Long gone are the days when traditional classroom teaching ruled. With the interconnectedness of the world and the tools at the disposal of today’s teens the planet has never felt smaller. With that comes great opportunity to bring culture into classrooms from all over the world.
While the pandemic has brought its own stresses and disruptions for students and teachers, the virtual exchange is meant to be an escape, something enjoyable, something to appreciate. Knowing that everyone has been impacted and the act of sharing not only builds solidarity, but provides for reflection and the strengthening of friendships that will help us emerge from the pandemic with a fresh outlook and preparedness for the post-pandemic world.
This is a guide that discusses the various aspects of the virtual high school cultural exchange and what to expect. The guide is written for teachers, counselors and principals, but is a great resource for anyone looking for virtual exchange program information.
About Costa Rica Frika and the exchange schools
Costa Rica Frika (CRF) was formed as a result of an unforgettable Costa Rican volunteer experience by its founder in 2006. After 6 months living with a host family and experiencing the culture, his life long goals and plans were forever altered. The only thing he regrets about that experience was waiting till he was 20 to do it.
The Costa Rica exchange schools are both public and private high schools with students between the ages of 14 and 17. They come from middle class families and have a thirst to participate in exchange programs.
Despite a strong middle class, families are not able to travel internationally very often. That combined with the coronavirus pandemic, travel restrictions and resulting loss of tourism revenue (largest industry in Costa Rica) has made it difficult for many to do a travel exchange.
About Costa Rica
Located on the land bridge between North and South America, Costa Rica sandwiches itself just to the south of Nicaragua and to the north of Panama. A country about the size of West Virginia with a population of 5 million (about half the population of Chicago) you can’t wander far without hearing their coined phrases pura vida, mae, or tuanis.
Costa Rica’s claim to fame is their rainforests and tropical beaches which comprise 5% of the world’s biodiversity and are the main visitor attractions. An avid soccer nation, Costa Rican footballers are most proud of their country’s advance to the round of eight in the World Cup in Brazil.
The majority of the exchange schools are located in the western region of the central valley of Costa Rica, about an hour northwest of the capital city San José. This region is primarily agricultural, known for coffee, sugar cane, corn, and beef cattle production. It also has one of the best climates on earth, with average temperature in the upper 70’s and plenty of sun year round.
Goals of the Exchange
The exchange has three main components:
Culture infiltrates all aspects of the exchange, however, as an exchange goal it relates to the sharing that happens via the exchange activities. Discussions may be light or heavy and the resulting conversations and points of view shows the uniqueness of the cultures. Activities such as preparing food, or dancing allow for sharing and reflecting.
The educational goals are achieved through activities that give students insights into the educational system or provide educational value. Students will have the opportunity to learn about their partner school and educational system. They may be able to take building tours of the school and other local landmarks to share with their exchange partners. Students might show how a local food is prepared.
The exchange wouldn’t be complete without recreational activities. Virtual recreational activities involve gaming, fantasy sports or strategy. While fun, the cultural understanding and friendship building develops the most from working together to achieve a common goal. CR and US students may match up against each other or they may work together to compete against other CR/US teams.
The virtual exchange is open to all students, however students gain the most from the experience if they have the following profile:
- Have at least one year of Spanish.
- Are preparing for Seal of Biliteracy, AP Spanish exam, Global scholar certificate, or other applicable program.
- Are self starters, mature, social, and tech/social media savvy (Google Classroom, Flipgrid, Whatsapp, Instagram etc).
- Not afraid to make mistakes and/or embarrass themselves.
- Have an interest in hosting or traveling on an exchange.
To keep the exchange affordable and accessible to all students, there will be no cost to students to participate in the virtual exchange. From time to time paid activities may be offered if agreed to by the CR and US schools, however participation is not mandatory. Participating in the virtual exchange does not mean that a student must participate in a travel or host exchange. Participants that do wish to do a travel exchange may receive special pricing, discounts, and/or scholarships for completing virtual exchange activities.
Virtual Exchange Schedule:
The virtual exchange typically last 3-4 months and activities are divided up into tiers and blocks. Tiers denote the frequency/time required of the activities while blocks divide the exchange up into periods where certain activities are completed.
Tier 1: Pen and video pal sharing. Students will create short videos and writings based on a topic. They will share them with their exchange partners and they will give each other feedback on their grammar. Higher level language pairs do activities in target language and get feedback/error correction from pairs. If a topic is too advanced for some language learners, they may submit in their native language, but will have to translate their partner’s response. Tier 1 activities are assigned for each block.
