Learning in action: Williams international students share their stories with local schools

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As schools began to shut down in March in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, many anxious parents scrambled and searched for ways to maintain and support their children’s education. This was a time unlike any other; school administrators and teachers needed to create a remote, emergency curriculum quickly, while many families faced the challenge of an enormous gap in learning, daily routines, and structure for their children. For Assistant Professor of Arabic Studies Brahim El Guabli and I (Shaina), in the midst of this uncertainty and stress came an opportunity to make global connections for young learners.

Brahim was born and raised in Morocco, and he and I have had the privilege of befriending and working with people from all over the world. Through these relationships, we organized a weekly series of live Zoom presentations for elementary-aged children, including our 6-year-old son Ilyas. Many of the presenters have Williams roots as former CLiA teaching assistants and alumni. Through Zoom Around the World, children virtually “visited” and learned about 12 countries in the spring of 2020 (including Morocco, Argentina, Sierra Leone, Thailand, Singapore, and France). As Williamstown Elementary School kindergarten teacher Jane Culnane shared, “Last spring when we were locked down, an outlet for our class was attending Zoom Around the World. Kindergarteners loved learning about other countries from people who Zoomed in from different continents. They shared maps, holidays, traditions, their favorite food, music and answered questions. Most importantly, they opened a window on the world for these young minds.”

Building on the success of the spring sessions, the CLiA education outreach team decided to implement a similar Zoom series in collaboration with local schools, with an additional synchronous version for middle and high school students building on their own GreylockTalks series. CLiA student leaders Mikaela Topper ’21 and Noah Reich ’21 recruited and coached a number of international student storytellers. They worked closely with CLiA, WilliNet and our partner schools to record and publicize the videos. Mikaela and Noah have been phenomenal program producers and directors, tapping friends and fellow Ephs to participate. The first elementary-aged version features Seha Karabacak ’24 from Turkey; two other presentations are in the works for this semester. 

Mikaela noted, “Getting involved with the Williamstown schools through coaching and volunteering has been an incredible experience during my time at Williams, so when I heard there was an opportunity to jumpstart a program that could continue building this community, even given the remote environment, I knew I wanted to be a part of it.” The impact of this program has been mutually beneficial for the local students as well as the presenters. As Seha shared, “Hopefully, it has helped everyone learn more about Turkey, but I hope the far-reaching outcome becomes a new acknowledgement of and interest in different ideas and values. It would also make me especially happy if it instills even the slightest curiosity in the students about this colorful world we share. I have a profound interest in learning more about other cultures (especially languages), and a natural consequence is that I am in turn very talkative when it comes to Turkey! It was through this creative and enjoyable attempt that I realized the subtleties of my own country and culture. Perhaps it could help break the ‘Purple Bubble’ as it applies to each of us.”

At Mt. Greylock Middle and High schools, GreylockTalks has featured Williams professors and students, and their academic presentations and personal life stories for several years. Through the support of the Williams Center at Mt. Greylock (WC@MG), the team re-envisioned this series in order to highlight international students from Williams. To date, Mikaela and Noah have hosted two GreylockTalks; Christian Alberga ’21 from Jamaica and Wilson Lam ’22 from Hong Kong shared live presentations from campus via Zoom with Mt. Greylock (MG) student audiences. Sude Zeynep Akgundogdu ’22 will be joining live from Turkey in December. As Christian shared, “It is easy for a young person to only get exposed to facts and cultures in the United States. There are many countries in the region that are directly impacted by the actions of the U.S. so it is important that Americans have a deep understanding of their closest neighbors. I hope that students, families, and community members can learn more about different countries and gain a better cultural understanding. As we face global health, political, economic, and social crises it is more important now than ever to understand and empathize with each other.”

“GT has been a wonderful way to foster discussions around cultural diversity within our MG school community,” noted Liza Barrett, Mt. Greylock Library Media Specialist and WC@MG School-Based Coordinator. “The first talk was a huge success, with over 150 students and faculty engaging in a ZOOM conversation with Christian Alberga ’21 from Jamaica. The feedback after Alberga’s talk was overwhelmingly positive from all age groups — and lets us know that this new series of live conversations with students from around the world is a worthwhile addition to our diversity programming here at MGRS.”

As Adele Low, a sixth grader at Williamstown Elementary School put it, “Zoom Around the World was truly amazing. This program taught me so much about other countries that I had not learned about before. Since we can’t go anywhere at the moment because of the current COVID-19 pandemic, I really want to continue Zooming around the world.  These classes make me feel like I am actually traveling to these exciting new places, and traveling is one of my favorite hobbies!”  

Recordings of this year’s Zoom Around the World presentations can be found on the Center for Learning in Action’s Elementary School Resources page and on the Middle and High School Resources page. We encourage you to watch and share! And, if you are interested in participating, contact Mikaela Topper or Noah Reich.

Shaina Adams-El Guabli is CLiA’s Williamstown Elementary Outreach Coordinator for Classroom Support. Kaatje White is CliA’s Assistant Director for Local High School Education.