Study Buddy sessions make classrooms without borders possible

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Crittenden County students talk to students in Guatemala using FaceTime. During these Study Buddy sessions, the Crittenden County students get to practice their Spanish while the Guatemalan students work on their English. Submitted photo by Denise Johnson
Crittenden County students talk to students in Guatemala using FaceTime. During these Study Buddy sessions, the Crittenden County students get to practice their Spanish while the Guatemalan students work on their English.
Submitted photo by Denise Johnson

By Denise Johnson
d50552@bellsouth.net

Nothing great is ever achieved without effort. Thanks to the remarkable effort of some of Kentucky’s finest teachers, great things are being accomplished in classrooms across western Kentucky and in Chimaltenango, Guatemala.

Through a collaborative effort between schools in western Kentucky and Grace English School in Guatemala, several hundred Kentucky students are expanding their Spanish language and cultural knowledge and more than 100 Guatemalan students are learning both written and spoken English without ever leaving their classrooms. With relative ease, these schools are connecting via Skype, Google Hangout and/or FaceTime during specifically assigned times to converse with one another in their native languages in real time.

Grace English School (GES) opened in January 2016 in Chimaltenango to serve as an English language school to enhance the opportunities for many families in an economically depressed setting. Guatemala is a country about the size of Tennessee, but home to around 14 million residents. Finding sustainable employment is very difficult. Speaking fluent English in Guatemala affords one the opportunity to work in restaurants, hotels and other tourism industries.

The purpose of GES is to teach conversational and basic written English language to children from kindergarten through 18 years old. Most of these students also attend public school in Guatemala.

Crittenden County Elementary teacher Heather Bloodworth invited Grace English School founder Bill Minihan, a local business owner from western Kentucky, into her classroom last February to showcase his idea of connecting her classroom in Marion, Ky., to a classroom in Guatemala using FaceTime on his smartphone.  It was an instant success. The students and teachers in both settings were mesmerized by one another and an instant, spontaneous connection was born.

Initially, the students conversed as a large group with a question-and-answer session. Simple. This idea has blossomed into fulfilling a large part of the school’s Program Review. By using Kentucky’s Global Competency and World Language Program Review as a guide and the Kentucky Standard for World Language Proficiency, the schools have adopted a “Study Buddy” approach, where GES students connect through digital tools with students here in Kentucky to have ongoing conversations. Weekly lesson plans are created between GES instructors and Kentucky teachers to address specific content area curriculum needs or topics. But it goes much deeper than that.

A student at Crittenden County Elementary School shows off her vocabulary words from the initial Study Buddy session at the school. Submitted photo by Denise Johnson
A student at Crittenden County Elementary School shows off her vocabulary words from the initial Study Buddy session at the school.
Submitted photo by Denise Johnson

“My students love connecting to the students in Chimaltenango, and truly have a greater appreciation for learning because of this program,” Bloodworth said. “Being able to apply their skills with a native speaker face to face is incomparable. The students at Crittenden County Elementary that are participating in this program will be forever impacted by this opportunity.”

The simple idea has caught on and is also being utilized in Caldwell, Lyon, and Livingston County schools in western Kentucky. These rural school districts have limited resources with which to delve into other cultures and converse with native language speakers. Through these Study Buddy sessions, students are doing just that. From simple vocabulary development to more complex economics lessons studying currency exchange rates, students are engaged in cultural immersion.

“Lyon County Elementary is privileged to be a Study Buddy partner with Grace English School,” said Lyon County Elementary principal Amy Perdue. “It has been heartwarming to listen to conversations between students as they learn about each other’s culture. Originally started as a way to reach our World Culture and Language Program Review goals set by the state, it has grown into a school-wide culminating activity. At the end of last school year, students researched other cultures and became the instructors as they presented their projects to the school.”

The program was perceived as so beneficial for Lyon County schools that they even expanded their curriculum.  

“For the 2016-17 school year, our school has created a World Culture and Language class that all students attend to enhance their learning,” Perdue said. “During this time, students get to continue communicating with their Study Buddies in both Spanish and English.

“Plans are in the works to start a change drive to help with the cost of purchasing and installing a water purification system at Grace English School. Our students are learning not to take for granted the advantages they have in the United States of America to maintain a healthy lifestyle and receive a free public education.”

Worthwhile learning goals for all students.

For more information on Grace English School, go to the school’s website here  or email Bill Minihan. GES is currently accepting additional school Study Buddy partners.

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