Are you are already convinced that your students need to learn how to connect, collaborate and learn with others online? Are you longing for your classroom to echo with the sounds of kids asking questions of others who live far away? Do your students have questions that only other children can answer?

When I talk to other teachers about the benefits of long-distance student collaboration, often their biggest question is: How do I find other classrooms to collaborate with?  If you are already connected with other educators through social media, this part seems easy, but if you are just beginning your connected journey, it’s a very real problem.

If you’re still a little short on virtual teacher colleagues, I’d like to suggest three ways you can begin to connect.

1. Join an online project.

Many educators are starting online projects and want others to join them. These ventures require the least work, because someone else does all the organizing for you.

Thousands of other students stacked Oreos along with us.

I have recommended Projects by Jen (pK-6 focus) many times, but this fall was the first time I actually registered for one of her activities—O.R.E.O. 2011. Last week, my class counted and stacked Oreo cookies and watched them fall. Two other first grade teachers out of the hundreds of other classes who did the project contacted me.  Our classes were able to connect via Skype to compare our highest stacks, lowest stacks and class average. There was also time for some of those weighty questions first grade children want to ask such as do you get snow there and do you have trees in Wisconsin?  Jen makes it easy to participate in the projects and to pursue connections with other classrooms by providing the Skype names of all the participants and explicit directions for the task itself.

Two other newish projects for primary (and older) classes that I have not joined, but look interesting, are The Global Classroom (lots of participants at all grade levels and activities stretch ’til June); and the Fifty State Challenge (check to see if your state or country has been claimed—or start a fresh challenge yourself).

All three of these projects have been started by teachers who think that using the potential of the Internet to connect classrooms is important.  They put hours of their own time into creating and promoting these resources so others can find out about them. Take advantage.

2. Skype in the Classroom

My class has had some very interesting conversations with other classrooms that we have met only through Skype. These initial calls have led to follow-up chats, and relationships have developed involving video sharing and cooperation that neither teacher  originally intended.

Using Skype to Connect and Learn

A few years ago, teacher Wendy Goodwin contacted me about connecting first grade classrooms via Skype.  Using this tool, our two classes explored ways our lives in Alabama, USA and Saskatchewan, Canada are the same and ways they are different. Later, we did Reader’s Theatre together via Skype, and both classes contributed videos to an alphabet wiki.

Skype now has an education site.  It is free to join. Many teacher users have contributed projects that can be searched by a keyword, but if you are just starting out, you may want to go to the teachers section and search by first, fourth, kindergarten etc. This will bring up all of the teachers who teach a similar grade. Choose something that interests you and send a message explaining what you would like to do. If you don’t get a reply, try someone else.  You have nothing to lose.

The benefit of this option is that you get to choose the topic of discussion yourself.

3. Twitter

 Last year, when we were learning about what kinds of jobs people have, I put a question on Twitter wondering if anyone would be willing to talk to us about their jobs. Two people quickly responded. Brian Crosby, who was teaching sixth graders in Nevada, invited some of his big kids (well, they seemed big to my students) to tell us about jobs they have at home. A couple of days later, they chatted with us via Skype during their recess. From New York, fourth grade teacher Lisa Parisi skyped in to tell us about the jobs she and her daughter have when she finishes teaching each day.  Once again, my kids were learning with real people about real things — and continuing to broaden their horizons.

After you’ve signed up for Twitter, a good way to begin to connect with educators who share your grade level and passions is to check hashtags such as #kinderchat, #1stchat, #2ndchat etc. (# is a hashtag and is used to collect tweets about a similar topic). Educators use these hashtags to pass along links or other information to online colleagues and to have regular synchronous meetings on Twitter. (See elementary teacher Patti Grayson’s post about this.)

Many of the best classroom connections I have made are with people I have met by following them on Twitter. Developing an online network of educators in this way takes time. If you persevere, though, you will have a ready source of support, ideas and limitless opportunities to connect your classroom.

If you have never connected outside of your classroom, choose one of the options above and make it happen. Jump in. Just do it. Let the global learning begin.

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