Virtually there

West Tisbury creates online exchange program for students.


For more than 35 years, the West Tisbury School has been doing an exchange program where eighth grade students from the Island travel to England, and students from England travel here.

The exchange program is meant to immerse kids in another culture that is both similar and dissimilar to our own, and provide a broader perspective on the world.

This year, although the COVID-19 pandemic has made it unsafe for students to travel, the West Tisbury School has continued to provide that unique experience for students, through a virtual program.

In October, students from Warrington, England, came to visit the Island and stay with host families in West Tisbury. Students ate with each other, played soccer with each other, and got to learn a little bit about the culture and way of life across the pond.

Library and tech teacher at the West Tisbury School Kate Athearn said she chaperoned the trip to England last year, and had a blast. But this year, after events and field trips began to drop like flies, Athearn knew the school had to do something to continue the tradition and provide a unique educational experience for kids. “When we realized the trip was for sure not happening, we had to cancel everything. We refunded the families back any money they paid, and started thinking of other ideas,” Athearn said.

Before making the transition into eighth grade, seventh graders raise money for the England trip with a student-made newspaper called School’s Out! This past year, students raised almost $20,000 with their initiative.

After the trip was canceled, any costs to parents were refunded, but the school still had a good amount of fundraising money left over. One of the parents suggested during a Zoom meeting that the kids do a virtual exchange, where they chat with students from Warrington, take virtual tours, eat some British-themed cuisine, and do all they can to experience life in another country, without actually going there.

“I immediately emailed Paul Norman, who is the organizer for the school in Warrington. By the next morning, I had an itinerary in my email with all the different activities for the five days that the kids would normally have in England,” Athearn said.

The first day, students normally visit Liverpool and go to the Beatles museum, then head to Anfield to take a tour of the Anfield Stadium. Instead, Athearn said, she found virtual tours of the museum and the stadium for kids to tune in to. Teachers provided students with virtual reality devices that can be used with smartphones to take the tours. And since Athearn is a self-proclaimed “huge Beatles fan,” she had all sorts of ideas for activities and quizzes on the popular British band. The entire experience was optional for students.

And to get the full range of experience, the school its their fundraising dollars (much of it provided by advertising from local businesses in the student newspaper) to purchase some British-themed food from Island eateries.

“Since the community had helped these kids raise all that money with the newspaper, we decided to put that money back into the Island economy and support these businesses,” Athearn said.

Although Athearn said nothing can replace an in-person experience, the virtual exchange keeps students engaged, and gives them something fun and exciting to be a part of. “I just felt really strongly that we had to do something, and I know a lot of people are burned out on screen time, but this was optional for kids If they wanted to do it,” Athearn said.

Students also used Kahoot, an online learning platform, to take trivia quizzes about England and some of its culture and history. And each student got a goodie bag with a British flag and trinkets like John Lennon sunglasses and Beatles memorabilia.

Athearn said one great thing about the virtual exchange was that more students participated in the discussions with students in England, the virtual tours, and the online quizzes.

“All they had to do was turn on their computers,” Athearn said. “It was pretty amazing to witness.” The English teachers at the West Tisbury School even taught a segment on British literature, which Athearn said they “got a kick out of.”

For kids, Athearn said experiencing other cultures and expanding their knowledge on the world is essential. “I think as a kid growing up on an Island like Martha’s Vineyard, you see it as either on-Island or off-Island. To bring kids to another country, it gives them that little zap of being a global citizen,” Athearn said. Letting students interact with peers from another country, Athearn said, allows them to celebrate the commonalities of different groups of people, but also cherish the differences. And for the students’ social and emotional well-being, Athearn said, the virtual exchange program was a huge benefit.

“We just need to be checking in with these kids and making sure they are engaging with each other and finding other ways to communicate besides face to face,” Athearn said. “Our main priority is the socioemotional health of our children.”

Instead of making travel T shirts for the students, the school printed shirts for each eighth grader that said “Ready to take on virtually anything.”

“And that’s really what we are trying to do,” Athearn said. “We want kids to learn everything they can about the world around them.”