Ticket to China

White Plains builds friendships and digital skills through virtual cultural exchange

FEATURE | by Jody Kennedy

Preparing our students to become global citizens and skillful 21st century communicators can seem overwhelming at times. Fortunately, White Plains City Schools has embraced several programs to achieve these important objectives. As part of our efforts, I lead a Global Ambassador program that focuses on service learning and global citizenship. The program is popular with students and parents, and participation is voluntary. Nonetheless, I was surprised at the enthusiastic response from students when I asked if they wanted to be part of a virtual cultural exchange program during study halls or after school. When I explained the program and asked who wanted to participate, all the students raised their hands. They were very excited.

During the 2011-2012 school year, 57 of our students in grades 6-8 participated in the Schoolwires® Greenleaf Virtual Cultural Exchange Program™. Through the virtual program, students developed friendships with students at Suzhou Lida Middle School in China and worked together on group projects using a variety of multimedia and social media resources, including videos, chatrooms and blogs.

Last year, students worked with their peers in China to conduct research, collaborate and complete projects tied to core standards for 21st century learning. Because the program was ongoing throughout a semester, it had a much deeper impact than some of our other attempts to build cultural connections. For example, we often schedule live videoconferences with students and resource experts in other parts of the world. But in the Greenleaf program, our students are learning the Chinese culture from their peers and that makes it more impactful. They learned they have a lot in common with their friends in China, and they constantly talked about how communicating online helped to bridge the distance between the two countries.

Practicing online collaboration skills

The students also were drawn to the program because it uses social media tools that are familiar to them. They could communicate with each other in a way that is meaningful to adolescents. The program is delivered through Nimbus™, a social learning environment that offers collaborative tools like discussion groups and blogs to help students enhance their communication skills.

The program also offers teachers the tools and opportunity to help students develop more effective digital citizenship and online collaboration skills. I stress the word ‘effective’ because students often think they are communicating well online when they are not. In fact, we assumed when we started the program that students knew a lot more about online communications than they actually did. We found, for example, that we needed to teach them the proper tone for an email communication and that copy for a blog should be written as a composition, not like a Facebook posting.

The program gave students an opportunity to use email and blogs that they will likely be required to use in the workforce. And once again, the fact that the program was ongoing was beneficial. Students received continual feedback and could then practice the skills the next time they communicated with their peers in China.

The Greenleaf program is divided into six units:

  • Team Building and Digital Citizenship
  • The Communities We Live In
  • Our Futures in School and Career
  • Global Citizenship
  • Landmark Places
  • Iconic Images

Each unit supports National Education Technology Standards (NETS), National Curriculum Standards for Social Studies (NCSS) and Common Core State Standards. The curriculum is built into the program and did not require any development time on my part.

Paving the way for cultural exchange

We created small workgroups by pairing two of our students with one student in China. The groups worked together on projects like ‘a day in the life’ where they compared and contrasted a typical day through photo and blog postings. The small workgroups made it possible for students to really get to know each other.

Each year, a group of our high school students travel to another country as part of the district’s emphasis on building global awareness. Last year, our high school students were able to meet the Suzhou Lida Middle School students as part of their class trip to China. They carried with them gifts from the White Plains Greenleaf participants, and the students at Suzhou Lida sent gifts in return. The gift exchange was a really nice way to further the relationships.

I expect that some of the students who participated in the program might make the same trip when they are in high school. We anticipate that parents who may have been reluctant to send their child overseas now will be more supportive and comfortable knowing our district has an established relationship with a school in China. The Greenleaf program is a nice bridge to this trip and I am excited that some of the students might meet each other in person.

The program also provided me with the opportunity to build some rewarding global connections. During the program last year, I Skyped weekly with the principal and several teachers at Suzhou Lida. We were always excited to see each others’ faces. And I learned that we have a lot in common as teachers —they are pulled in just as many directions just as I am.

Secure environment reduces concerns about online safety

The fact that all communications took place in a secure environment eliminated concerns about online exposure. This gave us a lot of confidence in the program. It wasn’t the Wild West of Facebook or Google chat. Our parents would have never supported that and we wouldn’t want them to. But parents were very supportive of the program after we explained the security of the environment to them.

Near the end of the school year, our Superintendent, Dr. Christopher P. Clouet, asked students about their reaction to the program. All agreed that it was an opportunity of a lifetime, and that they would welcome the chance to do it again. The program was an invaluable learning opportunity for the students, and its role in furthering global education really excites me. I look forward to all of the many new experiences I will have with my students as we travel the world, often from the comfort of our desktops!


Jody Kennedy is the Digital Media Arts teacher for White Plains City Schools in White Plains, NY. 


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