Friday, December 7, 2012

Regional Connections

link to published article- mentoring

Today celebrates a major breakthrough for me and Flatdaddy!  We successfully connected a Vermont public school with a New Mexico public school via Skype.  This is amazing for a number of reasons.
First, our Vermont school seems to have more liberty with use of technology than New Mexico- for that I am grateful. But with perseverance and patience, the New Mexico school system gave approval for the video chat and once in place it went smoothly.  It is now a successful model for other classrooms to follow for improving student conversation, discussion and writing. We brought two schools in two different regions towards a common practice.
Second- We are both teachers who view technology as a medium for connecting students' to regional similarities and differences that they can not extrapolate from reading alone.  It is painfully sad to observe high school students who make a common, nonchalant error in thinking that New Mexico or Vermont do not matter or that they belong to neighboring states and countries. Bound by positive dialogue these students will not likely make this mistake
Third- Kids ask meaningful questions when they are given meaningful opportunities.  These 40 students had begun their relationship through letter writing as pen pals.   I viewed student improvements in writing, especially for the Vermont students whose first letters were but a paragraph each. Curiosity stimulated students to expand writings up to 2 page letters with questions and cartoon drawings.  Months passed and enthusiasms waned. Skype provided opportunity and incentive for continuing relations because kids could see and talk to their pen pals. A New Mexican student used his speaking opportunity to inquire why some Vermont students hadn't responded on time to the last letter exchange? His admonition and protest of unfairness caused a stirring of embarrassed excuses and sincere promises to write. This charge should carry the weight of similar Response to Interventions. How could anyone ignore this boy's plea or his adorable face?
Fourth- Parents and teacher collaborations were successful. In this case I acted as a parent and not a teacher. I learned to respect the two teacher's methodologies and management of the classroom.  I volunteered in other capacities; field trips chaperoning and book club monitoring helped establish a rapport.  Flatdaddy and I suggested the pen pal program but offered to volunteer in a role that they structured, following the rules that they stipulated. We expressed the upmost respect for our teachers before initiating this exchange and we agreed that should the school schedules become incompatible for the Skype chat, we would forego the opportunity. We shouldered the responsibilities for acquiring school permissions, setting up equipment and downloading Skype to computers which were time consuming tasks that deter a busy teacher. It was a model team effort.

Fifth- This exchange broadens opportunities for travel. What if these students could actually meet? As teachers, Flatdaddy and I have brought students camping on bike tours, on ski trips to other countries. Why not bring students to New Mexico? it has always been frustrating for me to know that students may see other parts of the world long before they see other parts of their own country. The trip is costly but not impossible. Small groups of students acting as ambassadors could make the journey on behalf of their class. they could stay with families in either place. As a child I began to care about Vermont when I hosted others outside the community. I suddenly was aware of the state history, the traditions and the landscape with a sense of pride that I hadn't had before. One Vermont girl made the trip to New Mexico this fall. She had never been west, had never travelled so far away with her mother, had never tasted homemade tortillas or seen such diverse populations. Not only does she report to her peers that cacti is common in backyards, and that Pueblos are much older than any historic site in Vermont but she now enjoys writing articles and stories of her experiences. She never enjoyed writing before this. She gained a new perspective of the worlds we live in.

I wish I could include pictures of the Skype interaction but for confidentiality purposes I won't.  Both classrooms were sitting and jumping up and waving at one another on the Smartboard Screens.  The session was short (25 minutes), engaging and thoughtful.  Flatdaddy asked a series of questions to stimulate conversation- how many students went skiing last weekend? how many enjoy skiing? How many students have cactus in their back yard? How many students have pets?  Who is wearing only a t-shirt and who is wearing a sweater? We asked individuals to volunteer to answer questions about temperatures and time zones.  We then let each class alternate asking questions and giving group responses.  Both classes agreed that they would want to continue their discussions on a following session but in smaller groups of 2-3.  Students ended their Skype with Simon Says despite 2,000 miles of separation.  I wish newspapers could promote and advertise this experience and thank the classroom teachers for providing students' with an authentic learning opportunity.  I hope that budgets will allow room for teachers to seize on technologies that provide rich experiences when they are given the time and the training and the support necessary.

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