When I was 11 years old my parents took me out of school for 3 months and we travelled around the World. Even 32 years later the images from that experience are still vivid in my mind from the crazy bus rides and curries in Sri Lanka to following Hadrian’s Wall across Britain. These experiences moulded my future dreams and passions and showed me possibilities, it put travel in my blood and gave me a love and appreciation of history and other cultures. This is something I really wanted to impart on my students this year. I really wanted to open their eyes to all the possibilities available to them. I wanted them to dream, but not little dreams, I wanted big crazy dreams that could change the world. Idealistic I know, but that is why I teach, for those moments when a child realises they are so much more than they thought they were. But how could I do this when I teach in a small rural Catholic School in a town of 1000 people in the middle of Central Queensland, where most families haven’t even left the State let alone the Country?
Then I found the answer, Skype in the classroom!
Here was a way to have my class connect with people and classrooms all over the World, to let them experience what it is like to travel the World and meet people from lots of other cultures without the vast expense and time of travelling the World. Here was my way to give them the experiences I had at their age that made such a difference to my life, but the results were so much more than I have ever expected not just for my classroom but for the wider community too.
When I shared my vision of a Global Classroom with my students parents I received mixed responses. The parents who had travelled themselves and lived elsewhere thought it was a wonderful idea and were excited by the prospects while the parents who had never left the farm where anxious and fearful of the unknown. One parent was outright opposed to the idea exclaiming “why do they need to see the rest of the World, they are just little country kids?”. This parent actually withdrew from anything to do with the school for most of the year until I hosted my last Skype Night for the year, where they volunteered to help and later told me “I wish school had been like that when I was there as I learnt more about the World tonight than I ever did at school.”
So this year my students visited every continent in the World, a feat not too many people can claim they have achieved I am sure. We sat with nesting Penguins in the Antarctic, we became farmers in Kenya, we learnt about Sharks in the Bahamas, we became archeologists studying fossils of an ancient race, we learnt how to navigate the world with an explorer and we also found out what it is like to live in the slums of Nairobi and what it is like to be a small child in an earthquake in Nepal. The World in all its glory and inequality was unveiled to my students and the mark this journey has left is indelible.
So what did we do? We connected thats what we did!
We found experts on anything we wanted to know about. When we needed to learn how to write narratives we found amazing award winning authors who shared their vast knowledge on the writing process and we became inspired.
When we were learning about History we found an archeologist who taught us how to think like an Historian and when we needed to know how to read lines of longitude and latitude on a map well of course we found a world explorer to teach us all about it.
Skype allowed us to tap into some of the top experts in their fields that you would never usually be able to access in a school setting. If you are going to learn something why not learn from the best?
We started doing Mystery Skypes! Mystery Skype are a 45-60 minute critical thinking challenge that your class takes part in while Skyping with another class somewhere else in the world. Your students’ goal is to guess the other school’s location before they guess yours. You do this by asking yes and no questions.
In our first Mystery Skype with a school in Alaska one of my students asked me “was that a geography lesson?”, why reply was “yes it sure was”, her response “that was the best lesson ever!”
We learnt all about the world, where continents, countries and cities are located and the land features of these areas and what time zones are. We learnt how to read maps, look for clues in the class rooms we were visiting and got to peak out their windows. We saw snow for the first time and we got to see that children around the world were just the same as us even though they spoke different languages, had different colour skin or worshipped a different God. We developed friendships that I am sure will endure and found empathy for others when they realised not everyone in the World lived like them. Their world expanded from worrying about how they were going to survive with only a 16GB Ipad that didn’t have the latest games on it, to organising discos to help farmers in Kenya and developing advertising campaigns to collect spoons to send to children in the poor schools of Africa. They sponsored a Sunbear and designed posters to create awareness of the plight of sharks. These are wonderful things for students to work on but when the driver is not a teacher but rather the students themselves, come about through self realisation then it is something special!
Of course we also learnt how to think critically, collaborate and communicate, all the skills these children will need to possess to negotiate the digital age.
If you are interested in learning more about how to run a Mystery Skype I highly recommend this post by Mr Solarz who I think explains the process very eloquently.
Skype opened the doors of possibilities of world wide collaboration. We have been able to work on projects together as well as learn from and teach students in Korea, Japan, Kenya, USA, India, Israel and Spain. It always creates a new level of excitement and engagement when students know they are working on a project with students from somewhere else in the World who have different ideas and experiences.
What has been fantastic for me has been that I now have a network of teacher friends around the World who I can ask advice from, share ideas with and generally be inspired by.
Being in the Southern Hemisphere we quickly worked out that time zones could be a problem when trying to connect to classes and experts on the other side of the World, so to overcome that I started hosting Skype Nights. This was an opportunity for the students to sleep at school (well we don’t sleep much but we stay at school over night) so we can connect with as many different classes and experts as possible, usually between 12-15 in a night. The first night was a great success and myself along with a couple of ardent parent supporters negotiated our way around the World visiting classrooms in Africa, Asia, Europe and America. The feedback from the kids, “can we do it again this week?” The answer was “No, I need to sleep”, but it quickly became a feature of our school calendar each term and it started to grow. No longer do I just have my students coming along, but also older brothers and sisters, students from other classes, parents, grand parents and visiting teachers. It is an event that is widely talked about in the community and something I will not be able to stop doing even if I wanted too.
So what has Skype done in my classroom, it has let children travel the World, infusing them with a thirst for knowledge and allowing them to see possibilities and to dream very big dreams! It is creating a generation of empathetic students who do not worry about skin colour, religion or culture but instead worry about human beings and desire equality for all.
What will next year bring, well already I am being asked “Can we learn about dinosaurs or maybe visit Mars?”, so I guess we are going to be going back in time and then shooting off to that stars, and you know what, I can’t wait!