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Foster International Conversations with Skype

To develop language skills and global connections, Professor Stephanie Krueger pairs Spanish students in the US with English students in Mexico.

Educator

Stephanie Krueger, MA

Associate Professor and Department Chair, World Languages (Spanish), Lone Star College in Cypress, TX

MA in Spanish, BA in Spanish and Secondary Education, ESL certification

Professor Stephanie Krueger has always loved making connections with other people. Growing up in a bicultural home—her mother is from Mexico, her father from Seattle—she benefited from the different perspectives they provided. Yet it took a post-college backpacking trip through Europe with her sister to show her how special her bilingual childhood was.

“I realized I was passionate about other languages and other cultures, and I wanted to share this passion with others,” she says. Soon after she returned home, she earned her ESL certificate and began looking at teaching opportunities, mostly in Japan. Yet somehow, Krueger ended up where her parents lived, landing a job as an adjunct professor of Spanish at Lone Star College in Cypress, Texas, near Houston.

She quickly learned that community college offered a wealth of cultural opportunities, too. “In community college, you have students of all different ages, life experiences, demographics, [ethnicities,] and socioeconomic backgrounds,” she says. “It’s not a classroom of 18- to 22-year-olds who are in school full time and living in a dorm without any worries except for keeping up with their grades.”

The next realization was more sobering: Thanks to their many obligations, her nontraditional students had more limited opportunities to travel. “There are so many countries with rich culture that [my students] have so much potential to connect with, and it would be a shame for them to not take advantage of that,” she says. So Krueger created a lesson for her Beginning Spanish II course that would bring a rich cultural experience to her students’ doorstep—or, more accurately, their classroom.

Challenge

Many students have limited contact outside the US

Krueger says that students sign up for her class to do more than get ahead in their career or check off a graduation requirement. “Students tell me that they just want to communicate with their friends,” she says. “That’s why learning a second language is important, but especially Spanish, and especially in Texas. The city’s large Spanish-speaking population offers a valuable opportunity to connect with people around the world.” However, Krueger wanted to extend students’ outreach beyond the borders of the US.

Innovation

Skype in Spanish with students in other countries

Krueger is always brainstorming with fellow faculty members on new ways to teach, and she actively relies on modern technology to help. When she visited her aunt, who is a dean at Universidad Iberoamericana de Torreón in Mexico, she brought up the idea of establishing a language exchange between the students there and those at Lone Star College.

After a few meetings to discuss goals, tactics, and technical logistics, Krueger set up a Skype account and began teaching Spanish in a new way. Today, students from Krueger’s class use technology to talk regularly with students studying English in Mexico. The scheduled conversations happen in real time, across thousands of miles: the first half all in English, and the second half all in Spanish. Beyond strengthening language skills, the exercise has built bridges across cultures and shown students a new role as global citizens and ambassadors.

Context

“My goal is to get students conversational and inspired by the language—to make them confident so that it’s something they will continue to do for the rest of their lives. Not just converse in Spanish but to connect with members of community.”

— Stephanie Krueger, MA

Course: SPAN 1412 Beginning Spanish II

Description: This course is a continuation of SPAN 1411 with increased emphasis on comprehension, speaking, reading and writing. Intensive drills to increase vocabulary and knowledge of structure. Learning outcomes: Engage in conversations using level-appropriate grammatical structures including narrating events that take place in the past; understand level-appropriate spoken Spanish produced by Spanish speakers of diverse origins; write simple and moderately complex sentences using level-appropriate grammatical structures and organize them into cohesive paragraphs; read and comprehend level-appropriate authentic texts; and identify and discuss traditions, customs, and values of the Hispanic world, and compare and contrast them with characteristics of their own culture.

See materials shared by Stephanie Krueger, MA

See materials

Lesson: Cross-cultural conversations via Skype

In preparation for each Skype call, Krueger assigns her students a review of the grammar and vocabulary associated with a particular assignment (e.g., restaurants, food, or vacation). In addition to reviewing vocabulary words, students practice asking questions, then asking extension (follow-up) questions. For example, if the first question is, “Do you have any hobbies?” and the answer is “Chess,” then an extension question could be, “How long have you been playing chess?”

