Local News

District pioneers virtual high school student exchange 

By Curt Peterson

Thirty Woodstock High advanced French students have participated in a virtual language and culture exchange program with 20 peers — 10 in Beirut, Lebanon and 10 in Tunis, Tunisia, using Zoom. Language teacher Colleen O’Connell has developed and managed the program for two years. She has been trained as a facilitator by Soliya, a 20-year old non-profit organization.

The Middle-Eastern and North African (MENA) students speak Arabic as their native tongue, but many are fluent in French and some speak English as well. The exchange discussions are conducted in French. 

Many public and independent high schools, including Woodstock, offer language and culture immersion programs in France or Spain, but Tunisia and Lebanon are generally not hosts for these excursions.

“Most people would probably not visit these countries, but this exchange gives students insight into what it’s like to be a citizen in a lesser known place,” WCSU board chair Keri Bristow, a language educator herself, told the Mountain Times. She said student interest in the program is inspiring.

Coordinating time zones is a challenge for a live-streaming discussion group — Tunis is five hours ahead and Beirut ,seven hours.

The Woodstock format follows the Soliya global university-level virtual exchange system, the goal of which is to give students from different cultures skills in carrying on real conversations and discussions about unfamiliar or very different lifestyles and ideas. 

“Our program is the Soliya college-level program, with our own adaptation for high school,” O’Connell said.

Woodstock is the only high school currently using the program. The four scheduled 1.5-hour discussions are two weeks apart. O’Connell said the students aren’t graded on their participation, but enjoy learning about different belief systems and applying their language skills in conversation.

“Dialog in the target language is a real life application of what we call interpersonal communication,” she said, “one of the standards for measuring language proficiency.”

The Soliya format encourages students to make the conversations their own, and the facilitators may make suggestions. Discussions might include women’s rights, personal identity, differences between education systems, or freedoms in general. Soliya’s suggestions include current events, social culture, media and the environment.

The facilitators are usually not located in the same country as the students.

O’Connell is well-suited for this pioneer project. Born in Massachusetts, she has a master’s degree at the University of Charleston in South Carolina, has traveled extensively and lived in several places, including Paris and Ireland. She teaches French, Spanish and English. She came back to Vermont and began teaching in the district in 2003.

She has plans to expand the Woodstock program to include juniors and seniors, and to have half the discussions in English and the other half in French.

“The Tunisian students asked for this change,” she said. “They want to improve their proficiency in English, too.”

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