Last year, kindergarten teacher Nicole Corn participated in a virtual pen-pal program that paired her students at Sunset Hill Elementary with kids across the world in Shanghai, China.
Every few days, the children would swap photos and videos via the digital portfolio app Seesaw on their district-issued iPads, sharing snapshots of their lives at home and at school.
“I just thought it was going to be a cool experience for the kids,” Corn recalled last week in her Lawrence classroom. “But I never thought I’d get to go to China, you know?”
Last month, in the week leading up to Thanksgiving, Corn and two administrators from the Lawrence district office traveled to China at the invitation of their friends at Copernic Kindergarten. The private school’s owner paid for the weeklong trip, allowing the American educators to share STEM curricula and other teaching strategies with their Chinese counterparts.
What began as a fairly straightforward pen-pal program has become “a cultural exchange of not only environment, cultural tradition and language but also learning,” said Darcy Kraus, the Lawrence district’s director of elementary school support.
Last year, as principal of Sunset Hill, Kraus witnessed the project’s beginnings as Corn’s students began sharing their favorite foods, activities and books with Copernic kindergartners. The exchange has also morphed into a professional collaboration between educators in two of the world’s leading technology regions.
Shanghai is expected to emerge as a tech superpower over the next several years, bringing China closer in line with long-standing American innovation hubs like Silicon Valley. STEM curricula are also becoming more popular in Chinese cities like Shanghai, though Chinese educators differ in how they teach these subjects, Kraus said.
“Their understanding is different from ours in that it takes a much more scripted stance over there,” Kraus said. “It’s much more teacher-directed whereas here, the whole premise behind it is that it’s the student’s ability to think globally — outside the box, if you will — to create and have the innovative mindset, that growth mindset that is so relevant as we create 21st-century learners.”
Kraus, who was joined on the trip by Corn and assistant superintendent Jerri Kemble, said she was pleasantly surprised to see her Chinese colleagues immediately integrate these strategies into their curricula.
While at Copernic, Corn engaged students in STEM projects inspired by the kinds of Western fairy tales Chinese kids don’t usually hear growing up. “Three Billy Goats Gruff” was the basis for an engineering lesson on bridge design. Another activity, in a nod to “The Three Little Pigs,” challenged students to build houses strong enough to withstand the Big Bad Wolf, aka Corn wielding a hairdryer.
None of the toothpick-and-candy structures fell over, and the kids were thrilled, Corn said.
“After they were done, we would say, ‘What could you do to make it better?’ or ‘What was something that was really hard that you could change about it?’ Corn said, referring to the self-reflection aspect she encourages in her classroom.
In China, there’s a focus on rote memorization and following the steps given by the instructor, she said. American STEM curricula tends to emphasize creative problem-solving and critical thinking.
“The teachers were really receptive and they had a lot of questions,” Corn said. “We watched them teach, too, and they wanted to know what you would change or what you’d do differently.”
A translator was on hand throughout the visit, though Corn said the language barrier between teachers wasn’t much of an issue — their shared enthusiasm for their profession, she said, helped spark an instant connection.
Since returning to the States, she and her Chinese counterparts have continued swapping professional strategies via email. (Snapshots of Corn’s Thanksgiving dinner and Christmas tree may have made their way in, too.)
The plan is to host Copernic staff next year in Lawrence, and her Chinese colleagues have already invited Corn to visit this summer.
In the meantime, she plans to resume the pen-pal aspect this year by having students in both countries tackle the same STEM projects and share the results with each other via Seesaw.
As far as expanding the exchange to other schools in the Lawrence district, Kraus said it’s too early to say. The project started as an experiment, and it’s still evolving. But, she said, there are lots of “committed people” involved on both sides of the globe.
“If you would have asked me this time last year whether or not we would have had a joint collaborative effort in Shanghai, I would have giggled,” Kraus added. “The potential, I believe, is there for a myriad of opportunities.”