Krueger shares these strategies for setting up a language exchange with a class in another country (or even another US zip code):

Tap existing connections

Start by connecting with an international school where you already know someone. You are likely to have an easier time building on existing connections than starting from scratch, Krueger says. If you do not have such relationships in your contacts list, put the word out in your department, university, family, and friend group, and see if anyone else does.

Look for connections when traveling

After several years of Skyping with a university in Mexico, Krueger found herself in Colombia, where she approached a university there—Servicio Nacional de Aprendizaje (SENA)—to see if she could expand her program. The result is a second language exchange option for her students. (An in-person introduction will be easier than one that is attempted over phone or email, adds Krueger.)

Set students up for success

One of Krueger’s tips is to “stagger” students’ language levels so that you do not pair up two very introductory classes. Students who are brand-new to a language are more likely to end up tongue-tied than those who have had a few years to practice conversation, she says. “It’s preferable to pair a beginner’s class with an intermediate class, or an intermediate class with an advanced class. That way, the intermediate language student can help guide the conversation, instead of getting stuck in beginning-level phrases.”

Parallel the curriculum

Follow your textbook to give students practice on the words and grammar you are working on that week. There is usually a contextual theme to each chapter, says Krueger—such as food, parties, family, travel, or nature—that is a perfect conversation starter. The dialog in the textbook can also provide models to help students get the phrasing right.

Set a timer and take turns

For Krueger’s class, the first 20 to 30 minutes of the conversation is in Spanish, and then it switches to English, allowing both students to practice and help each other. During each of these segments, Krueger allows the conversations to switch back and forth between students naturally, so both groups get equal practice.

Expect complications

Things will not always go as planned, warns Krueger. “Technical difficulties can happen any time. The trick is to be flexible and take advantage of all opportunities. If the WiFi goes out, then I have my students debrief with each other about new words or phrases they learned, and I encourage them to learn more. Then I have them write an email to their language partner, thanking them for the conversation and recapping what they liked the most. This is a valuable assignment because of the reflection component.”

Build up their confidence

Krueger admits, “I meet with a lot of resistance at first. Some students are so nervous that they say, ‘I can’t do this.’ It’s a blind date, in a way.” Undeterred, she assigns the really anxious ones as observers to another twosome, so they can simply watch and listen to the call. “Eventually, they want to jump in,” she says. (And in fact, she adds, it’s rare to have the same number of students in both classes, so often students end up in groups of three in any case.)

Another trick she has learned is to have a whole-class meet-up before starting the paired sessions. She puts both classes (and the other instructor) on Skype, with everyone crowding into the camera view. “It’s more of a ‘Hi/Hola,’ but it gets students very excited about starting their individual conversations,” Krueger says.

Foster cultural sensitivity, too

“When my students talk to the students in Colombia, they want to ask about Narcos [the Netflix show about the drug trade],” she says. “I tell them that’s not the first question they should ask, but instead start with things like, ‘What is Colombia like?’”

Krueger wants students to leave her class understanding that the art of conversation is more than just stringing words together. “It requires some prepping on my end to teach them about sensitivity and to have them practice expressing their opinion without dismissing other people’s experience or culture,” she says.

Naturally, the result is that they learn much more from one another than language. They exchange ideas about music, books, life, politics, and culture. “They realize, ‘Oh, you use Instagram. You watch Netflix, and you have Snapchat and Facebook,’” she says. “They have as much in common as [that which] separates them.”

Encourage in-class connections, too

Through partnerships with local school districts, Krueger’s community college class often includes high school students. “I have a 15-year-old dual credit student in the same class as a 70-year-old who is retired and wanting to learn Spanish for mission trips,” she says. “When I pair them together, you can imagine the conversations they have—it expands so far beyond the assignment!”

Outcomes

One of Krueger’s long-standing exercises for students is to give an oral presentation about a cultural aspect of a country. She found that doing this assignment after the language exchange made a huge difference. “After the language exchange, the presentations were more in-depth. [The students] were motivated. They had a more personal connection, and they could incorporate things their partner had said. Also, their confidence in speaking increased dramatically.”

Feedback

Krueger conducts an exit survey at the end of each course, with one question on it: “Will you continue to pursue learning Spanish?” The last time she ran the survey, 80% of the students who had participated in the language exchange said yes—versus 45% of the students who had not.

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