You might have realised that I don’t come from around these parts.
I’m an Australian, and yet I function in online networks with educators from all parts of the world. I know my practice has benefited from these interactions. Where once I was more insular in my thoughts about education and greatly influenced by the professional journals published in my own country, now I am laid open to the education systems of other countries and can learn from their successes and failures shared via the generous souls on networking sites like Twitter.
Some of the most exciting times I’ve experienced with students have come when we’ve made a connection with a teacher or class in another country. As corny as it might seem to some, students are really enthused by a Skype video connection with someone in a far off place.
Just recently, a group of our Yr 12 students helped a geography classroom in Arizona gain an understanding of the Australian culture and climate so that they could make comparisons with their own geographical conditions. I engaged in email discussions with the teacher in the week prior to our Skype call, and we set up a wiki so that class members could contribute ideas that would help shape our discussion. Aside from a slight problem with us not allowing for a daylight saving time adjustment, our classrooms managed to connect and our students very excitedly shared their ideas.
Global service learning project
Over the last two years, students from my school have been fundraising to support Daraja Academy, a school in Kenya that is providing free education for impoverished girls who would be lost to education without such support. I found out about Daraja through Jabiz Raisdana, a teacher I met at a conference in Shanghai and who is in my Twitter network. Jabiz put me onto Mark Lukach, a teacher from San Francisco who is an advocate for Daraja, and acts as a bridge helping people understand the cause. Mark and I remain in contact through email and Twitter, and he has Skyped into our school on several occasions, enthusiastically conveying to our students the need to support girl education in places like Africa where women are so vital to the functioning of society.
We have held events we call ‘‘Sleepout for Schools” and were lucky to have Jabiz, Mark, and Jason Doherty, the founder of Daraja Academy, join us in a Skype session at 11.30 pm during our very first one. Many of the students have expressed to me the difference it makes talking to people directly involved in important work like this, and knowing their fundraising efforts are going directly to the cause they are supporting. Plans are afoot now for the third ‘Sleepout for Schools’ to be held in September. There’s even talk of a fun run where the students hope to engage other local schools to join us in the cause.
High in the Sky hopes
Last year I received a message from Brian Crosby, a teacher in Nevada, asking if my students would like to compose some ‘high hopes’ messages. Their thoughts would be collected with the ‘high hopes’ of others, burnt to a disc and attached to a hot air balloon his students were releasing into the atmosphere with a video camera attached to record the whole thing.
My students excitedly composed their ‘high hopes’ and were more than pleased a few weeks later to learn that Brian had sent me a link to pictures and video of the event. (Here’s a photo from one of Brian’s balloon events.)
They felt a connection to something greater than themselves, and learned that the world is a connected place, where people from differing cultures can come together and share a memorable moment.
Think ahead and plan for hiccups
Forward planning and allowing for hiccups that may come your way is essential if you want global connections for your students.
One important thing to consider when working with schools in other countries is the school calendar year they’re working to. For example, Australia’s school year runs from February to December, with our extended holiday time in our summer month of January. Our opposite seasons make working with a North American school a little tricky sometimes. Just as you’re winding down for your extended holiday break, in around May/June, we’re ramping up to some of our busiest curriculum time. You can have the best of intentions to get something happening with another school, but differing school calendars and the machinations of busy school curriculums can be your worst enemy.
If you’re going to start making connections globally, then you need to become friends with World Clock Time Zone Converter. Time zones are tricky things, and not always friendly (we have three). To have an Australian school working with a North American school is not all that easy, and it can be very difficult to schedule a synchronous event.
When Hiram Cuevas from Virginia wanted his students to understand the Black Saturday bushfire tragedy that had befallen Victoria in 2009, our students arrived at school before the start of the school day, and his stayed late, so that we could establish a meaningful discussion around the events. Our students and staff were so touched that kids and teachers in a school as far away as Virginia were interested and concerned about events in our part of the world.
Don’t expect the technology will always work for you. Skype can be flaky, as can school networks. The best laid plans of mice and men don’t always come to pass, so have a backup plan lying in wait. From my perspective, one of the most important things is ensuring that what you are doing is meaningful. Getting kids talking to each other just because they come from different countries isn’t purposeful. Know why it is you’re making a connection, and do your best to match it with curriculum outcomes wherever possible.
Probably most important: establish good connections with the teachers you will be working with. Remain in constant contact, double check your time zones (including quirks like daylight savings time policies in each community), and test your connections before starting time.
For some of you, this will mean making the person-to-person educator connections in the first place. I can’t reiterate enough how vital a network like Twitter is for teachers today. You will need to spend time there developing relationships with virtual colleagues, as people are not likely to readily tap into a project without feeling like they ‘know’ the person they will be working closely with. To help you out, Skype has recently established ‘Skype for Educators’ — a site where you can view a list of educators and experts willing to make connections and Skype into your school.
Build your global classroom
I know the students at my school have benefited from the hook-ups and new friends we have made. They have a sense that I am connected to a much wider network of people who can help us find solutions to problems. I love it when one of them comes up to me and asks if I can contact my Twitter friends for help with something they are having difficulties with.
I even have students now asking if I can put out messages through Twitter to help them with interviews they need to do for class projects. Doing just that led to contact with a gentleman who had been part of the clean up crew for Cyclone Tracy in 1973 — and also to a wonderful phone interview with Australian artist Mirka Mora, that resulted in a group of students visiting her home and sharing afternoon tea with her! Her story is remarkable: from avoiding the Holocaust by hiding in the forests of France to becoming one of Australia’s most influential artists in the last half of the 20th century. Students were able to meet her and learn more about her amazing life thanks to Web 2.0.
So, venture forth into connected networks. Find classrooms, find experts, solve problems, meet amazing people, discover the undiscovered, experience serendipity. Help your students understand the world is a place where we can work and learn together.