TESOL 2024 Workshop: Creating Cultural Connections in the Virtual Classroom

Professional

The workshop on establishing cultural connections in the virtual classroom proved to be an effective way of sharing the insights and skills that Virtual Educators have developed, harnessed, and utilized to leverage the digital environment to promote public diplomacy through online English education. To plan and facilitate this workshop, many Virtual Educators contributed tips to the round-robin discussion including:  Andrea Lypka: Virtual Educator, Sudan,  Catherine Brown: Virtual Educator, Mexico,  Linnea Jaeger: Virtual Educator,  Mexico, Kimberly Gardner: Virtual Educator, Turkiye, Mayonne Grazno: Virtual Educator, Morroco , Robbieana Leung: Virtual Educator, Algeria, Laura Leslie:  Virtual Educator Coordinator, English Language Programs, Virtual Educator Alum, El Salvador, Turkiye.

Kate Bain introduced the session and Andrew Shannon coordinated and facilitated the workshop.

Each small group of Virtual Educators introduced  5 tips, which were displayed on large posters, and the participants rotated around the room and listened to the Virtual Educators share their strategies for creating cross-cultural connections in the online classroom.  The enthusiasm was evident as vibrant chatter and thought-provoking questions filled the room.  Unfortunately, we felt the time constraints since we only had 45 minutes to rotate through the stations, but participants took advantage to ask questions and connect with speakers after the workshop.

The following tips were created collaboratively in Google Documents and all of the above Virtual Educators contributed to creating the tips and resources.  Also, you can look at the tips in poster form on Canva.

Summary of the Tip Boards:

Bringing in guests to share viewpoints and collaborate on projects

To enrich students’ learning experiences, foster a diverse network of guest speakers including co-teachers, community leaders, and activists, engaging with their varied perspectives and experiences. Interactive discussions and Q&A sessions with these speakers promote active student participation, critical thinking, and learning from diverse viewpoints. Providing pre- and post-discussion activities scaffolds learning and enhances cultural understanding, while encouraging students to research and invite underrepresented voices empowers them and promotes inclusivity. Collaborating with other ESL classrooms globally to organize joint guest speaker sessions facilitates cross-cultural dialogue and creates a more enriching educational experience, fostering intercultural competence and a sense of community among students.

Creating a culture of collaboration

These tips offer guidance for a successful collaboration with a host institution: Firstly, foster creativity and flexibility by embracing new ideas and proposals that may enrich the project beyond the initial scope. Secondly, prioritize organization and effective communication from the outset to ensure alignment with the institution’s goals and facilitate smooth collaboration. Thirdly, demonstrate respect and curiosity towards the host culture and institution, integrating cultural elements into lessons while being mindful of sensitivities. Fourthly, actively support the host institution’s objectives by promoting their activities and initiatives within your teaching context. Finally, empower all involved parties to contribute meaningfully, fostering a collaborative environment where everyone can thrive.

Utilizing edtech tools for cultural exchange and celebration

Tips for utilizing educational technology tools for cultural exchange and engagement include strategies like gamification, real-time class collaboration platforms like Padlet and Google Slides, and creating opportunities for cultural exchange through familiar platforms and social media trends. Personalized presentations using templates and avatars, along with attention to students’ digital literacy skills, ensure effective utilization of digital tools in the classroom.

Leveraging culture in ESP classes   

When teaching English for Specific Purposes (ESP), tailor your approach by understanding the local context and industry trends, fostering rapport through cultural exchange, and integrating specific language skills practice. Empower students with socio-linguistics education and trauma-sensitive practices to navigate communication effectively and create a supportive learning environment.

Here is a list of resources that the team curated and shared with participants.

Personal

In January, I typically brainstorm a list of goals and objectives for the year.  This year, my word for 2024 year was, “collaboration” and I truly felt the essence of the word coming out at the TESOL Workshop on practical ways to create cultural connections in the Virtual classroom.  Over the course of the year, I’ve realized that collaboration has been essential in reaching my goals and advancing my career in ELT.

Collaborating with a Team of Storytellers

Working with the team of storytellers in December of 2023 on revising, editing, and performing our stories along with the help of master story coach, Richard Silberg helped build my confidence on stage and my public speaking skills.  One of the strategies Richard taught me was to imagine the story in my mind as I was telling it, to bring it to life in that moment, which helps the other   I was grateful to share my story and open this workshop.   Stories from the Field was an incredible way to meet other Virtual Educators, Fellows, and Specialists and hear about the transformational power of teaching and learning through the rich and textured stories they told. I met many of the storytellers at TESOL in Tampa and we laughed and shared about how we surmised the inspiration to submit our stories to the contest, and how the process of working together and meeting online had impacted our well-being in positive ways.   I realized that writing stories is therapeutic and helps us process these intense, multifaceted, and complex experiences that we have in different cultural contexts and challenging teaching environments.  At the workshop, Andrew shared that storytelling is a foundation of the English Language Programs and I do believe that stories are memorable and emotional, and help the tellers and the listeners put themselves in the shoes of another, thus creating empathy across cultures.    I realize that through my story, I was sponsored to attend TESOL-Global, which attests to the power and importance of storytelling as a way of bridging gaps and humanizing education.

