Malaysian Teacher Connects Students Across the World
Over 115 Malaysian students who have never traveled abroad now have personal connections with peers across the world thanks to one inspiring teacher. Norlilawati binti Mohammed Noor teaches at a government-funded Islamic boarding school in Penang, Malaysia. The idea of connecting students began following Noor’s participation in the International Leaders in Education Program (ILEP) in May, 2011; after the program, Noor launched four different student diplomacy projects that have allowed her students to exchange letters and participate in Skype conversations with students in Arizona, Texas, Morocco, and Brazil. “I want my students to know students from many different continents,” she said, “It is important for them to learn about people not only from Malaysia, but also from places like South America or the Middle East.”
As an ILEP participant, Noor studied for a semester at Northern Kentucky University, one of five universities hosting ILEP teachers from fifteen countries. Over the course of the program, she met an English teacher from Morocco and an English teacher from Brazil, and the three planned to start a student pen pal program upon returning home. Noor also learned about the ePals Global Community platform and used it to connect with teachers at Bryce Elementary School in Texas and Western Valley Middle School in Arizona. Her Malay students now hold Skype conferences with students in Texas and exchange letters with students in Arizona.
When the first pen pal letters arrived from Phoenix, her students were surprised by the names of their correspondents. “There were many Hispanic students in the class,” Noor explained, “So they had names like Ronaldo and Juan. My students were very shocked to learn that not everyone in the United States was Caucasian. I had to explain to them about the diversity in the United States. Now they know that the U.S. is a very multicultural place and they were able to make comparisons to the multiculturalism of Malaysia.”
Orchestrating the logistics of these cross-cultural and virtual exchanges can be challenging. Because of the time difference, Noor returns to school from 9pm-11pm on some nights to conduct the Skype conversations with students in Texas. This scheduling works because her Malay students live in dormitories so she is able to engage them in these activities later at night. She also brings her personal laptop and webcamera to conduct the Skype conversations, as this technology functions better than the computers at her school. Most crucially, she has had to convince her students and colleagues of the value of these cross-cultural activities. “There is some resistance to doing projects like this in Malaysia,” Noor said, “Many of the teachers think it is difficult. There is some cultural shock when the students first see the American students and have to speak to them on Skype. The Malaysian students are very shy and hesitant to speak at first so I have to do some coaching, but soon they feel more comfortable. It is really surprising for them to realize that some American students are just learning English too. Some of them have even learned some Spanish words!”
These projects have now become so popular among her students that two who were transferred to different boarding schools still want to participate. “One of the boys went to the headmaster and said that he wanted to stay at this school just so he could continue his conversations with students in the United States. This is something really different for the students and they enjoy it very much.”
In the future, Noor plans to expand these initiatives. She is creating a community exhibit of the letters and photos her students received from Morocco and is beginning a project with a physical education teacher in Morganton, North Carolina who wants her students to learn more about sports and health from a cross-cultural perspective. “My ILEP experience,” Noor says, “gave me the opportunities to go global and now I have many ideas.” Noor has even convinced four of her fellow teachers to participate in this latest letter writing exchange, helping to nurture global-mindedness not only amongst her students, but her whole school community.
The International Leaders in Education Program (ILEP) is funded by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the U.S. Department of State and implemented by IREX.