The Power of Social Media: Crossing Continents

Last month I had the amazing luck to receive a tweet from a fellow educator, Gerardo Lazaro, who teaches at St. George's College in Lima, Peru.  He asked me if I was interested in doing an online collaboration project with his students.  I immediately jumped at the opportunity.  We weren't really sure exactly what kind of project we wanted to do, though we knew we would do it with 6th graders since he teaches middle school and the oldest students I teach are in 6th grade.

The Planning
Finally, after a few weeks of playing "Twitter tag," we found time to Skype and discuss an online video conference with our classes.  During our 2 hour Skype session, we pulled together the whole plan.  We were able to share our vision for the conference, share links and use his classroom wiki to do our planning. While Skyping, I pulled up his wiki on my computer by clicking on the link he provided in the Skype chat.  I immediately clicked on the 'join' button and he approved me to begin editing the wiki.

We had decided to have our students research a little about each others' city based around these four areas: History, Culture, Geography, Political and City.  We split up the topics, each choosing one to edit.  When we were done, I used an iframe code to embed the wiki page and project description we had created on his wiki into a page I created for the project on my wiki.

When the whole thing was done and we signed off for the evening, I was blown away. In 2 hours we had planned a whole project and were ready to go for Monday.

That is the power of social media.

On Monday, we tested the last hurdle of the project: the actual video part of the conference.  My district blocks Skype (apparently it 'does something' to our network), we couldn't get iChat to work because he doesn't have a Mac, we couldn't get AIM to work when we tried earlier in the week at work, or Oovoo either.  Finally, my brain clicked: Google chat with video!  We had used Google chat before to connect during the school day, so I knew it wasn't blocked. At 8am Monday morning, 4 hours before our meeting, we tested it out. It worked like a charm.

The Meeting
At noon, my 6th grade class came down to the lab.  I had arranged the room so that the iSight camera on my Macbook was trained on them, and I had the desktop microphone I had purchased earlier in the week ready to go.  I called Gerardo up and there they were--a classroom of 6th graders smiling back at us.  We started with the typical nervous laughter, smiles and waving, and we started asking each other questions based on some of the research that we had done on each others' cities.  At one point our students danced for each other and we were able to show each other our favorite drinks (a purple drink for them and Coke for us).  The students in Peru also got to describe some of their local cuisine, such as ceviche to our students, who named cheese steaks as their favorite. 

There were times when we couldn't hear each other well, and sometimes my students and I had trouble understanding his students' accents, but overall, it was a lot of fun!  And surprisingly easy.  Due to the Thanksgiving holiday, my students didn't have a lot of time to do research, but Gerardo's students were able to create presentations based on the research they did.  Sadly, my students were never able to see them because the site Gerardo put the presentations up on is blocked by my district.  As a side note, we had discussed the possibility of using VoiceThread to allow students to share their work and ideas, but that, too is blocked by my district.

They were, however, able to leave comments on my project wiki page for the students in Lima to read.

Unfortunately, it was the end of their school year (Peru is below the equator, so the seasons are opposite to ours), so we won't be able to plan another meeting for a while.  Hopefully, by then, I will have better equipment and we will have more time to plan.

(and I will make sure my designated photo-taker takes photos of the other students, too!)

We had also set up Twitter accounts for both of our schools (@Bluford_Elem and @SGC_Senior) in case we wanted to students to Tweet answers to each other.  While that did not pan out due to planning limitations and my students' unfamiliarity with the Twitter format, it is has opened up that possibility in the future.  I am also glad that I have a Twitter account for my school.  I hope to be able to incorporate it into our parent communication and perhaps further communications with other teachers and schools.

The Sad Reality

Sadly, within the network firewalls of the School District, many of the powerful social media tools available for connecting classrooms are not available to us due to poor understanding of their potential and unsubstantiated or illogical fears.  There is a whole site dedicated to connecting classrooms to authors using Skype.  The hundreds of thousands of students in classrooms in Philadelphia will miss out on this opportunity due to it being blocked. (Although I'm hoping to find an author willing to use iChat or Google Chat.)

What's in the Future?
Now that I know how easy it is to plan such an event and even how fairly painless it is to pull it off, I look forward to similar experiences in the future with my students.  I am talking with a Kindergarten teacher in my building about getting an author or another class connected with his. 

I hope to do more collaborative work within my school and hopefully with other schools. It is so important for my students to interact with people outside of their communities, as many of them rarely get a chance to do so (see my previous post on this). A friend of mine who is a lab teacher in Germantown (a section of Philadelphia) and are planning a video chat with our students.  There are more social media tools I am hoping to use soon.  I will begin using my Diigo teacher account with my 5th and 6th graders for the research project they have coming up in the spring. I have already tested it with one of my 6th graders who is working on a separate project, and she loved it.  Hopefully tools like GlogsterEDU and VoiceThread will soon be unblocked so I can start using them!

Feel free to share your experiences with connection across continents or ways you have used social media in your classroom!


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