A Virtual Week Without Walls

At the beginning of this school year, a close colleague and I met to plan out our first week of classes. We looked ahead a few months to what was coming and tried to envision how some of our school traditions would play out in a virtual teaching model. 

One of the events that we were really intrigued about was our school’s annual week-without-walls experience. I have to be careful here because I think the term “Week Without Walls” might be trademarked – I am referring to my school’s annual week-out-of-the-classroom, week-out-of-the-box, week-out-of-the-comfort-zone week that we hold each year. We take kids out of the city and off into the wild, where they bond, stay up too late, and – most importantly – learn how to exist away from their parents and their smartphones. 

My colleague and I began to think about how to give that kind of experience to students while we were all working from home and connecting via Zoom. Obviously it would all have to happen online. At that particular stage of the COVID-19 pandemic, the numbers in our city were climbing and a stay-at-home order was being strictly enforced. Nevertheless, we still wanted to provide students with an opportunity to try new things and interact with peers. 

Although the virtual nature of the experience would limit face-to-face contact, it would provide us with a unique opportunity to reach beyond our school’s community and into the world at large. We teach at an overseas international school and we have colleagues and friends working all around the globe at similar schools in similar COVID-impacted situations. This was a huge network of students we could try to bring together.  

To reach out to schools around the globe, we first asked our faculty partners to contact any former colleagues currently working in international schools to see if there was any interest in participating. We also posted notices on Facebook and Twitter, focusing on international education groups. The response was amazing. So many schools were facing similar challenges and were looking to provide their kids with the same kind of adventure. Unfortunately, our February timeframe didn’t align with the needs of all of the respondents. Nevertheless, we were able to build a community of schools from Myanmar, Pakistan, Thailand, the Philippines, to Taiwan, connecting young people from around the world. 

Once the partners were on board, we began fleshing out the specifics of the concept. Because we would be bringing so many cultures together, we obviously wanted to focus on culture. Culture is a pretty big topic, so we thought about looking at culture through a particular lens. The first lens my colleague and I considered was food – food is a universal medium for connecting people and reflecting cultures. We thought about how students could explore and showcase foods from their school’s home nation. What are the ingredients? What is the history behind this dish? Then, students could create videos (in a food show format) where they show students in partnering schools how to create and serve the dish. 

We took the idea of food to our peers to see what they thought. Funny thing is, when you get a group of enthusiastic and like-minded teachers together, ideas have a way of exploding! Then, we showed the new version of the concept to the faculty and even more ideas came pouring in. And so, the little event centered around food became a week-long student-choice, creative extravaganza. 

We developed a list of fun explorative options, built around the following lenses:

  • Dance
  • Food
  • Photography
  • Art
  • Music
  • Literature
  • Community Service
  • STEM and UN Sustainable Development Goals

Next, we put together the plans for the week. We wanted to make sure that our days during this week would be fully maximized. Customized daily schedules were created for each grade level, but they would all follow the same general process. The week would begin with ice-breaking activities where students would introduce themselves and introduce their home country through a cultural exchange. Then, students would be teamed up with like-minded peers from our partner schools and follow a structured routine of exploration and creativity, that would culminate at the end of the week with an online showcase of their experiences. 

One of the activities we developed was a scavenger hunt. Students were challenged to search ther homes for images, items, or artefacts that were connected in some way with their theme. They could dig through their personal or family photos, grab souvenirs mounted on their walls, or clothing hanging in their closets. Students would then share these items within their breakout room partners to talk about the background of the item and how they felt it represented the theme. We watched local food dishes being prepared, looked at traditional clothing, listened to culturally significant music, and studied local architecture and landmarks. 

Before each of our cultural experiences, we employed a variety of engaging Zoom-based ice-breakers and team-building activities. One game involved students having to respond to a series of statements about their life. If they agreed with the statement, then they would turn off their camera. If they did not agree with the statement, they left their cameras on. Statements included: 

– I eat rice for breakfast most mornings. 

– I have eaten a durian fruit.

– I take public transit to school.

– At my school students wear a uniform. 

– I have more than one passport.

The latter question was especially interesting. In my group of 13 students, 11 responded that they had more than one passport. Two reported that their parents were from two different countries. We had a great follow-up discussion about the unique nature of international schools and the life of third culture kids. 

Another activity was centered around school colors. All of the schools involved in the project had their own color schemes. We shared them with each other, along with pictures of the colors being represented around our school facilities. This prompted a thoughtful discussion among the international students who, because of their parent’s jobs, frequently changed countries and schools and, as a result, had to let go of the colors and mascots of one school and adopt those of their new schools. 

Beyond the development of student activities, there were many logistical challenges to address. We had to create unique Zoom links for the large, whole-group meetings, all the smaller grade-level meetings, and then other links for each of the individual theme groups. All those links had to be accurately posted in unique schedules for each participating student, according to their grade level and what particular theme they would be exploring. Templates and examples had to be created for the activities we planned and training videos were produced for the students to follow the process along, and for the teachers who would be facilitating the entire process. 

We had a lot of meetings throughout the organization process, with both our own faculty members and the participating faculty of our partner schools. We also met together regularly during the event – at the conclusion of each day – to reflect on what worked/what didn’t work and to fine tune planning for what we were doing the next day. 

Our students without borders event truly was a beast with many moving parts. There were time zone and language differences to deal with. We had to find common technology platforms to work on. There were wifi and device limitations to address. And, there was even an unexpected military coup that popped out of nowhere to add to our list of challenges.Ultimately, we got it all to work.

Students didn’t get to sleep in tents or go hiking together. But, we feel this students beyond borders event – under some incredible circumstances – still provided our kids with a great way to learn about the culture of the country they live in, and the culture of various countries around the world. And, most importantly, it provided an opportunity for our housebound kids to connect with peers around the globe who are dealing with the same challenges. 

This was an experience none of us will forget. Having said that, we hope that the COVID vaccine distribution means that the next students without borders could be in person!

Ed Ex!

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