After returning from the Etai summer conference inspired by Jack Pillemer's presentation of the Virtual Visitor idea, I felt fired with enthusiasm and knew it was the type of activity I would like to try in my class, when I returned to work in September. But how to begin? And where to get a virtual Visitor from? And which class to choose for this experiment?
Fortunately things quickly became clearer. Being an avid "real" traveler, I have many friends on a travel site I frequent when I want to research my next trip. This is called The Virtual Tourist, (www.vtourist.com) and it is a site which enables travelers to exchange information and tips about tourism with others all over the world.
One of the friends I have made there is a woman called Ann, who lives in Perth, Australia. We had exchanged a few emails and so I asked her if she would be interested in writing to my class and telling them a little bit about herself and her family. I explained that the class were very elementary in their English but are nice, motivated kids who just have a lot of difficulties both academically,socially and otherwise. The class that I had chosen for this project is a Yud Mabar class for the following reasons. Firstly there are only 22 kids in the class, and I thought for a first attempt it would be easier to handle the project in a small class. The class are relatively well behaved, although they have the usual Mabar problems of limited attention span, low level of language and so on. Nevertheless I thought that they might benefit and be curious about a person from another country. My other classes being a Yudbet 5 points, and 2 large and rowdy Yudalef 4 point classes, this Yud seemed the likeliest candidate.
Anyway, I came to the class and told them that I had a friend in Australia who was interested in writing to them and would like to know about them too. I explained that we had never met, but that we had emailed each other.
They were immediately curious and asked all kinds of questions, to which I replied, "I don't know, why don't you ask her"?
The next lesson I came in with Ann's first letter, which I simply read out to them:
I am very excited to write to you. My name is Ann and I have a lovely family. I have a husband and 4 children, 2 girls and 2 boys. My children are Kelli (21), Dylan (17), Janine (14) and Jesse (8). Kelli is married and her husband's name is Tom. They have a little baby boy called Gabriel. He is just 3 weeks old. I am a very happy grandmother.
We live in Perth on the west coast of Australia. Australia is very big. You can see beaches, rainforest, desert, wide open spaces and unusual animals.
I work for a Bank and my husband works on the buses. Have you thought about what you will do when you leave school? My daughter Janine is in grade 9. She would like to work in a shop as a florist when she leaves school.
I would love to hear from you and learn about your country. Do you have any hobbies? I love to take photos with my camera. I love beaches and flowers. I also love to go camping with my family.
Here is a picture of our family in the Mekong Delta. The Mekong Delta is in Vietnam. We had a family cruise holiday in 2006.
I hope to hear from you soon and answer any questions on life in Australia.
Your friend from Perth,
The kids were thrilled. We decided we would make a corner in the class for our Virtual Visitor. I selected a shy and rather underconfident girl to be the one to collect all the stuff and stick it up on a poster on the wall. She got really into cutting out the photos and the letters, and arranging them on the poster. I also printed them a map of Australia and showed them where Perth is on the map.
The following time, the kids wrote letters to Ann, telling her about themselves. I gave them a sample of the kind of things to say..." I am 16 years old, I like basketball, I have 2 brothers," etc. I collected these and sent them to Ann by scanning them and sending them as attachments. So as not to make it too arduous for her, I selected only 5 or 6.
The next time she wrote, Ann addressed the kids separately and related to what they had told her in their letters.
I enjoyed reading your letter. I like computers too but I wish I could understand them better. My son Jesse likes football. Football here in Australia is different. We run with the ball & kick it. The shape of the ball is oval. In Perth we watch AFL football (Australian Football League).
Thank you for writing.
Needless to say the kids were thrilled again. She also sent them a picture of her family.
Today I had another letter from her with a more detailed, slightly more difficult level of language, relating to a question the kids had asked, namely how had she and her husband met.
The letter went like this:
"Ok Ruth, here we go....a letter to the class.
Your teacher has told me that you are very happy to hear from me. I am smiling. Do you want to hear how I met my husband? Ok, here is the story. I was born in Brisbane, Australia. When I was little I rode my bicycle everywhere. We lived in the bush. There was a small village close by. After I finished College I worked for the Railways. When I was 16 my family and I moved to Sydney. I worked again for the Railways in Sydney. My job was to look after the supply of radios for the guards and tarpaulins & ropes for the freight wagons. It was a very busy job.
My brother is 18 years older than me. He was living in Sydney. We moved there to be closer to him and his family. My brother and his family all play musical instruments. One day they were having a 'jam session' - that is where everyone comes together and plays music. My future husband was playing the base guitar. He asked if I was single ..... and two years later we were married.
So, why am I living in Perth? Perth is on the other side of Australia. My husband and I have lived in a lot of places in Australia. We came to Perth because it is a good place to live. It is smaller than Sydney. Perth is a very clean City. It does not have as much pollution as Sydney. It has lovely wild flowers and you can see kangaroos in the wild. I will send you some photos of Perth.
Thank you for reading my story.
Bye for now.
I printed out this letter, and the accompanying picture of the beach at Perth, and I will give it to the kids tomorrow as a reading comprehension.
I underlined some of the more difficult words and translated them at the bottom, and then added some questions. I hope it will continue to go well.
I am not entirely sure where this will go. So far it is definitely successful. I assume that at some point either the students or Ann or both will tire of it. But I feel that if nothing else, it has opened the minds of the students to other cultures, to language in a natural and meaningful context, and of course in Jack's own words, it has "brought the outside in".