By Heather Hawkins
Possibly the most powerful school experience my students have had while in Andover, KS, has been making connections with authors, scientists, National Parks, historians, students from other countries, and holocaust survivors using Skype. Why do I believe this? A conversation with one former student comes to mind. This student came to visit me when he was in high school, and I asked him to share the one thing he remembered most about middle school. He mentioned the day during his 6th grade year when we had a Skype call with students from India. That one 30-minute Skype call with Indian students, is what he remembered the most.
This has stuck with me and made it clear that the work I put forth to bring such connections to students is memorable. Creating these memorable experiences for all students while I have an opportunity to educate them is my mission.
So why did that student remember the day we Skyped with India? Because my students were able to connect with students half-way across the globe and learn about another culture. Because the Indian students showed us their ceremonial dress, dances, and musical instruments with pride. The students from India were excited to meet us, and our students were mesmerized. They were able to see with their own eyes that the other side of the world has students that are going to school just like us, and yes, they learn to speak English too. My students were able to share about their culture as well, as the students in India wanted to know more about America and Kansas. This global encounter is just one example of the many wonderful connections that students have made through Skype.
Yet another powerful connection happens during students’ 8th grade year. In their ELA class, students read Night by Wiesel and study the Holocaust. I reached out to the Holocaust Awareness Museum and Education Center to connect my students with a Holocaust survivor. Little did I know how much this connection could affect my students. We were able to Skype with Mr. Tuck who was a survivor of Auschwitz. He told us his excruciating story of survival, showed us the tattoo on his arm, and let us know that possibly the most important part of living is to get an education, something he was deprived of being in a concentration camp most of his teenage years. Mr. Tuck also told us that the reason he shares his story is so that people will understand that the Holocaust actually happened, and that if he could survive something so terrible, the students could survive putting up with a bully or having to complete hard work. We have since connected with Mr. Tuck for 4 years in a row, and I still get chills listening to his story.
Another fun and exciting Skype experience that I have put together is the Skype an Author Day. I find a different author to Skype with for every hour of the school day and students get to ask them questions about writing during their ELA classes. Finding authors that are popular is very hard to do, so I usually find authors that may only have a few books published, are affiliated with Scholastic, or their book is on the William Allen White 6th-8th grade list. The Skype an Author Day is usually filled with laughter, but also some nervousness. Students do have a little stage fright before talking to someone that they do not know. So, we practice. We practice Skyping with a teacher that has plan time in order to ask them a few questions, practice our manners, and get comfortable looking into a webcam. Providing my students this opportunity to practice communicating via Skype will go onto help my students in the future. What if they get their first job by way of virtual interview? At least I can say I had a hand in their communication skills in some small way.
But why is Skyping with an author so important? In addition to providing students with an opportunity to practice formally communicating via an on-line platform, when students get the chance to speak with authors, they realize that authors are people, too. Authors have a personality and story behind why they write the books they write. They give students suggestions about improving their reading and writing skills. Authors also give tips on how to overcome writer’s block, and they share that editing is what takes the longest. These connections also reiterate to students what their teachers tell them every day - to read, read, read. When this type of comment comes from an author or expert, students seem to accept the truth a little better. When someone else besides a teacher helps students realize that the information they are learning in reading, writing, history, science, etc. is important, then that information becomes memorable. Connecting with others via Skype proves that learning and receiving an education is the single most important job for any student to complete.
The last example of a memorable, virtual experience I give students is through mystery Skype. During a mystery Skype call, students are given the task of figuring out where in the world the classroom of students live by asking yes or no questions. Students have Google maps on their Chromebooks and must think about geographical questions to ask like, “Is your country in the southern hemisphere?” Each class connected on the Skype call takes turns asking questions until the country or state is revealed. Then the magic takes place. Students ask each other what their weather is like, what sports are played, how many students are in the class, what is the native language. The classes explain their state or country’s flag, their cultures, and even politics. These discussions make my heart smile, because I know that my students are learning about other places in the world besides our small town of Andover. They get to experience a small glimpse of what school is like in another country or state, and that even though the class of students may be far away, they are not so different.
So, how can more educators create these same virtual opportunities for their students?
There are so many ways to find experts and authors. Author Kate Messner has a website that lists the authors that are willing to connect. Skype in the classroom of course has many opportunities such as mystery Skype, virtual field trips, and guest speakers, including authors. CILC.org also has many connections available, but most charge a fee. However, just going to an author’s website, business/museum website, or National Park Service website and emailing the “Contact Us” email can be helpful. What do you have to lose? The worst thing that can happen is that someone might say no. However, this rarely happens if your email mentions students, education, and how connecting with them can bring a wonderful experience to the classroom or library. From one educator to another, this type of virtual opportunity is worth all the time and effort you give.
About the Author
Heather Hawkins is currently serving as a school media specialist library teacher at Andover Central High School in Andover, KS. Previously, Hawkins taught for 11 years as a middle school language arts teacher and 13 years as a middle school media specialist. Serving as a building technology leader and district professional learning team leader for several years, Heather is passionate about teacher collaboration and yearns to enlighten students through collaboration, innovation, and creativity. She is purposeful in giving her students memorable learning activities especially through Skype connections with experts, which build communication skills and cultural awareness.
Twitter handle: @hawkinsh23 and @achs_library
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