Last spring, before the pandemic hit, the Royal School in Bath, England reached out to create an exchange program with Baldwin. It was decided to launch a pilot virtual exchange in the fall between Baldwin students in the U.S. Politics senior elective course taught by History Teacher Athan Biss and British politics students taught by Harriet Pagnamenta, the Head of History at the Royal School.
Ironically, the teachers were initially worried about the technical challenges of coordinating a virtual exchange. How would the video-conferencing software perform? Would the time difference be a logistical nightmare? Would the students be engaged?
Then COVID hit the U.S. and the U.K. and dramatically altered our conception of school. When they met in the early summer to plan the exchange, video-conferencing no longer seemed like such a hurdle and the chance to connect young women across an ocean seemed not only viable but urgent.
Because Harriet’s class was centered on U.K. politics and Athan’s on American politics, the teachers decided to frame the exchange around a common “big” question that all students could tackle. They landed on, “How democratic is the American/British political system?” and agreed that each student would identify one problem within the political system and propose their own reform.
Three “virtual” days were scheduled when the classes would meet over Zoom during the course of the semester. Prior to the first meeting, the Baldwin students recorded short videos explaining the American political system to their Royal counterparts and received videos on the British parliamentary system in return.
Harriet and Athan divided the girls into groups of two to three students who would remain “virtual pen pals” for the semester. In the weeks between their official meetings, the girls were expected to email or video chat with their groups. This proved to be one of the most successful aspects of the exchange, as the students made new friends and bonded over the shared disruption of COVID.
The first meeting was devoted to introductions and a comparison between the American and British democratic systems of government. The next meeting took place in November 2020 - a week after the presidential election and just a few days after Pennsylvania had sealed an electoral college victory for Joe Biden. The Baldwin students had a chance to be experts and witnesses to history and the Royal students proved that the world was paying close attention to the American election.
The final meeting was devoted to student presentations of their reforms. Students made the case for abolishing the House of Lords, adding hundreds of seats to Congress, ending partisan gerrymandering and adopting ranked choice voting. Some students devised innovative reforms for the nomination and confirmation of Supreme Court justices and advocated for a standard ballot design.
Both Harriet and Athan will present at the upcoming National Coalition of Girls’ Schools 2021 conference in June. The teachers will present “Politics Across the Pond: Cultural Exchange in the Age of COVID.” Attendees will learn about their experience of working collaboratively with students in a virtual exchange designed to engage and develop understanding of political issues in the U.K. and America. They will explain how the project was planned, delivered and the positive impact it had on developing the girls’ appreciation of perspectives on global politics.
The exchange program will continue between the schools and may expand to other subjects as well. There is hope that it will eventually lead to an actual in-person visit for the students.