Brandon Lewis, our Director of International Studies shares with ISP his experience and feedback on the Buddy Exchange Programme held virtually for the first time this year.
Due to the postponement of the International Learning Opportunities for Students because of the COVID-19 pandemic and taking into consideration the incredible success of the ISP Buddy Exchange Programme (BEP), in May 2020 we launched the ISP Virtual Buddy Exchange Programme. During the difficult and constantly changing times and the restrictions in place because of the pandemic, the programme gave our students the opportunity to meet other students from all over the world through weekly video calls, and helped them to continue their amazing learning journeys at home whilst also building life-long friendships.
The Virtual Buddy Exchange ran for eight weeks from May to June 2020 and enabled our students to reach out beyond their own school community so they could practise their language, presentation and personal skills in English. It brought ISP students and schools across the world together via organised video calls and delivered a unique international and cultural learning experience in a safe and secure online environment. The programme was originally aimed at those students aged 14 – 17 years of age who were signed up to the 2019/2020 ISP Buddy Exchange Programme, so that they didn’t miss out on their unique international learning experience.
The structured weekly video calls for students took place with designated VBEP buddies, arranged and supervised by their Virtual Buddy Exchange Coordinators. The calls were organised around engaging weekly topics where both students prepared and discussed their own presentation. Topics for the programme included: Being a teenager during the lockdown, Music, Film & TV, Sports and A tour of your city or country and included a final learning reflection task. The video calls helped students to build their confidence, improve their presentation skills, widen their knowledge on specific topics and most importantly have fun while doing so!
The launch of the programme demonstrated another way we pulled together as a global community during the pandemic to make sure we provided opportunities and support for our students and families.
The programme was a huge success in terms of popularity and obtaining its key outcomes: knowing more about different cultures, building language skills and developing understanding of students’ own strengths and areas for getting better.
We are delighted that the ISP Virtual Buddy Exchange will be coming back in academic year 2020/2021, this time with two intakes, one starting in October 2020 and another starting in Spring 2021. The programme will now also be open to Junior students aged 12 and 13 and Senior students from 14 to 17 years of age. This will allow even more students across our schools the exciting opportunity to take part in this amazing programme.
We had the fantastic opportunity to speak with two of our Virtual Buddy Exchange Coordinators, Alice Pallarés from Colegio Internacional Aravaca in Spain and Brandon Lewis from Nibras International School in Dubai to find out more about their experiences of the VBEP and how it benefited their students.
How has the ISP Virtual Buddy Exchange had a positive impact on your students?
This programme has helped our VBEP students grow immensely in every possible way. Considering that the students are not native English speakers, it was difficult for them at the beginning to establish fluent conversations with the other students. However, as each weekly call went by, they gained enormous confidence, working hard to make specific topic word choices and listen more actively. Socially speaking, they have both learned how stimulating it is to broaden your social circle and they are now immensely looking forward to being able to visit the new friends they have made around the world.
My students have grown more in confidence and have truly expanded their social circle, which seems to be healthy and beneficial to all. One of our ‘buddies’ was quite timid at the beginning of the programme on the video calls and while that did not completely disappear, it is evident that she ended up with more confidence. Nibras’ other buddy was quite the opposite, being quite the self-starter for conversations. She did learn how to adapt to different personalities and seemingly cultural habits and tendencies from her partner buddies. It was very interesting to see this growth in both of them.
What have you gained from the experience through your role as a Virtual Buddy Exchange Coordinator?
For me, it’s been a true opportunity to get to know ISP’s community better, as my school had just joined the group a month before lockdown. I have been able to see that we are indeed part of an immense international educational community that will enrich our school tremendously. On the other hand, as an English teacher, it has given me the golden opportunity to work hand in hand with two students, thus allowing me to tailor my time with them to their specific needs.
