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.

Feb 062011

No lesson, no event and no learning should stand alone. We connect what we learn with our experiences of the past and store newly acquired skills, facts and experience to be retrieved in the future. Previously, I wrote about framing a field trip with Google Earth. I try to make the case of the importance to allowing students to learn to make connections, to not just expose them to a learning experience without pre-knowledge activation and reflection “to put things in perspective” to follow. In Assessment of Learning via Skype, I shared the following image

A Skype call should never be done in isolation. We should not treat a video conference any different than a field trip. The actual experience should be framed by pre-activities that activate prior knowledge and post-activites that give students the opportunity to reflect, create and connect these new experiences.

Credit for middle image “experience” by tombodor

I want to share with you a fourth grade learning experience. Last month I mentioned in the post “What do you have to lose?” how our forth grade teacher took the time to upload her students’ book trailer videos to her classroom blog. One of the authors of these books, Babara O’Connor, received a Google Alert of her name and book title which led her to the classroom blog. We were able to set up a Skype conference with her. I set up a test call with Mrs. O’Connor ahead of the actual Skype call with students to make sure that both of our video and audio settings were set up correctly. In the classroom students started brainstorming questions they would ask during the Skype call. We talked about questions that could only receive a “yes” or “no” answer and formulated questions that would solicit a more in depth answer. The entire class contributed in the brainstorming session. In the end the questions were narrowed down to 10.

1. What do you like to write about? 2. Where do you get your ideas to write your books? 3. When you write your books what inspires you and why? 4. What was your favorite book as a child and why? 5. How long does it take to write a book and why does the process take that long? 6. What is your favorite part of writing and why? 7.Do you believe you have to be a good reader in order to be a good writer? 8. Where did you go to school, and were you inspired in school to become a writer? 9. What is your favorite kind of genre and why? 10. If you had to turn one of your books into a movie which one would it be and why?

Students were assigned different jobs before the Skype call, such as greeter, introductions, videographer, photographer and individual questions. Student then “practiced” speaking their part ahead of time using PhotoBooth. They recorded themselves speaking slowly, clearly and looking into the camera. Their classroom teacher confirmed that this exercise made a big difference in their confidence level. Everyone was very excited when the Skype call actually took place.

Welcome Mrs. O'Connor to our Classroom

Recording our Skype Visit

Mrs. O'Connor shares books that inspired her to becone a writer

Take a look at the video below that shows a few snipets of the call. http://vimeo.com/18438258 In order to frame the Skype call as a learning call, the experience could not end when we hung up with Mrs. O’Connor. For students it would include blogging about it afterward to reflect on their experience and think about what they had learned from it. Students also got inspired to read more by Mrs. O’Connor after the Skype call. What did we observe as teachers? How can we take this experience to the next level? Although students were confident demonstrating speaking skills during the Skype call, it was a “back and forth”- “question and answer” session. We would like students to go beyond the ping pong method of “conversing”, but truly be part of a conversation. Not only did we need to go beyond asking questions that inspire more than yes/no answers, we will also need to practice responses that will go beyond: “Thank you” or “That is interesting”. Students were asked to reflect on their “learning experience” during the Skype call by commenting on the classroom blog.

After watching the video of our skype call with Mrs. O’Connor, I want to know your thoughts. Please answer the following questions in your comment: 1. What did you learn from our skype call? 2. What part of the skype session did you like the best? WHY was that your favorite part? Remember the components of our preparation: brainstorming questions, practicing with photo booth, talking with Mrs. O’Connor.

See a sample of student comments below:

Student Comments

We had a good lesson on how to write more reflective and reminded them of the commenting etiquette they had drafted for their class previously.

4th Grade Commenting Etiquette

As we were going through the comments in moderation, we noticed that they most students followed the etiquette beautifully for the the most part. We noticed that the week parts in the comments were:

  • Proper spelling
  • Check before you click
  • High level of vocabulary

We also noticed that an important component was missing in our commenting etiquette:

  • Add something…go more into details…explain yourself
  • Remember your worldwide audience (Not everyone who will read your comments, will have been in the classroom with us when the learning event had occurred)

We pulled up a few suggestions for comment starters and highlighted words to integrate in our comments.

Comment Starters

If you want to read more about teaching commenting, take a look at a previous post “Blogging Lessons on Commenting” on Langwitches.

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.


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.

Becoming the Experts

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May 062010

I received a tweet from Michael Kaechele, Technology Teacher at Valleywood Middle School.

What an opportunity!

Michael and I set the Skype calls up for the following week. I had a meeting with our Judaica teachers to get them involved and Brian, the Social Studies teacher from Michigan, shared a Google Doc with the questions his students were interested in asking.

Our students were very excited in being seen as “experts” and talked with their teachers about the questions and how to articulate their answers.

Since there were three sections of Social Studies classes from Michigan, we involved our 6th, 7th and 8th grade classes to take over one section each.


After our Skype calls, I received the following email from Michael:

Just wanted to say thanks for the calls yesterday. It was a great experience for our students to learn from yours. The social studies teacher liked it and wants to try again. Quote from student “They are just like us”

That says it all for me-breaking down walls of stereotypes that they might have just because we do not have a large Jewish community here.

I could not agree more with Michael. Opportunities like these, facilitated by technology tools (such as video conferencing) and Twitter (to make the initial connection), are taking learning off the pages of a book for our students (social studies book in this case). They give young people the opportunity to articulate what they have learned and share it. It brings in a kind of authentic learning that ordinarily the students in Michigan might not have had (meeting and talking to other Jewish kids their age).

Is that what “transforming” learning is about? Not doing the same assignments… the same content…simply with a different tool…?

Is it being able to do something that was simply not possible before…?

Tom Barrett on his blog EdTe.ch wrote:

transformative learning is what I am looking for, because replication offers no benefit to a teacher – all it produces is ostensibly a better presented piece of work and more of a headache to setup. The technology has to offer a whole new level of interaction […] that cannot be gained from the traditional method explained above.

The learning activity has to be transformed into something that provides a greater depth of learning and interaction. There has to be a pedagogical shift.

I am thinking that the above mentioned learning example could not have been possible “before”.

  • … before Twitter… most likely @concretekax and I would not have connected
  • … before Skype … we would not have been able to bring our students together. Video conferencing is the closest we have to a face to face meeting. A phone call would not have produced the same results of the feeling to be in “one” classroom.
  • … before… our students would not have been called upon to be teachers to their peers across the country.
  • … before… students from Michigan would have learned about Judaism from their teacher, from the pages of their social studies book and quite likely would not know or meet anyone Jewish in their community.
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