Tier 2: Video creation. Students will create videos to give tours and show what their daily life and town is like. Videos could be a tour of school, home, park or other public place you typically go to. They could also be interviews with community members or another unique interest a student may have. Tier 2 assignments are given in each block.
Tier 3: Creative and longer term projects/activities. These activities are team and friendship building activities. Typically there are 3-4 throughout the course of the exchange. Time frames can vary, but run for a minimum of 2 blocks. Students suggest and give preference for which activities they would like to do. Examples include: fantasy sports, book club, video game tournament, podcast, lip sync (or other) video challenge, recipe exchange.
Tier 4: International fundraising/service project. This tier is for maximum exchange exposure and is for students that want a leadership opportunity, need volunteer hours for Global Scholar or other certificate programs, or would like to build their resume for college and employment opportunities. The virtual exchange offers an opportunity to sell coffee to fundraise for the Community Action Alliance of San Ramon Scholarship fund. The fund provides vouchers to low income middle and high school kids so they can purchase uniforms, school supplies and food. Students that need service hours may be able to tutor the recipients of the scholarship in English or other students from partner school (will depend on how accessible technology is for scholarship students). Tier 4 activities run the duration of the exchange and may extend beyond the exchange if necessary.
Sample Virtual Exchange Itinerary:
How the process works:
- Schools share opportunity with students and a link to a sign up form. CRF will provide schools with promotional material and will be available to talk with interested classes, teachers and/or parents about the opportunity.
- Once all the forms have been completed, students will be matched with pairs from partner schools. Pairings will be announced and students will be invited to virtual classroom which will contain all the information and have all the assignments and instructions for the exchange. The classroom will be managed by a CRF coordinator, however teachers from both schools will be invited to classroom as well.
- CRF coordinator will keep group on track and give encouragement to complete assignments. They’ll periodically post about the exchange and can share to school’s social media sites. They’ll also work with students to organize and supervise tier 3 and 4 activities.
Continuity of the exchange:
While students will be paired for certain activities (ex. pen and video pals), the exchange is meant for a sense of community to develop between schools. Every student should be able to get to know the other students. The exchange coordinator may switch up pen and video pal pairings throughout the exchange and create new pairings for other activities. Some activities may work better with high level speakers, whereas others may work better with high and low level speakers paired together.
Code of Conduct:
On the sign up form, students are required to agree to a code of conduct. Code will detail guidelines for the exchange and what the expectations are. If guidelines disobeyed or inappropriate conduct is observed student will be notified of transgression and may be removed from the exchange depending on severity of infraction.
Why Participate in the Virtual Exchange?
- CRF manages the exchange. Teachers and staff are invited from participating schools to the virtual classroom to observe and monitor what students are up to, however they are under no obligation to prepare or run any activities.
- Make exchange work for your class: CRF wants the exchange to make teacher’s lives easier. If there is anyway the exchange can do that, it will. For example, if a Spanish class is learning certain grammar or vocabulary, the exchange activities can be modified to match what is being learned in class. If an exchange activity can be turned into a homework as
signment or extra credit, CRF will modify it. Being able to utilize exchange pairs will enhance any assignment and produce more student engagement.
- Connect students with the least amount of barriers. Never has an exchange been more inclusive. Not everyone can afford travel exchanges and not everyone has the conditions at home to host, but almost everyone has access to a device and the internet. Now, it doesn’t matter how far you are from the airport, or how big your school is and it doesn’t matter if you have snow in January. While some things can’t be replicated virtually, access and convenience more than make up for the shortcomings.
- We will travel again. Prior to the pandemic CRF was in the process of implementing virtual exchanges to complement travel and hosting exchanges. Having canceled exchanges through May 2021, CRF is 100% focused on establishing the virtual exchanges. Virtual exchange schools are not required to host or travel, but may do so if they wish. Any individual student that participates will have an opportunity to exchange to Costa Rica or host a student from Costa Rica.
The benefits are numerous, but besides forming a friendship that spans countries, the biggest impact are the students putting themselves out of their comfort zones in a controlled environment. Everyone’s experience will be different as there is no telling what might trigger a deep personal reflection, or an enlightening moment that may inspire or alter someone’s life goals.
Thanks for reading the guide. We hope it has been a useful resource to learn more about the virtual exchange!