I have gleaned a few precious insights from this experience. Namely, that teaching good conversational skills and etiquette (i.e. for future interviews, etc.) is very important and should start as early as possible. Our buddies seemed to struggle with this at times, yet that struggle would prove to be the positive kind we speak of in ‘Amazing Learning’ – a good struggle! Another thing I learned was that such exchanges are not only valuable to the buddies themselves, but to their families as well. I had feedback from parents in which they described how dinner talks have changed to global/cultural topics that were linked to the VBEP experience. It was great to find out that the students bring these VBEP chats with them to their own respective circles, hence contributing to the real cross-cultural understanding that we as educators seek to engender.
What were the unique benefits of the VBEP compared to the BEP, which couldn’t take place this year?
Having joined recently, I’m not able to compare my experience of the VBEP to the BEP, but I believe that the benefits of this programme have been both social and technological. Social, as student’s with completely different cultural backgrounds have learned how much more they have in common than they thought. Technological, as both coordinators and students have discovered that technology is a powerful learning and social tool too, which we must continue to enhance and develop.
The VBEP provided an outlet—something new for students to experience in the time of lockdown.
What have been the most rewarding ‘Wow Moments’ of the programme for your students?
There have been plenty of Wow Moments! I specifically remember one, when it was clear that one of my student’s buddies was feeling low and not really in the mood to hold a virtual conversation with someone, they didn’t know yet. My student, who radiates positiveness and energy, managed to help her buddy and change the conversation and mood into a productive and fun call. They ended up having the funniest conversation and really bonded. It really touched me!
Our students became actual buddies with each other outside of the programme through social media and one pair even said they are planning to make a song together. A real Wow Moment, however, was when our buddy and her counterpart from Spain had a conversation that only paused when connectivity issues came along. It was all laughs, smiles, stories, and questions. It was good to see an instant connection being made, especially for our buddy who is a Spanish language enthusiast. It’s moments like these that plant seeds for future initiatives, like studying abroad or visiting other countries.
What have been some of the successes and struggles of participating in the programme?
As we all know, it’s not always easy to arrange virtual meetings with such large time differences. Therefore, I believe the greatest successes and struggles have been exactly that, meeting arrangements. After quite a few emails back and forward, assembling all participants emails, agreeing on what platform we would use and fixing a date and time. It felt like a true success for the meeting to take place and finally get to know everyone.
Struggles at times came from connectivity (Wi-Fi). However, we always still found a way, as all the VBECs and buddies always remained flexible.
What have been the most memorable moments?
There were many memorable and touching moments. When discussing the topic of Film & TV it was incredible to see how, living in a globalised world, all students were watching the exact same series and were all captivated by them. Of course, this created a bond amongst them that made it so much easier than it was when I was their age, to start building up a bond with someone from a different country and with a completely different culture.
One memorable moment was when one of our buddies asked me for help before her session. She wanted help with what she called “really good questions” and I gave her a few to start with and some tips, too. However, when the session started, she rapid-fire flew through the ones I gave her (which were really meant to be conversation starters with follow-up questions, etc.). She managed fine for the rest of the session, but afterwards I asked her why she did that, and she said because she was quite nervous. We then came up with a way to outline a conversation—replete starters, follow-ups, impromptu questions, and good ways to comment after an answer is given. The next session, she did much better, although she was still nervous; she would continue to improve. It was great to see her learn on her own after working through her struggle together. It was also fun to see sessions when the buddies spent all of five minutes each on the actual topic and then preferred talking about other things and getting to know one another.
What have you learnt from your experience as Virtual Buddy Exchange Coordinator?
Based on my experience as a passionate foreign language learner (and now teacher!), I have always deeply believed that to learn a second language successfully, you must embed within its culture. This programme has granted students facing one of the most terrible world pandemics and possibly, their most challenging school year, the possibility of doing so from home. And I feel honoured to have been able to play a part in it.
I have learnt a lot and I look forward to participating as a VBEC next time!
Describe the Virtual Buddy Exchange Programme (VBEP) in one short sentence.
The VBEP is a unique international programme which has helped my students to mature, foster open mindedness and enhance their English language.
The VBEP is where cross-cultural understanding meets amazing learning!
Find out more about the programme here.