Cross-Cultural Exchanges: Bridging Divides Across a City and an Ocean
Anne Leflot is a French literature teacher at Washington International School in Northwest DC.
Gerald D. Smith, Jr. is Principal of St. Thomas More Catholic Academy in Southeast DC.
Both Anne and Gerald are founding, “origin” educators in the JusticexDesign (JxD) initiative. JxD, an outgrowth of the Making Across the Curriculum project, was launched by Project Zero researcher Sarah Sheya in 2019-20 with a cohort of ten educators from six diverse schools in Washington, DC. JxD investigates educational strategies that encourage young people to engage critically with the design of their world.
This year, Gerald and Anne collaborated on a project that not only brought together their grade 8 and grade 9 students, respectively, in DC, but also brought those students together with peers at a school in Paris, France, in order to compare and analyze their neighborhoods through a systems and social justice lens. Their responses to our questions, below, have been edited slightly for clarity and brevity.
How did the project come together?
Washington International School (WIS) organizes a school exchange every year for grade 8 students with a school in Paris. Due to the pandemic, this exchange could not take place in 2020. From there was born the idea to organize a virtual exchange for the rising grade 9 students, with a specific focus on the intercultural exploration of the systems that structure our daily lives.
Anne had had the idea for a virtual exchange ten years ago when she discovered the work of Sabine Levet, a Senior Lecturer in French in the Global Studies and Languages section at MIT and one of the original developers and current Project Director of Cultura, a semi-virtual exchange program that creates a bridge between various communities globally. In this work, there were opportunities to create spaces for conversations that bring to light the differences that exist across our global community.
Sheya had the idea of connecting Anne’s work at WIS with Gerald’s at St. Thomas More Catholic Academy (STM). Despite the differences between school environments–WIS is a private international school in a wealthy neighborhood of Northwest DC, and STM is a Catholic school in a much poorer neighborhood in Southeast DC–Sheya pointed out the similarities and parallels we each had in work we were doing with our students. As origin educators with JusticexDesign, we were both using the tools and protocols from the JxD cohort to bring to light the differences and similarities within our cities and communities.
Anne reached out to a friend of hers, Armel Gontier, a PE teacher, and his colleagues at the Collège Léon Gambetta in the 20th arrondissement in Paris, to see if they would be interested in the exchange, and they were. From there, she arranged planning meetings between the three schools to outline the goals and activities that would take place.
The goals of the project:
- For WIS Students:
- To develop their ability to converse and reflect in French and develop their ability to translate from French to English and from English to French (WIS students were the only bilingual students in this exchange).
- For Collège Gambetta and STM Students:
- To be exposed to a foreign language;
- To learn how to navigate an environment that is new and challenging;
- To take risks; and
- To collaborate despite language barriers.
- For all of the students:
- To understand the complexity of the systems that govern their life, as well as their role within it;
- To discover and compare their own culture’s systems within a large, racially divided city;
- To conduct an in-depth reflection on the concepts of power, privilege, representation, and access on an international scale; and
- To learn about civic engagement.
Between November 2020 and February 2021, students from the three schools met once a month via Zoom for an exploration and comparison of their respective neighborhoods, with the goal of unveiling the different systems (political, social, environmental, architectural, etc.) that structure their lives. Through a variety of virtual making activities and protocols, they were able to identify the differences and similarities of their neighborhoods, name the systems that structure them, identify some issues of pressing concern, and imagine and design possible solutions. Each learning cohort–WIS, STM, & Gambetta–also had the opportunity to partake in a neighborhood walk and mapping of their own neighborhood. The students worked together to explore the complexities of their individual neighborhoods and, in turn, worked to come up with their own ideal neighborhoods: its parts, the people involved, and the powers at play within them.
Through the analysis of their neighborhoods, and the creation of their own, students had the opportunity to explore not only the phenomena of segregation, gentrification, resilience, and social mixing, but also the major systems/forces that are at the roots of these phenomena.
How did the project evolve over time? What challenges did you encounter?
There were many adaptations of the project as we worked to be sure that the learning experiences were rich. The virtual space had many complexities–including creating cross-cultural community norms over technology–and we found ourselves recreating components based on student feedback for learning and understanding. The participants came from different backgrounds and perspectives, but as we worked together, a sense of community was built to discuss complex findings from neighborhood mapping and exploration. At times, we found a need for a lot of educator probing for some groups in order to foster conversation.
The complexities of being online, the unfamiliarity with JxD protocols, and the context of the pandemic all presented challenges, but they also opened up opportunities for students to collaborate across cultures and learning communities. We noted profound capacity for resilience and creativity in the students, particularly when they were designing their own neighborhoods. When we had to shrink the timeline, it forced the students to be very intentional about the selections and answers they had to provide.
What are some of the outcomes you’ve noticed from the project?
We noticed a high level of engagement and motivation. Students from each school would frequently ask us when we would all meet again. Being able to collaborate with students from other schools and share some components of their personal lives was a big takeaway for them and a little bit of fresh air during this pandemic.
The JxD protocol “People-System-Power-Participation” helped students unveil the complexities of the systems at play in their neighborhoods and led to rich conversations among the students within each school and across schools. It developed their critical mindset and shifted the way they perceived their own neighborhoods. They began to question the location of the bike line in Paris and its impact of the environment; the decision behind the construction of a Metro station in Cleveland Park and how it benefits the neighborhood; the power of murals in Southeast DC in denouncing gun violence and defending people’s rights. It also created an opportunity for them to reflect on the ways they participate in the design of their neighborhood and the decisions made by the people in charge. What voice do they have? How can their voices be taken into account/make a difference?
What do you hope will come out of this project in the long-run?
The major goal of this project was to develop a learning space across cultures and experiences that brought to light the complexities of one’s environment, specifically a neighborhood. Many of our scholars are from varying backgrounds and socioeconomic statuses; our hope here was to provide insight into the complexities of DC and the understanding that these complexities extend beyond the United States and can be seen globally. As we work to develop this project more, we hope to investigate perspectives of power and participation with students from varying backgrounds. How might systems exist globally, and how do our interactions within them affect us and those around us? We find value in promoting awareness to parallel oppressions that exist, but, more importantly, in providing opportunities for students to engage in work that gives insights to other social issues that may not affect them.