How do you connect with partners in other countries to allow for meaningful travel abroad experiences for students? Amanda Comstock, former Program Coordinator at Columbus North International School in Ohio (a member of Asia Society’s International Studies Schools Network) shares some ideas.
Finding good partners abroad may feel challenging, especially when you are in a classroom far away. Here I share strategies learned through the planning and implementation of trips for up to 120 students in Columbus, Ohio, for travel to other parts of the state and to Montreal, Quebec.
First of all, have a clear idea of your purpose in traveling. An immersive language experience, volunteering, connecting with other students, researching a particular topic in a different context, and sightseeing are all wonderful reasons to embark on a trip. I suggest that you brainstorm your purpose with all of your stakeholders—students, other teachers, and parents. Your purpose will be your compass, directing you toward partners that will best fit with your trip.
Keep in mind that the most essential part of any trip is for your students to have an experience, not necessarily to learn something. We learn from reflecting on and analyzing our experiences, and therefore we require enriching and full experiences as our raw material. Your trip will be for gathering that raw material, knowing that you will do the real ‘unpacking’ once you are back home in the classroom. Your trip should be full of activities [root word: active], not discussions.
In tandem with deciding your trip’s purpose, make a list of your limiting factors—length, cost, and numbers. How long can you be gone, including travel time? What is your budget per student? How many students will you be taking? Figure out how much time you have with ‘feet on the ground,’ too. Make up a mock schedule, and block out the times for eating, resting, and traveling. Then you will see very clearly the amount of time you have for your activities. These limiting factors prove to be very useful in focusing your efforts and saving you time by ruling out activities that are too long, too complicated, or too expensive. Limiting factors will also help you shape your pitch to potential partners.
Searching for Partners
Once you know why you are traveling and what your limits are, you can begin identifying potential partners. When looking for partners, keep in mind the idea of ‘exchange'—don’t just look for organizations that will help you, but think of what you and your students can bring to the organization. How will your trip help further the mission of the organization?
If you are looking for volunteer opportunities, an internet search with “volunteering” + "[destination]” is always a great place to start. Most cities have common volunteer -based organizations: food banks, homeless shelters, animal welfare, hospitals, and soup kitchens almost always have opportunities. If traveling to a location where you do not speak the language, Google Translate should be adequate enough: translate your search terms for Google, and translate the articles to get their gist. Keep in mind that Google will translate even the names of organizations; so be sure to go back to the original text when following up with a potential partner
Other partners to consider for volunteering are your local service organizations that have global reaches: the Red Cross, YMCA, and service clubs like Rotary International or Kiwanis should be able to connect you to their global networks. Other countries also have US chapters of relief organizations. For connecting with the Chinese-speaking world, the Tzu Chi organization does relief work and has chapters everywhere. Finding a partner local to you is advantageous as you can create a sustainable relationship, enabling work to be done locally both before and after your trip. Additionally, your students become a kind of ambassador for the organization to stay connected with itself, making it a fruitful exchange for all parties.
When seeking a cultural exchange with students abroad, I suggest finding a sister school or after-school youth organization. Youth organizations, such as the YMCA, are usually eager to have activities for their own kids and are thus very open to exchange; they also typically have outreach or program coordinators as a point of contact.
Finding a sister school can be more challenging, as they often do not have a coordinator who facilitates exchanges. First, to identify some local schools, I suggest reading the area’s local papers, and looking for news about local schools. You can also find the names of local schools using a search engine, and use those names in your search query.
Through this research, you will get an idea of what the school is known for and how active they are in their community, and you may also find quotes from individual teachers who are leaders within the school. Using the school’s staff directory, you should able to track down the teacher’s contact information. When you initiate contact with the teacher, be sure to include the principal on all emails. Whatever you do, do not send generic blanket emails to the principals of the schools. Principals receive dozens of unsolicited emails a day and do not typically take a random email and then delegate it to their staff.
In your correspondence, make it clear that you are familiar with the teacher’s work, and give suggestions of how you can work together; most teachers will be delighted to enhance their classroom with such a fun project! You are already demonstrating that you are willing to research, to do work on your end, and therefore are a good collaborator. These types of exchanges are what can lead to sustainable long-term sister school relationships.
If you are interested in researching a particular curricular element in a new context, then many of the above strategies will work—instead of researching a school in the local paper, research a particular issue. For example, when I was planning a trip to Montreal, some of our students were studying childhood obesity. A search on “childhood obesity” and “Montreal,” led me to newspaper articles about new government policies in Quebec limiting the advertisement of junk food to children. The articles named a couple of organizations working on this issue, so I found their websites and contacted their outreach coordinators. I let them know that I had a group of 20 American students interested in seeing how Quebec dealt with childhood obesity, and asked if there was a way we could work together. One of these organizations offered to give a workshop to our students. Even better, they connected us with an Anglophone school in Montreal with whom they were already working, which seeded a sister-school relationship still present today.
Identifying relevant departments or student organizations of colleges or universities local to your destination can also be fruitful. Often student organizations do quite a bit of outreach, and colleges are more than willing to host visiting students. You also get the added bonus of doing a college tour!
In all of your research, include your students in order to lighten your load. Ask them to research a volunteer-organization that piques their interest, or find local schools in the paper. Asking them to read the local papers can serve not only a cross-curricular assignment in English, foreign language, and social studies classes, but will help you find out about cool events and other organizations you may be able to work with. Even better, it makes your trip ‘real’ to your students—you are about to travel to a place where people live and work, and that has its very own culture.
Once you have identified potential partners, it is time to make contact. As I suggested with schools, you should identify an individual to contact within the organization. As with any interaction, good first impressions are crucial. Your first email should be personalized and include the purpose of your trip, your limiting factors, what you hope to do with the organization and what your group will give in exchange.
The trick is to be flexible enough to accommodate their schedule, while also being clear on what your limits are. For example, “We are coming on May 18 and would like to volunteer for 2 to 4 hours. We appreciate your work feeding the homeless, and would love for our students to be able to assist your organization however you may need. Would you be open to this possibility? Here is my contact information.”
Contact many potential partners. If you are including your students in the planning, perhaps having them each write a letter would be an effective way of dividing the work.
Some of the partners you contact will not be able to work with you, whether they don’t have the resources or staff or opportunities at that time. Take advantage of this ‘No’ by asking for a referral—"I understand you can’t do that. Would you happen to know anyone who may be interested in having our students volunteer for the day?” or “Do you know of any other teachers who would be interested in the exchange?” The great thing about people who work in a particular field is they know other people who work in the field. Most of the partners I have found have come through referrals of this type.
Lastly, be sure to include parents and the school community. While you are planning your trip, send a letter to the school community, requesting their connections or contacts in your destination. Though these contacts may or may not align with your trip’s purpose, building a network of people on the ground that may be able to assist you is certainly useful.
Finding partners abroad requires quite a bit of detective work, but your careful research will yield more results than cold calls. Get your students in on it, and lighten the workload. Your students can identify local organizations, and debate in class which ones they like the best. Your students can learn to reach out to the organizations, and how to write formal letters. By empowering them to assist with planning, they are learning before they even pack their bags.
Photo courtesy of iStock.
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