Learning About Communities…Not From Textbooks

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Nov 182012

I recently wrote about Thinking About Learning Differently- Talking to Strangers, where I mentioned our third graders journey of skyping around the world to learn about different communities.

They have spoken via Skype with classes from a suburb of Los Angeles, CA , an rural community in Missouri and a city, Weatherford, TX. The latest connection was with Anna Faridaku, a teacher and children’s book author from Indonesia. Students took turns speaking with Anna, who was just amazing in connecting (via the screen) to the kids, answering and asking questions. She engaged them and pushed them to deeper thinking about similarities and differences about our communities.

They have now also spoken to a class from Prague, Czech Republic and we are working on our next connections with Argentina and New Zealand. Please contact me via Twitter (@langwitches), if you are interested in being part of the 3rd grade learning journey.

The goal is not to only collect cold data, but to:

  • make connections between the different locations and communities
  • learn about geography
  • talk “to strangers”, practicing speaking skills and conversation skills, be aware of body language…
  • reflect on how and what we are learning
  • invite a global audience (including parents and grandparents) to continue a conversation via the classroom blog
  • continuously becoming better at asking questions and learning that questions don’t stop at the end of a lesson, day, Skype call

Overcoming geographic boundaries

Conversations about Alligators in Florida and Prague :)

Two native Hebrew speakers meet across the Ocean

Documenting through various lenses


Using tools for synchronous and asynchronous collaboration

Formulating questions and collecting data

The comments on the classroom blog below came from family and friends of our students who continued to contribute to students learning after the call ended.

Family continues a conversation after the call ended

Skyping with Indonesia


It is time to THINK DIFFERENTLY about learning!

Learning to Talk to Strangers

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Nov 172012

Our third graders are learning about different communities.They have spoken via Skype with classes from a suburb of Los Angeles, CA , an rural community in Missouri and a city, Weatherford, TX. The latest connection was with Anna Faridaku, a teacher and children’s book author from Indonesia.  Students took turns speaking with Anna, who was just amazing in connecting (via the screen) to the kids, answering and asking questions. She engaged them  and pushed them to deeper thinking about similarities and differences about our communities.

Will Richardson talks about Three starting points to think differently about “Learning. In addition to “Thinning the Classroom Wall” and “Being Transparent”, he lists “Talking to Strangers” as one of the starting point!

Being able to connect and learn with strangers is an important skill for all of us, and especially for a generation that will be learning online for the rest of their lives.

The above image visualizes how we are taking learning about a country from only looking at a map and reading about it in a book to talking to a “stranger “who lives in that country. We still used the map and books for background knowledge and preparation, but information is amplified:

  • Information comes from a primary source
  • Information is fluid, not rigid, it will adjust to the questions the students have  (a book will only hold the information that editors have decided on including and will not magically switch in front of your eyes :) )
  • Information can take on directions, tailored to your students’ interests
  • Information can

“Talking to Strangers” is a critical skill to possess. It contributes to information fluency. It so dramatically contrasts the drill we heard over and over again from our parents. We used to be taught “DON’T talk to strangers” and now need the skills to do precisely that.

Disclaimer: I am not talking about talking to a stranger in a dark alley at night! :)

3rd Grade- Learning About Communities: Skyping with Indonesia from langwitches on Vimeo.

The Excitement of Learning

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Jun 222011

As a teacher, you know when your students are excited about learning. It is what you work for. Is is part of the passion that makes you a true educator.

I had the honor of witnessing such display of excitement and learning a couple of weeks ago, as I spent a day of learning with educators participating in the Edweek2011 in St. Jospeh, Missouri. Not only did I want to talk to teachers and administrators about the opportunities of using Skype in the classroom, I wanted to show them first hand. I wanted them to experience the potential it could bring into their own schools by connecting, communicating and collaborating with others around the world. But the connection could not only be about the connection via Skype itself. How can we make a connection to curriculum content and 21st century skills and literacies? How can we turn an ordinary connection via Skype into a LEARNING CALL?

