Students and officials gathered in Brazil as part of a QFI exchange and environmental program (archive)
By Jennifer Geist*
Of the many reasons cited for engaging in virtual exchange, I believe COVID-19 is demonstrating for us every day just how important it is to be able to think critically, with an inclusive, flexible mind that takes into account diverse perspectives. We need skills to weed through the information and detect bias as well as falsehoods. And we especially need to learn from our global peers, knowing that their ideas and viewpoints offer critical pieces for solving every puzzle.
The Aber Virtual Exchange is a full 5-week virtual exchange curriculum that is designed to foster safe, open dialogue about stereotyping that leads to prejudice and discrimination, two major barriers to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. It is grounded in the belief that in getting to know one another by cultivating curiosity and empathy we can avoid making assumptions that lead to misunderstandings. It could also help us develop the communication and collaboration skills that we so need in order to improve life across the globe.
In our recent webcast Better Conversations; Fighting Discrimination, Dr. Elisheva Cohen at the School of Global and International Studies at Indiana University called our attention to the “hidden curriculum” by asking, “Are stereotypes being replicated in your curriculum materials? Is your curriculum elevating multiple perspectives and marginalized voices?” Elly was a close collaborator in the development of the Aber Virtual Exchange, and she emphasizes that we must be intentional about creating safe spaces for our students to have these conversations in order for deep understanding and real structural change to occur. And, the fact that this conversation is happening in classrooms all over the world, guided by courageous teachers, is a very hopeful sign.
Fadi Abughoush, a veteran Arabic teacher at Lindblom Academy in Chicago, also joined me in the webcast. He has taught the Aber Virtual Exchange six times and contributed to the refinement of the curriculum. He connects his students each year with classrooms in Morocco and Jordan. From this experience, he speaks about the lasting friendships that have grown out of the Exchanges. He recounts, “at the beginning, the students think that they are very different, but by the end, they see that we are the same.
This is what we need, to be able to communicate and to see each other for who we really are, in order to be able to collaborate and address some of the world’s greatest issues.”
But let’s be honest, tackling these topics is a big challenge, and for most of us, that can feel quite risky. How do we do it? Jameela Jafri, veteran science teacher, and virtual exchange expert joined the webcast, where she acknowledged the challenge with saying, “Increasingly as educators, we are reflecting and understanding that we work within institutions that can perpetuate systemic inequities, so reflecting on our own positionality and role in the system is self-awareness that is really important. Professional development and working with other teachers in a safe environment is really needed.”
Jameela continues, “Teachers and students, we are all people, and we come into any environment with prejudices and assumptions, stereotypes and caricatures. Disabusing ourselves of these requires us to be both intentional and explicit in what we teach. Virtual exchange provides an opportunity for educators and students to be faced with the complexities of our world by engaging people as people, seeing the nuances.”
To address this need, QFI offers a FREE online course, Teaching the Aber Virtual Exchange, to help teachers familiarize themselves with the curriculum, build the skills needed for safe, open dialogue, and most importantly, to connect with other educators who are ready and willing to share what they know and be vulnerable as they learn.
By connecting directly with our peers through the virtual exchange, we learn to suspend assumptions and find out for ourselves what is behind the stereotypes that lead to prejudice, discrimination, and inequality. With the goal of understanding as much as being understood, problem-solving and collaboration become more efficient and inclusive. If we truly believe that our best results in addressing global issues, such as the current pandemic, will come through thoughtful systemic change, then we must agree that learning to listen to diverse perspectives is a critical skill, not only because it is fair, but also because complex problems cannot be addressed without comprehensive understanding, especially from the people most different from ourselves.
*For 25 years Jennifer Geist has been utilizing cutting edge digital technology to teach and work for non-profits that transform classrooms. As the owner of Zeitgeist Creations, her specialty is connecting cultures through virtual exchange.