A Virtual Exchange Book Club

How Polish and US students came together to discuss issues of racism and disability in a Virtual Exchange Collaboration

Dr Sabina Nowak is an adjunct assistant professor at the University of the National Education Commission in Krakow, Poland. She holds a Ph.D. in English (from the Jagiellonian University, Poland) and M.A. in Tourism (from the Academy of Physical Education in Krakow).

She has a particular interest in and lectures on CLIL (an approach that uses a foreign language as a tool in the learning of a non-language subject) and focuses on assessment and classes for pre-service teachers. Her other subjects include didactics at various levels. She is also involved in Virtual Exchange which she absolutely loves!

Tell us about your latest VE with California State University, Bakersfield

I’d describe my latest project as a ‘virtual book club’. The students read ‘A Mighty Long Way in 2022, by Carlotta Walls LaNier. In 1957, when she was 14, she was one of 9 black students who integrated the all-white Little Rock Central High School.

It was an event that ultimately challenged prevailing attitudes of the time and changed the landscape of America. The pupils had to face angry mobs and racism. So, this memoir was a very powerful book for encouraging a discussion on historical racism.

This year our virtual exchange project centred around a book entitled: ‘Sitting Pretty’ by Rebekah Taussig. She is a disability advocate and educator. Rebekah writes with such humour and this encourages readers to think critically about the barriers that people with disabilities face on a daily basis.

Our VE exchange lasted 4-6 weeks. During that time, students had to read the chapters and then consult a blog California State University set up with some questions they needed to think about and respond to before meeting their partners synchronously on ZOOM. The questions gave the students a chance to prepare as, of course, we had different levels of English language proficiency in the groups that we had to take into consideration.

Initially, we used digital boards to enable them to get to know each other, and only then did they begin to share their reflections on the topic.

In effect it’s an international book club, and the books are carefully chosen to include topics such as segregation, racism.  

Tell us a bit about the background of the participating students

My participants are from Poland and the US cohort background was varied. For example, we had 15 from Mexico, Guatemala, Argentina, 1 from Ukraine and 1 from Montenegro.

Unfortunately, with the time differences, we weren’t able to meet all of them. We used English as the lingua franca, and as mentioned before, this included different levels of proficiency during the exchange.

As well as using the blog and questions to prepare them, we found using the breakout rooms and small groups very helpful too. The blog meant that students had already prepared. Sometimes we added new questions to challenge them a bit further. But this depended on the group dynamics.  

Mostly, the conversation flowed quite fluently, but this depends on the group and how they are interacting and relating to each other. The set-up led to some quite deep and meaningful conversations.

What about the tech and organisation?

On the whole, the students handled the IT well enough. We had some high school students participating on the US side, and they met online with their teacher. Still, they managed to share meaningful reflections nevertheless.

Language benefits aside, the impact and effect on the students, included seeing a change in themselves and appreciating a different way of looking at things, especially after reading books that deal with difficult issues such as disability and racism.

We also held so-called ‘Watch parties’ that included video sessions on topics like ‘how to stop a bully’. The students loved these and there were many good key takeaways.

What about in the future?

We really aspire to meet the authors of our chosen books so we can deepen our discussion with them.

We plan to continue with the international book project and want to include it as a micro credential module for the students. This is something new and we still have to negotiate the idea with our University authorities for 1 or 2 ECTS points. This is what we are working towards.

Obviously not all students love reading, so we want to keep it that only those who enjoy reading will join in as we want it to be fun so that they will benefit the most.

What are some of the challenges?

Well, time differences are always an issue as it prevents certain students from joining. Sometimes IT resources can also be limited.

We definitely want telecollaboration to be more action-oriented learning. For example, this year, together with Dr Werona Król-Gierat, dr Agnieszka Strzałka and Mr Sebastian Zatylny from the University of Applied Sciences in Nysa, we set an AccessAbility orienteering challenge during the ‘Sitting Pretty’ book club exchange.

We invited our participants to Krakow, and we asked them to go around the city and examine how accessible certain places were. They took wheel chairs and crutches and blind folds to really experience what it might be like to access these places if they had a disability. In this way, they experienced in some way, what it was like to have a disability.

I have to say that many deep reflections ensued. They found it hard, but it raised their awareness and empathy. We may even claim that compassion was awakened in them. It made them want to change something and I hope this will be a meaningful experience to them.

We want the impact of the virtual exchange to go beyond the walls of the university and out into the community – but we want the students to get involved but on their own terms, without forcing them. They did a SEN (special educational needs) course too, which encouraged them to think about ways of trying to resolve these issues.

My advice to teachers thinking about doing a virtual exchange is to do it about what you love and spend time finding the right people to do it with. This is the key to a VE success and a way for it to lead to societal changes. When we are engaged is when it works best!

See here for further information on the project.