Using the concept of “The Digital Learning Farm: Students as Authentic Contributors”by Alan November, I had arranged a Skype call with Mrs. Yollis and her third grade students. Neither party knew the geographic location of each other. It was each groups’ goal to find their respective location by asking closed questions that could be answered with a “Yes” or a “No”. Mrs. Yollis had prepared her 3rd graders by distributing specific job responsibilities during a Skype call in order to work together to figure out the location of their connection partner.

I hope you will be able to see, hear and feel the excitement of learning these students displayed by watching the edited video recording (for time purposes) of the call.

Make no mistake, simply by assigning these job responsibilities to (groups of or individual) students will not automatically create a learning call, nor will it welcome such an open display of learning excitement into your classroom. The credit goes to Mrs. Yollis for having prepared here students with her own enthusiasm and thirst for learning the entire school year up until this point.

The learning call was well framed by preparing students ahead of time. All of Mrs. Yollis’ students had had previous experiences with authentic contributions to their classroom learning community. Just take a closer look at Mrs. Yollis’ fabulous classroom blog documenting and describing their shared learning.

During the Skype call, Mrs Yollis continued to guide and focus students on the task at hand. It was obvious to us “on the other side of the screen”, that students knew their job responsibilities and worked well together.

Once the call was over, the learning continued by reflecting on the experience on their classroom blog. Mrs. Yollis posted questions for her students to comment on. The class also received comments from teachers who had participated from Missouri as well as blog readers as far away as Australia.

image licensed under Creative Commons by Sean Nash

Image licensed under Creative Commons by Sean Nash


Read more about Mystery Skype calls:

Celebrating Yom Yerushalaim- Jerusalem Day via Skype

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Jun 012010

Students from Martin J Gottlieb Day School (Jacksonville, Florida/USA) and Amirim School from Binyamina, Israel recently celebrated Jerusalem Day together. A true opportunity to share Language, Culture & History via Skype.
A grandfather in Israel shared his memories of the Six Day War (1967) of liberating Jerusalem. The Rabbi from Florida explained what Jerusalem means to Jews outside of Israel. Students sang songs, played instruments and practiced English and Hebrew.


Behind the Curtains of a Skype Call

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May 252010

In this video, we show you a little bit what is happening behind the curtains of the actual Skype call. Students are discussing some of the Skype jobs they take on during a connection as well as debriefing after the call.


May 162010

Over the past few weeks, I had the opportunity to connect and collaborate with teachers and students from Lima, Peru and Buenos Aires, Argentina. We connected Preschoolers (4/5 year olds), Kindergarteners (5/6 year olds) first (6/7 year olds), and 6th (11/12 year olds) graders.

The success of these Skype connections are due mainly to the planning and commitment of the teachers involved on both sides of the webcam. I know without a doubt that their enthusiasm, adventurism and even blind trust in me with whatever I throw at them, contributes to being able to expose our students to a classroom open to a big world out there.

Here goes my shoutout to Heidi Musteros from Argentina, Tatiana Ugaz from Peru, Kathy Balek, Jane Cassette, Lisa Cronin, Allison Weaver & Terry Pickering from the USA. Without them, I would not have been able to see and hear our students so excited, surprised that the kids on the screen are “real”, learn about cultural differences and similarities and simply becoming “aware”.

An invaluable resource for me in preparing and setting the conferences up was Kim Cofino’s post 4 Steps to a Skype-tastic Video Conference. I set up 4 “hot seats” in the first row. The webcam was directly aimed at them, while we set up a few more rows up behind them for the rest of the class. It only took one time to show students that how to enter and exit efficiently out of the hot seat row.

6th graders from Buenos Aires and ours were the “guinea pigs” of our first skype conference. We wanted them to introduce each other and get a feel for the other group that they would be working on a video for, describing what life was like around the city that they lived in. On Halloween we received a invitation to skype the kids in Argentina again, as they had a “surprise” …. they dressed up in masks for us,

6th graders had never thought about the fact that Halloween might not be celebrated outside the US. How do you explain to someone “Trick or Treat”? What? Ring people’s doorbells and get candy from them? Maybe that might sound strange to someone else.

With the Kindergarten class we planned three Skype sessions with a class in Lima, Peru. The first one we wanted to play a game, where the five year olds would be able to introduce themselves. We lined up in a half circle on either side of the webcam and used a counting out rhyme in Spanish. The child that was picked went to the webcam and introduced themselves with “Me llama” or “My name is..”. The other side welcomed each student then personally with an enthusiastic “HOLA”.