Collaborating with other Virtual Educators

The collaboration for this workshop began a month before the event.   The presenters began brainstorming tips and collating resources in a Google document to share with the audience on the day of the workshop.    We shared the importance of drawing upon the wealth of knowledge that other Virtual Educators bring to the table and that, through these initial conversations, further collaborations can emerge.   For example,    through the Virtual Educator Program, I have made a number of wonderful connections that have led to other global projects and collaborations.    Last fall, I organized a Tesol Methodology Forum on Reading and Language Learning and invited three expert speakers: Dr. Stephen Krashen, Dr. Linh Phung and Pilar Capaul.   I requested VAA funds to organize the Forum, an idea I had after attending a TESOL-Spain conference and seeing a similar panel.  The event was a particularly great way to work as a team to organize the forum with the other professors in the English department at the Higher Normal School.  I listened to my Mexican colleagues and, based on their expectations and goals for the event, I tried to make the event memorable.  We had hundreds of participants joining via Zoom, along with large groups of students from sister universities around Mexico tuning in from their classrooms to celebrate the 30th anniversary of teacher education at the Higher Normal School of Navojoa. It was a pleasure to award certificates of recognition to the three expert speakers who  shared valuable insights on the transformational power of reading in education and language development and students left glowing comments about the event. 

One of the speakers at the TESOL Methodology Forum was Dr. Linh Phung, who is also a Specialist with English Language Programs and she visited my online classroom to share the Eduling Speak App with my students, which is a task-based learning app that promotes fluency.  Dr. Phung and I have been working together to create a TOEFL Speaking course on the App.     I posted a highlight about her visit on the COP regarding the experimentation with her App with my students and another Virtual Educator in Madagascar, Muhammad Khan, reached out to me to do a symposium together on using  language Apps  in the classroom.  We connected our pre-service teachers in the symposium and they had time to meet virtually, and present their favorite language learning Apps to each other.  The following semester, they continued collaborating through a class mascot project. Each class selected a mascot and took selfies with the mascot in different places around their cities and in their communities.  Students would dialogue back and forth in the comments and learn about each other’s cultures and teaching contexts.

This semester, I’ve been working with my colleagues in Mexico along with Virtual Educator,  Glymaris Lugo on a unique project en titled “A Cross-Cultural Comparison between Diverse Regions in Mexico and the USA, ” which aims to foster cultural understanding and comparative analysis among students by exploring the diverse regions of Mexico and the USA. The unit began with a focus on Easter celebrations in the Northern, Central, and Southern regions of Mexico, delving into cultural differences and traditions.   Students engaged in inquiry-based learning, presentations, discussions, and reading activities and deepened their understanding of regional and cross-cultural differences.  In addition, students took a class trip to Puebla, allowing them to explore the cultural differences and make new discoveries about that region of Mexico.  Also, students created group presentations about the schools where they were doing their student teaching to student teachers from other Higher Normal Schools in the Central and Southern regions of Mexico.  The following weeks extended the exploration to include the East and West Coasts of the USA, a webinar created by guest speaker, Glymaris Lugo that explored cultural nuances and differences in communication styles, lifestyle, education, and work.  Through guest speakers, group activities, and independent reading tasks, students examined regional variations in both countries.   The success of the unit depended on collaborations with other Virtual Educator and with the host institution’s sister universities in various regions in Mexico.

Career Impact

Since taking on the Virtual Educator role, my career has blossomed in many wonderful ways. For example, I’ve presented at TESOL Spain’s annual convention for two consecutive years. I’ve taken on the leadership role of area coordinator for the Galicia region for TESOL Spain.  Also, I was awarded a scholarship to present at IATEFEL in Brighton this year about peer and self-assessment in TOEFL exam preparation.    Finally, I will be presenting alongside a colleague from TESOL-Spain for the American English Live Webinar series 20 in May.    What am I looking forward to?  I  am excited about a book project that several Virtual Educators and fellows are contributing to entitled:  “Intercultural Connections as Virtual Educators: Making a Global Impact.”

Concluding Words

In the story I wrote and told at TESOL Global in Tampa, I talk about how I witnessed a magical moment that “melted the barriers of the cold zoom screen.”  As a Virtual Educator, I’ve realized that projects that focus on collaborations truly ignite a sense of passion for learning and develop cross-cultural friendships and lasting professional connections.