Kathy Cassidy is a Grade One teacher for Prairie South Schools in Moose Jaw, SK, Canada. Since 2005, she’s been integrating various technologies into her teaching practice to help “connect” her primary-grades students so they can become global learners. In addition to her widely followed classroom blog, she writes about her professional work at Primary Preoccupation and for the Voices from the Learning Revolution group blog.
Kathy’s first book, Connected from the Start: Global Learning in the Primary Grades, will be published this month by Powerful Learning Press. In this interview, we asked her about the book and about her rationale for engaging students as young as five or six years old in connected learning experiences.
Why is it important for teachers and schools to help our youngest students make connections with the world, via the Internet?
Part of the answer is that the Internet is part of their world. My students have grown up in an era where the Internet has always existed. They don’t remember a time when it was not possible to be instantly connected with people and places through technology.
Because of the way the world’s “connectedness” is growing, I think it is possible and even probable that my young students will spend some portion of their adult lives working online with people who live in another city or country — people they may never meet in person. It only makes sense to begin to teach them how to do that in a respectful and safe manner. Connections can also teach empathy and understanding of other ways of life.
Any of my students could tell you the most important reason we connect, though. We connect with other people because we can learn from them. It’s that simple. When we can meet curricular outcomes through a Skype call or by sharing that learning online in a blog, our learning becomes much richer.
Tell us about your new book Connected From the Start: Global Learning in the Primary Grades. Why did you write it, and what will educators find between the covers of the eBook edition?
When I talk to primary (K-3) teachers, many of them would like to begin to connect their classrooms with others, but they are not sure how to go about it. While there have been books written that help teachers who are new to blogging or using other particular tools, I’m not aware of any that have focused on the unique needs of students aged five to nine.
Since I began connecting my students online through our classroom blog and Skype eight years ago, I’ve had lots of questions about how and why I do what I do. This book is an attempt to answer those questions, and to create a helpful resource for teachers who would like to begin their own connected classroom journey.
The book includes some of the story of my own journey, with specific chapters about the “why, what and how” of using tools such as Skype, Twitter, video and blogs to connect with classrooms and experts in other cities and countries. One chapter describes how I use digital portfolios, created by my six-year-old students and posted on the public Internet, both to document their progress and establish their first digital footprints.
In every case, I try to offer the kind of practical advice I would want myself as a teacher. The eBook version is very interactive with lots of live links to helpful downloads and outside resources. We’ve also included eight short videos and dozens of color photos from my own classroom, where I’ve been documenting our goings-on since my first days as a connected educator.
In Connected From the Start, we see your students blogging, using Twitter, and skyping with classrooms and experts around the world. Isn’t that risky? In your book, what will readers learn about keeping students safe as they use the Internet and social media tools?
As teachers of little learners, safety has to be our main concern. I would never do anything that I felt would put my students at risk. In my book, I lay out what my standards are that keep my students protected and still allow them to be part of a great learning conversation happening online. I also talk about how I approach the parents of my students to help them understand what we are doing (and what alternatives I would offer any parents who had concerns).
Younger and younger children are already connecting online without any parental or teacher guidance. I personally think it is riskier to NOT show the students how to use these tools in a safe way.
Your students are not only blogging, but using their blogs to create their first permanent digital footprints. How do student blogs become digital portfolios in your classroom?
The blogs become portfolios because of their content. From the first week of school, my students begin to post writing samples, photos of classroom work, podcasts, video and other digital artifacts. These posts showcase their learning in all subject areas.
When it is time for our student-led conferences, their parents are usually already familiar with the material their child has posted online, and we don’t waste time having the parents look through student work. We go right to their blog and begin to talk about what they have done well and what they would like to get better at.
These portfolios stay online after the child has left my classroom and can be the beginning of the next year’s portfolio if their grade two teacher is willing. If that is not the case, the portfolio can be continued with their parents’ support, or it can simply stay online as a digital record of that year.
Our favorite stories in your book are about serendipity — unexpected events that trigger some of your students’ most exciting and memorable learning experiences. Could you share one of those stories with us?
We’ve had lots of fun making friends around the globe. One of my favorite stories was just a year ago when we made a classroom tour video. Each of my students chose the part of our classroom they wanted to showcase, and we recorded them explaining that part of our classroom environment. When I posted video on our classroom blog, I asked if any of our classroom partners around the world would like to show us their classroom.
Unexpectedly, we received a video reply from a class in Greece, whose teacher subtitled their movie so that we could understand what was being said. My students were fascinated by their alphabet chart (“Hey, apple should be for the letter ‘a’ but it’s for the ‘m'”), by the raised stage in their classroom, and by the fact that they had no lockers to hang their “snow clothes.”
When we made a list on chart paper of all the things we wondered about the other classroom, it filled two pages. I contacted the Greek students’ teacher and she was willing to have a Skype conversation with my students to satisfy all of their wonderings. Her answers prompted many more questions!
The learning was unexpected, it was student-centered, it met a social studies curricular outcome and it connected my students with another class and culture that they had previously known nothing about. It doesn’t get much better than that in a classroom, and the serendipity happened because we are connected online.
Any final thoughts?
My message throughout the book is straightforward and really heartfelt: If I can do this, you can too. As I say in the Introduction, when my own children learned their mother was trying to use technology in her classroom, they laughed at the idea. But I did it. I learned one thing, and then a few things, and then more. And it’s easier today than ever, with all the user-friendly software, intuitive apps, and simple how-to videos. Any teacher can do it, and I hope my book can help.
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