For the second session, the class learned together with our Spanish teacher , a song in Spanish called “Una mano, dos manos”. Tatiana in Peru had also prepared the same song with her students. It was great to be able to sing together, although we were on 2 different continents, thousands of miles apart.

The students in Peru then taught us another song in Spanish called “La vaca Lola”

From that song, we asked each other what kind of sounds do other animals make in our countries. We found out that the dog says “wau-wau” in Peru, while in the USA it say “woof”. Cats in both countries say “Miau”, while a rooster will say “cacadoodledoo” in the USA and in Peru will sing “Kikeriki”.

Each class had a chance to ask questions : What is the weather like today?, What time is it?

We finished the video conference by singing “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” in English and Spanish.

We can’t wait for our next videoconference with Peru next week as we will have a combined bilingual storytime.

Another video conference took place between two first grade classes (Argentina/USA). This time the children did not have one language in common. I started out by showing Google Earth on our screen and pointing the webcam at the screen at the same time, so both classes could see. We zoomed into Florida all the way to our school campus and then “flew” to South America into Buenos Aires.

We planned on a TPR (Total Physical Response) style lesson for both students. We gave each other commands, such as stand up, sit down, touch your nose, turn around, clap, dance, etc.

The realization that the kids on the screen are real and are watching us the same way that we were watching them came for the students, when they would sit down or touch their noses at the same time as we did.

How exciting to watch and hear the little ones talk about playing and talking with kids in Argentina and Peru, like it is the most natural thing in the world!

Looking forward to continuing to expose our elementary school students to something that seems to come so natural to them.

Global Awareness Going On

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May 062010

If you are NOT teaching or attending an international school, nor live in a metropolitan city, raising global awareness among your students does not happen by osmosis.

As a teacher, you have to work hard to expose your students to multiple languages, cultures, geography, different customs and traditions.

Global Awareness, according to The Partnership for 21st Century Skills, includes:

  • Using 21st century skills to understand and address global issues
  • Learning from and working collaboratively with individuals representing diverse cultures, religions and lifestyles in a spirit of mutual respect and open dialogue in personal, work and community contexts
  • Understanding  other nations and cultures, including the use of non-English languages

According to the National Geographic Roper Public Affairs Report 2006- Geographic Literacy Study  (pdf),

Young Americans appear to stick close to home, reporting limited contact with other
cultures outside the U.S.

  • Three-quarters (74%) have traveled to another state in the past year, but seven in ten (70%) have not traveled abroad at all in the past three years.
  • Six in ten (62%) cannot speak a second language “fluently.”
  • Nine in ten (89%) do not correspond regularly with anyone outside the U.S.
  • Only two in ten (22%) have a passport.

Raising global awareness and making global connections for teachers and students has been one of my goals this year. Although isolated, one time connections are better than none. I am witnessing a transformation in students and teachers who are regularly participating in global connections.

Let me give you an example:

Third graders have had opportunities to connect live via Skype to Italy, Israel, New Zealand, Finland, Canada and various states within the USA this year.

Alison Quinn, the teacher from Finland, wrote a reflective blog post about our connection:

They asked and answered great questions that highlighted both the differences (geographically and culturally) and similarities – this was so key. The similarities now seem insignificant – two kids on opposite sides of the ocean have art as their favourite subject – both groups of kids like pizza, the same TV shows – and the same Hannah Montana song. But these seemingly insignificant shared pieces of pop culture astounded and united the kids who were oceans away from each other.

I am in complete agreement with Alison. Although seemingly insignificant, these kinds of interactions contribute to a connected feeling, they contribute to a global awareness, that otherwise would not exist.

Seeing students being aware of a bigger world than their own backyard is a first step towards global education. Hearing students use names of far away countries, talk about different languages, cultures and traditions as if they were frequent travelers and jet-setters is a step in the right direction. Making connections with students from around the world is becoming “just the way it is”… normal… part of their lives in the 21st Century.

Take a moment to watch and listen to the third graders (from the US) talk about what had surprised them when skyping with third graders from Helsinki, Finland.


