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Upper School French Students Hold Virtual Cultural Exchange with Students in Morocco

In December 1777, Morocco became the first country to officially recognize American independence. More recently, nine junior French IV students strengthened the bond between the two nations through a virtual exchange with one of Norfolk Academy’s partner organizations, ImprintEd Abroad. For five class periods, students heard from past ImprintEd Abroad program leaders and worked alongside students from Dar Moustaqbel, a boarding house that provides a living and learning community for young women who come from rural villages to study at university in Marrakech. 

  • Day 1: Students asked prepared questions to a panel of three young Moroccans who have worked with ImprintEd Abroad groups in the past. The panelists addressed personal topics, such as their interests and goals, as well as more academic themes, like multilingualism in daily Moroccan life. Kristen ’22 marveled that “Tamazight was the first language of everyone we've spoken to [so far], but they all had to learn three more [languages] on top of that...” Other topics included the challenges of being young people in Morocco (“there are challenges that we all have” explained Youssef, one of the panelists) and a brief introduction to the Amazigh, an ethnic group indigenous to North Africa. 

  • Day 2: In breakout rooms, students got to know their Moroccan counterparts at Dar Moustaqbel. Both the American and Moroccan students shared objects or images that represented important parts of their lives. According to Jack ’22, “Going into this, it felt like they were [going to] be polarly different, but after talking to them...they felt very similar to us...” Lily '22 agreed that "...talking in small groups with them actually made them more human and made me understand more about their lives." The two groups also introduced their respective institutions and their educational experiences thus far.

  • Day 3: Students engaged a second panel. This time, the questions focused on Islam and gave panelists the opportunity to broach topics like the logistics and challenges of Ramadan and the choice to wear or not wear the hijab. Panelists also touched on the differences in Western perceptions of Islam and how Islam manifests in daily Moroccan life. “I think that there is a very obvious difference in the way that Islam is perceived by those who practice it versus [how] the majority of Americans see it, which I think is a result of the way Islam is portrayed in mass media and how Muslims have become scapegoats in American politics,” said Gavin ’22.

  • Day 4: “I didn't know a lot [about] women's education in Morocco, and it was interesting to see the difference between education there and education in the U.S.,” said Sofia ’22, while reflecting on her Day 4 experience. The students reviewed two case studies in small groups. The first case study introduced Soukaina, a young woman struggling with the dilemma to continue her education or begin working full time in the home. The second featured Stephanie, an American volunteer failing to understand Moroccan cultural norms. Students guided each other through discussion questions and made recommendations about how the characters might have acted differently and why. John ’22 said that “it was very easy to work with both the Moroccan[s], as well as the distance learners in our class.”

  • Day 5: The virtual exchange culminated in a project on stereotypes. In small groups, students discussed stereotypes of the United States and Morocco. When reflecting on the experience, Kristen ’22 said, “Before the virtual exchange…it was easier to imagine Islam as a monolith, which it very much is not.” Using their conversations as springboards for creativity, students assembled text and images to produce Instagram posts to dispel the stereotypes noted by their groups.     

The program certainly met its most immediate goal—to provide students with a real-world context in which to practice their French skills. “Speaking to a total stranger in a language you're learning is always challenging, but that's the fun of it!" recognized Ben '22.  Another student echoed that “really this was the best possible environment to try and practice French speaking” (Avery ’22). In addition to sharpening their language skills, students also worked to develop intercultural competencies—to interact and collaborate with people whose lived experiences and cultures differ from their own, to reconsider pernicious stereotypes, and to access new perspectives directly from Arabs and Africans.

While contemplating the experience, students realized just how much academic content they explored. Most of them, though, were quick to point to the bonds they forged with their exchange counterparts as the highlight of the program.   

“I think that the whole exchange was a great surprise. I did not expect to be so invested in the interactions that I had with the other students, and I did not expect for every aspect of the exchange from the panels to the small group discussions to be so engaging!" —Avery '22 

“Zooming with teenagers like myself who live a very different yet very similar life [to] mine was a really cool experience. Conversations like the ones we had during our virtual exchange are really the only way to get to know what life is like in another country on the other side of the world." —David '22

“These conversations were so much fun, because we got to use our French and expand our horizons, which really made for an amazing way for us to start our school day. I really liked that the conversations didn't follow a strict format, but the list of questions we received really helped facilitate conversation and allowed us to connect during our short time together." —Gavin '22

“I was genuinely surprised at how much fun we had and how easily conversation about both light and heavy topics flowed between our group. The panels were informative, but the exchange sessions were my favorite, because at the end of a hard academic year, it was really nice to just get to talk to people for a bit and learn things in a non-academic way. I hope to stay in touch with Zainab and Asma [after] this experience!" —Kristen '22 

This was not the first virtual exchange activity at Norfolk Academy this year. Students in all three modern language programs benefited from online experiences with partner institutions in Colombia, France, and Germany.  

By Matthew A. Lilly, Assistant Director of International Programs and French Teacher 

Students: Lily Auerbach, Avery Britt, Ben Farpour, Gavin Goss, John Paschold, David Smythe, Kristen Tan, Jack Tignor, Sofia Tjia. Heartfelt thanks to Melissa Topacio-Long and team at ImprintEd Abroad.

Juniors studying French made a virtual connection with students at Dar Moustaqbel, a boarding house for young women who come from rural villages to study at a university in Marrakech. The exchange was led by French Teacher and Assistant Director of International Programs Matthew Lilly.

Students on Zoom, Morocco and NA

The virtual exchange with students in Morocco was not the first one this year. Students in all three modern language programs had online connections with partner schools in Colombia, France, and Germany.

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