Stone Soup and Mystery Calls: Bringing the World to My English Learners

Educator Asma Mustafa wrote this post.

When I was younger, I listened to Radio Monte Carlo. At the time, I didn’t understand the broadcasts, because I didn’t know English. When I moved from Saudi Arabia to Gaza at 14 years old, I decided to learn more. Listening to songs and watching movies in English made me dream of speaking English myself.

My family wanted me to be an engineer, like my father, my older sister, and my older brother. Half my family are engineers. But after excelling in high school, I told them I wanted to be a teacher. With encouragement from my mom, I began studying English at university. After graduation, I fulfilled my dream of becoming a teacher. I became a teacher because I love this job. I like dealing with human beings and with the mind. I have taught grades seven through 10 and am currently teaching four sections of about 45 students apiece in grades eight and 10.

Asma presents an activity during a Live Class from Pearson and the BBC.

Most of my students have never traveled abroad or met people outside of Gaza, as the area has been under a blockade since before they were born. Even if they could travel, they might not have the money to do so. So I thought, why not use technology to connect them to the world outside? I am an English teacher, so I also need to give my students opportunities to practice listening to and talking with native speakers. If we don’t practice, we forget it.

That’s why I launched the Global Education Project.

When I began the initiative, I connected with the Hands Up Project and its founder, Nick Bilbrough. He put me in touch with a teacher from North Macedonia, Dragica Zdravedka, whom I invited to speak with my students over video call. She shared a short story about stone soup, which my students loved. I still remember every second of it. After that, I invited five more teachers from five other countries.

The objectives of the Global Education Project include promoting global citizenship in my students and supporting them in communicating with the outside world. People in the world should collaborate, love one another, and use our limited time on Earth well. With the internet, the world is shrunk down. People can meet so easily.

We’ve experienced this firsthand through Skype “mystery calls,” a global educational game in which my students meet classes from across the world. They have “traveled” to about 45 countries so far, representing every continent but Antarctica. In addition to interacting with peers from other places, my students learn bits of the languages they speak in those places, thereby becoming better prepared to travel or continue learning in the future.

An educator from Ecuador was the one who introduced me to the “mystery call” concept. He found me on Twitter and messaged me, saying, “I want to connect my students with yours.” That led to more connections on Twitter and Facebook. I accepted all the invitations and made a schedule. To provide my students more interactions with native English speakers, I added in some Live Classes. They loved seeing the different countries and classrooms on-screen.

Through these experiences, my students improved their English and developed the self-confidence to speak in front of cameras and to others without fear. Some of them were initially very scared about speaking English and even started shaking, so I put my hands on their shoulders to encourage them. I told them, “Hey, can you tell them your name?”

I advise my students to build their confidence by standing in front of the mirror, practicing their comments, and not being afraid. I tell them, “It’s OK to commit mistakes; it’s OK to learn from your mistakes. One day, with enough experience, you’ll become more comfortable.”

Part of my instruction is teaching students how to thank our guests and how to say greetings like “Good morning.” We practice how to ask others about themselves and their cultures. I guide them in using gentle, respectful language. Hearing from students and teachers around the world also helps my classes become more worldly. If they know more about others—their heritage, their customs, the way they live, and the way they sing—they respect them. I encourage them to treat others very well so that they may be treated in the same way, whether they are Black or white, Muslim or Christian, from Asia or Africa.

Through my cell phone and laptop, I’ve been able to take advantage of the digital tools offered by Apple, Microsoft, and Google. I’ve also been able to take National Geographic’s Educator Certification, which was amazing and taught me new and important skills. A big part of this journey began three years ago, when our North Macedonian friend visited with my students. That one experience truly opened the gates to the world for my humble classroom.

Asma Mustafa is a National Geographic Certified Educator and has taught English in Gaza since 2008. She frequently collaborates with educators around the world via video call.

You can join Asma in taking advantage of National Geographic’s free professional learning opportunities for educators. View the full slate of courses and register here.

All images courtesy of Asma Mustafa

2 thoughts on “Stone Soup and Mystery Calls: Bringing the World to My English Learners

  1. As a preservice teacher, this was such an awesome post to read! I am passionate about connecting my students to the world round them to build new understandings, empathy, and knowledge from people around the world. I think this would be a great opportunity to expand my students confidence, like you mentioned, and ability to connect themselves to others. I have been seeing how crucial confidence and connections are in the classroom and by pairing with others around the world, both of these can grow. I wonder what other tools are available to teachers who are interested in facilitating these types of interactions and how to get started with that? What kind of scaffolds are needed to prepare students for this? I will decently be looking into this more.

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