Using Experience to Reach Others

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May 062010

The title of this post “Use Experience to Reach Others” is from a blog post one of our 7th grade (Jewish) students wrote after skyping with (Muslim) students from Minnesota. (Thanks Micah!)

Last month, our Middle School students became the Experts as they were talking bout Judaism to 7th grade classes from Michigan, who were studying World Religions. Our students asked the class from Michigan if they had any Jewish students (which they didn’t) and if they knew any Jews personally (which they didn’t). There was one Muslim student in their class and our students immediately asked her questions about Islam. After the Skype call was over, our students expressed interest in contacting and connecting with other Muslim students in order to learn more about their religion.

A quick tweet out put me in contact with the Banadiir Academy in Minneapolis, Minnesota and the American School of Khartoum, Sudan. Thank you Trey Wodele and Damianne for making the connection !

The first Skype call was set up with Minnesota. During the call, which lasted almost an hour, I witnessed what I am defining as a transformative learning experience. Students had a list of questions prepared about Islam. In the beginning (first 20-30 minutes), the conversations felt very scripted as students read and answered the questions off their list. That changed when students from Minnesota asked “Do you want to see how we pray?” There was an enthusiastic “Yes” on the Florida end of the screen. As they were watching and listening to the explanation, one student ran to get his Tallit (prayer shawl) and Tefillin to show and demonstrate how Jews dress while they pray.

From that moment on, students truly interacted with each other on both sides of the screen. It was the moment that questions came off the list they had prepared and curiosity took over, connections and articulation of their own experiences reached a new level. Skype made it a transformative learning experience by:

  • making it a conversation… a back and forth
  • personalizing the questions and answers
  • connecting it to their own experiences
  • making learning go far beyond what a static text book page can provide

I could tell that the wheels in the students’ minds were still turning as the Skype call ended. After leaving the “Social Studies” class and heading over to their next period, the 7th grade “Language Arts”teacher jumped on the opportunity to build on this learning experience of her students. She asked them to take the notes they had taken during the Skype call and write a reflective blog post about their experience.

Find an excerpt of their posts below with links to their classroom blog and a short 90 second video of the Skype connection.


An Eye-Opening Experience

I believe that not only should we Skype with people of different religions, we should want to Skype with them. The experience is eye opening and very informative. I now understand many things about Muslims that I did not before, and they probably learned things about us that they did not know before. This was fun and a great learning experience. If you are someone who is ready to learn about new things and people, you should try Skyping, too!

Reflection on this Morning

Hopefully, technology can bring us together so we can see the good and the similarities in each other, instead of the differences.

Skyping with Muslims in Minneapolis

There are so many disagreements with our cultures. Those disagreements break the chains of our friendships. We need to take a stand and connect the chains back together. They are great people; some other religions like Catholic and Hindu, and not just us, need to Skype with them.

What I Learned

I want to write letters to the Somalian Muslim students that my class and I skyped with, like “Pen Pals”; and maybe, just maybe, we can become close friends – you never know.

Using our Experience to Reach others

I am Jewish and I just skyped with kids who are Muslims. From this experience, I realized that we have more similarities than differences. We, and people of all religions, need to put our differences aside and look at our similarities.[…] If we take the time to get to know religions other than our own we will understand, just like I did, that we can get along. So, my one wish for the world, is that one day we will have peace – it is up to every one of us, and can begin with a single conversation.

Skyping with Muslims in Minnesota

Rational hate would be us Americans hating the people who were behind 9/11. Irrational hate would be us hating every Muslim we see, just because they are Muslim. What is the reason behind it? It’s the same as saying you never want to speak to a German again because of the Holocaust. That person could be totally against Hitler. Never judge a book by its cover; those who do may miss the best read of their life.

7th Grade + Modern Technology = An Endless World of Learning

It was just a normal morning in March. I walked through the school doors ready for my daily classes: Hebrew, math, science, English, and history. Today, though, I learned so much more than those subjects. At 10:00 A.M., we dived into the beliefs and traditions of a different religion, Islam…via our modern technology, Skype. […] Over all, this was a fantastic experience that many people would probably never get to have. We shared information about ourselves and learned about a different religion. Hopefully, one friendly interaction at a time, more and more people will begin to realize the similarities connecting people around the world.

