary students who are learning a foreign language¹. One way to show U.S. students the undeniable benefits of learning a new language is to give them concrete examples of how young people like them are using their knowledge of another language to travel and advance their careers.
Meet Nebraska Spanish language teacher Kelly Garcia, who goes above and beyond to show her students how knowing an additional language is a superpower. As a virtual and in-person Spanish teacher serving multiple high schools in rural Southeast Nebraska, Ms. Garcia harnesses the power of virtual exchange to bring authentic language experiences to her students. Due to a shortage of world language teachers in Nebraska², Ms. Garcia regularly uses video conferencing technology like Zoom to teach students remotely, so she is comfortable using the same platforms to participate in virtual exchanges with travelers around the world. By providing her students with virtual exchange opportunities, Ms. Garcia makes the benefits of travel accessible to all of her students, and through the use of video-conferencing platforms, Ms. Garcia’s students have been able to uncover the power of global knowledge by connecting with travelers in (or originally from) Spanish-speaking countries.
For language teachers like Ms. Garcia who are looking to use technology to their advantage in the classroom, virtual exchanges provide an enriching and comprehensive educational experience for students. Last school year (despite the pandemic), Ms. Garcia’s students went on a virtual exchange journey with Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholar Leslie Vergara. Through a one-to-one match with Ms. Garcia’s students, Leslie wrote curricularly-aligned articles (asynchronous learning) about her virtual internship in Santiago, Chile (Take a look!) and spoke directly with the students through multiple video calls (synchronous learning). The captions of all of Leslie’s photos were written in Spanish as well, at Ms. Garcia’s request. To supplement this experience, Ms. Garcia welcomed Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant Joaquín Sartori from Concepción del Uruguay, Argentina, to virtually visit her students in Hebron, Nebraska, Fairbury, Nebraska, and Arthur, Nebraska. Students turned what they had learned from their virtual exchange with Leslie into higher-level questions for Joaquín about his home country, language, and culture. Together they spoke Spanish, learned how to prepare maté, and made a new friend from another country–thus expanding their global network.
Now more than ever, these virtual exchange experiences are accessible to all teachers and all students. Having survived the storm that was distance learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, educators everywhere can now leverage their supercharged technological skills to bring the world into their classrooms. As specified by the standards for educators set by the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), it is vital that educators use technology in a manner that expands students’ worldview. ISTE standard 2.4.c³ states that educators should “Use collaborative tools to expand students’ authentic, real-world learning experiences by engaging virtually with experts, teams and students, locally and globally.” Opportunities to do just that are just a few mouse clicks away!
5 Tips for a Successful Virtual Exchange
- Establish strong communication with your traveler to collaborate on learning goals for your students
- Have your traveler share objects and photos from their journey to help form connections with your students
- Ask your traveler write and speak to your students in the target language
- Double-check your tech setup before video conferencing with your traveler
- Assign engaging independent research projects for your students to complete during their traveler’s journey!
Keyli Peralta (email@example.com) is a Program Associate at Reach the World (RTW), a global education non-profit based in New York City that specializes in virtual exchange experiences with K-12 classrooms across the U.S. For more information, visit about.reachtheworld.org.
¹ Devlin, K. (2021, March 13). Most European students are learning a foreign language in school while Americans lag. Pew Research Center. Retrieved August 15, 2022, from https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/08/06/most-european-students-are-learning-a-foreign-language-in-school-while-americans-lag/
² Nebraska Department of Education. (n.d.). Teacher shortage survey. Teacher Shortage Survey. Retrieved August 15, 2022, from https://www.education.ne.gov/educatorprep/teacher-shortage-survey/
³ International Society for Technology in Education. (n.d.). ISTE standards: Educators. ISTE. Retrieved August 15, 2022, from https://www.iste.org/standards/iste-standards-for-teachers