Exemplary Educators: Sandhya Shanker

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One of the primary sites of transformation during the pandemic was education. The abrupt transition from traditional schooling to fully online course schedules jolted the nation, students and educators alike. It became more difficult for students to engage with the materials, their teachers, and their peers. It seemed for a while that hope may have been lost behind a muted microphone and a blank Zoom screen. Fortunately, though, many educators accepted the challenge, and drove themselves to find solutions to the detachment and boredom. One of those outstanding educators is Sandhya Shanker, the Director of the Community Language School (CLS) at Michigan State, and recipient of the 2022 MAE4-HYS Partnership Award for her collaboration the MSU Extension, Children & Youth Institute (CYI) and the Leadership, Civic, and Cultural Engagement (LCCE) Team to organize virtual culture events.

During the pandemic, Sandhya and her team designed and implemented the Virtual Culture Experience for pre-college age students across the nation to showcase the culture of countries around the globe from the safety of their homes. These synchronous events were operated entirely through Zoom, and participants had the option to either actively participate in the activities, or just to observe and learn. Each event centered its focus on one or two countries and their cultures through three major hands-on components: cooking, crafting, and most importantly, movement!

Lack of physical activity was a major disadvantage to online schooling, so the team found it especially crucial to include a movement activity to facilitate engagement. For example, one of Sandhya’s favorite lessons was the Turkish Groom’s Dance in the event that focused on Turkey. Participants were able to learn the dance and practice alone or with their housemates. Sandhya says that the most rewarding part of the experience was watching the students and seeing how an enjoyable engagement activity reinforced their willingness to learn about other cultures online.

The cooking segments were focused on getting participants to make simple and health-focused dishes representative of the country. Nutritious recipes were selected with the participants’ health in mind, and to maintain ease of access, the ingredients were all available at local grocery stores. From Napolitano pizza, Manaqish Za’atar (traditional spiced Syrian pita bread) to menemen (Turkish scrambled eggs) everyone had a blast recreating traditional dishes and celebrating the culture of the night. Sandhya also says that the crafting sessions were beneficial to keeping the students’ minds sharp; the dullness of binge-watching Netflix and staying inside were more unfortunate side effects of the pandemic. For instance, when students were made to follow the intricate patterns of çini art (Turkish floral ceramic paintings) or follow instructions to make a kite like they do in India, they were able to both actively engage their brains and express themselves creatively, all while learning about global cultures.

çini craft night

CLS & MSU Extension found immense success in the Virtual Culture Experiences and the participant pool expanded to include people from other countries as well. In fact, the culture events started with including multiple cultures but when time started to run out because everyone was having so much fun, they decided to narrow each event down to a single culture. And what’s more, since Sandhya and her team reached out so strongly to the community, the community decided to respond with even more support. The partnership expanded to include support from MSU student organizations like the MSU Muslim Students Association, MSU Chinese Student Association, MSU Department of Romance & Classical Studies, MSU’s Department of Linguistics, Languages & Cultures and other institutions and organizations such as Wayne State University and even the Consulate of Italy in Detroit. Their support enhanced the activities, especially the language education throughout the sessions, and provided even more opportunities for the students.

Sandhya and the team at CLS & MSU Extension shared their experiences organizing the culture events through a poster presentation at the 13th Annual Michigan Pre-College and Youth Outreach Conference as well at a professional development session for 4-H youth staff at the Southwest Region of the MAE4-HYS.. The success of the partnership between CLS & MSU Extension have influenced language and cultural education not only across the state of Michigan but nationally as well.

The connections formed throughout the course of the culture events were perhaps the best part of the experience for Sandhya, overall. She was elated to meet so many interesting educators and lecturers from around the world and listen to a variety of new perspectives and ideas. It was also incredible for her to connect with participants across several ages and be a part of something they looked forward to being involved in. Sandhya and her efforts exemplify that it is indeed possible to promote global competence and intercultural understanding even in a virtual environment.

The team at CeLTA wishes to congratulate Sandhya for receiving this award and to commend her for the successes she has already achieved. This fall, Sandhya will be leaving her role as Director of CLS and starting a new position as a Fixed-term Faculty Member in the World Languages Teacher Preparation program in the College of Education. CeLTA thanks Sandhya for her incredible dedication to CLS over many years, and we wish her the very best in her new role!

Written by El Taverna