A Skype Odyssey

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May 062010

An Odyssey is defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as:

1 : a long wandering or voyage usually marked by many changes of fortune
2 : an intellectual or spiritual wandering or quest

image licensed under CC by Let Ideas Compete

I can’t help but make the association with the above definition of “wandering” ,”changes of fortune” and “quest” with my Around the World with 80 Schools project.

The Quest

It has been over a year, since I have embarked on making connections with and for my teachers and students around the world. The journey has been nothing short of eye opening and wondrous.

Broaden your Horizon

When I first thought of using Skype in the classroom, I wanted to broaden my students’ (and other teachers’) horizon. I wanted them to say “We talked to someone in Argentina today” or “The kids in Thailand are just like us” or “Teachers in New Zealand are preparing similar lessons than I do”. I wanted to bring the geography and global awareness of other countries and cultures into everyday vocabulary.


I wanted them (students & teachers) to be “awed” at the possibilities that technology can open up to us. I wanted them to be shocked at how easy and economical it was to make the world part of their classroom.

Change in Fortune

The “Awwws” ,”Wows” and “That is incredible” did come, but also did the “I don’t have the time to prepare my students for skype calls with other classes”, “It takes too much time away from curriculum content” and other variations of “It’s nice, but…”.

Wes Fryer says It takes leadership to get creative in schools and support the use of Skype. Wes addresses the technology (bandwidth and security) part of that equation in his post. I am venturing out to say that leadership at schools also need to be creative and understand the pedagogical value and curriculum connections that video conferencing has in terms of learning.

Leadership needs to support “pioneering” educators. They need to be allowed to go through a process of experimenting, evaluating, reflecting to see the effects of regular video conferencing on cross-curricula integration, student learning, motivation and engagement. We also need to get creative in involving and educating parents. With many of them unfamiliar with the technology (which appears to include such a strikingly different method than they remember from their own school days), they might not understand the educational use for such a tool in the classroom.



There had to be something more to merely using a webcam and calling another class in another city and country. There had to be subject area integration, there had to be ways to support (20th AND) 21st century skills and literacies, there had to be something more than an initial “Wow”.

The wandering paid off. There IS something more than the tool:

It is NOT about the tools...

The Understanding

The understanding that it never was about the tool (Skype or the webcam) started settling in. As students (and teachers) started to be part of regular Skype calls, it crystallized itself that it was all about the connections, the authentic experiences and knowledge we were able to bring to our students in addition to the communication opportunities. More and more students took their experiences home and asked their parents to install Skype in order for them to talk to far away grandparents or friends who had moved away.

It became apparent...

Experiences such as learning about whales from kids in Canada or becoming the experts for other students from Michigan or interviewing Jews from around the world as part of a research project were just the beginning to help us understand that it is about an awareness for teachers and students.

An awareness:

  • which takes learning off the pages of textbooks
  • that gives students the tools to make connections with experts and eyewitnesses
  • that can lead them to authentic information”just in time” [personalized] for them
  • that our classrooms can be as big as the world

An Odyssey transforms the traveler. I believe that we are catching a glimpse of how Skype, the tool, is transforming learning and teaching. It is making a real impact on how information is accessed, who we are communicating with and how we are connecting to the world around us.

Here are some journal entries from second graders about their thoughts of Skype:

If I could talk to anyone on Skype, I would choose my Au Pair, Magdalena, because I haven’t seen her in a while.

Skyping is learning new things to me.

I learned how to talk to different people from different countries.

I have learned to make friends.

I would Skype with my Tante Heni, she is my aunt.

I learned about the Olympics skyping.

I would like to skype with Houston, because I would like to talk about football.

Skype is like Facebook, but better.

I would like to skype with the president.

Skype is a way to meet new people who speak different languages.

A window to the world...

Our students are learning and understanding that there are more available resources to them than printed material. Our teachers are starting to include potential Skype connections in their planning in order to extend learning. There is a buzz around school that has is shifting from “Where are we skyping to…” to “We are studying… and skyping to learn about…”

The following video is from clips, I have been recording over the last few months. Nothing was scripted, many times just recorded when passing by in the hallway. I am hoping to continue recording students to see if a shift in their answers will also become apparent.

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