Thursday, March 26, 2015

Finding a #MysterySkype Connection for Your Students

Mystery Skype is an educational game, invented by teachers, played by two classrooms on Skype. The aim of the game is to build cultural awareness, critical thinking skills, and geography skills by guessing the location of the other classroom through a series of yes/no questions. Other variations can be used for different content areas.  Classes can play “Mystery Element” or “Mystery Animal” in science class, “Mystery Number” in math class, or “Mystery Historical Figure” in history class.  It is suitable for all age groups, from Kindergarten through college, and can be adapted for almost any subject area.  Some general guidelines that I’ve typed for my teachers can be found here: Mystery Skype Guidelines

Once people learn about Mystery Skype and the student learning that results from playing, they immediately want to begin setting up connections for their students.  In this post, I will share three easy ways to find a partner class for your next Mystery Skype game.

Skype in the Classroom Website

If you have never taken the time to explore the Skype in the Classroom (SITC) website, drop everything and do it now. In addition to Mystery Skype connections, this site will allow you to find authors, scientists, social innovators, and experts who are willing to talk to your students via Skype call to enhance their learning. There are also Skype Guide lessons which will teach you how to use Skype in your classroom and how to best use the website to create amazing learning experiences for your students.

Finding Mystery Skype connections is amazingly easy on the Skype in the Classroom Website.  First, create an account and log in. You can use your Skype or Microsoft ID to create your SITC account.  Be aware that, while they are connected to each other, your SITC account and your Skype account are different.
Next, Click on the “Mystery Skype” link on the top of the page (click on pictures to see them bigger).

On the next page, scroll down a bit and you will see a few different ways to connect with other teachers who are willing to Mystery Skype.  On the left side of the page, there are drop down menus that will allow you to narrow down the choices.  This is helpful because there are over 100,000 teachers and experts using the Skype in the Classroom website.  If you choose “United States” as the country you will have the option of narrowing your choices down by state as well. Clicking on any teacher’s name will take you to his/her profile where you can send him/her a message (see below).

My favorite way of searching for Mystery Skype connections on SITC is by using the map feature.  Above the drop down menus there is a blue button that says, “Search the Map.

The interactive map is very easy to use.  Simply move the map and zoom in/out on the location with which you are looking to connect.  Teachers and guest speakers in the area shown on the map will appear below.  Clicking on any of their names will take you to the teacher’s profile.  On this page you can see Skype in the Classroom lessons that he/she have created, lessons in which they’ve participated, and information about his/her class.  To contact the teacher to set up your Mystery Skype, click on the “Send a Message” link on the right side of the page.

In the message, make sure to introduce yourself, to list what classes and/or grades you teach, and to list a few times that you would like to connect.  I also like to include my email address and to have the teacher respond to me via email so that it is easier to keep track of our discussion.

Finding Connections on Twitter

Many educators use Twitter to learn from each other, share lesson ideas, and to set up collaborative projects for their students.  This is a great tool that can be used to find Mystery Skype connections as well.

To get the most out of Twitter, it is important to understand hashtags. Hashtags are used by people in their tweets as a way of curating posts into categories. For example, someone sending a tweet about a math lesson might put #mathchat in their post so that others who follow that hashtag can see it and respond.  Kindergarten teachers may use #kinderchat in their tweets, and principals may use #edadmin.  A rather comprehensive list ofeducational hashtags has been collected and published by Jerry Blumengarten. 

If you tweet out a request for a Mystery Skype using the correct hashtags, there is a good chance that another teacher will see it and respond to you. It’s always a good idea to put the age/grade of your students and any preferences you have in your post.  Since you only have 140 characters, feel free to use abbreviations like “Ss” for Students and “Ts” for teachers.  Make sure that you use one (or more) of the hashtags below in your 140 character post.

Some of the best hashtags to use when looking for Mystery Skype connections are:
  •        #MysterySkype – Lots of teachers follow this hashtag and use it to connect.
  •        #Skype2Learn – This hashtag is used for Mystery Skype as well as other types of Skype lessons.
  •        #SkypeMT – Skype Master Teachers are experts at using Skype in education. Using this hashtag will let them see your request and help you find a connection.
  •        #GlobalLearning – Teachers from around the world who connect their classrooms for global projects follow this hashtag.

A good tweet might look something like this:

Following the hashtags listed above is also a good idea if you are interested in using Skype in your classroom.  To follow a hashtag on Twitter, use the search feature at the top of the page. Type the hashtag you wish to follow in the search field.  Make sure to include the # at the beginning of the hashtag.

After you search for the hashtag you’d like to follow, click on “All” on the top of the page to see all tweets using that hashtag.  If you see a post to which you would like to respond, click on the arrow below the tweet.  This will allow you to tell the person that you are interested in connecting with him/her.

Building your professional network on Twitter will also make it easier for you to find connections.  When you see people who are tweeting about things that interest you, click on their name.  In their profile you will find a button which will allow you to follow them and see all of their tweets. Just as in real life, the more you interact with people, the more you will build relationships that lead to collaboration.

Use Your Other Social Media Networks to Find Connections

Many people think of Facebook as a place to share pictures with friends and family, but it can be a great tool for finding connections for your students.  It never hurts to ask for what you need from your network.  I’ve had a lot of success finding experts to connect with my students in this way.  It also can be a great way to find Mystery Skype contacts. 

Facebook groups also provide excellent opportunities for teachers to connect and learn from each other.  Some groups are public (anybody can join and contribute), and others are private (you must be invited).  If you do a search in Facebook for “Education”, you will see more than a thousand groups where educators are communicating and collaborating with each other. More specific searches such as “Mystery Skype” will give you less results, but may help you find a group that meets your needs.  Find a public group that looks interesting, and join to get involved. If you see a closed group that you would like join, you can send a request for membership. 

The Most Important Thing Is to Get Started

Trying something new is always a little scary. Setting up your first Mystery Skype is no different.  It’s natural to be nervous, especially when you know that another teacher will be seeing your class and any mistakes you make on camera.  Everyone feels that way when they start out, and for that reason, the communities of teachers on the Skype in the Classroom website, Twitter, and Facebook are usually happy to help you get started.  Don’t be afraid to tell the teacher(s) that you connect with that you are new to using Skype and may need some help. Teachers who are experienced at creating this type of learning experience become passionate about helping others do the same for their students.

Once you start using Mystery Skype as a learning tool with your students a new world of global learning will open up to you.  The possibilities really are limitless when you can bring other classes and amazing people into your classroom via Skype to help your students learn. You can see the reactions of teachers to the amazingexperiences their students have had on the SITC website.

There’s no time like right now to add your story to that list.  Go find your perfect Mystery Skype connection!

Friday, March 20, 2015

Now is the Time for Creative, Smart People to Become Teachers

Last weekend Nancie Atwell was announced as the first winner of the $1 Million Global Teacher Prize in Dubai.  She is an amazing teacher, and incredible woman, and a wonderful choice. Her message of student choice, her service to her students, her approach to literacy, and her representation of the profession are inspirations to the rest of us that work with students every day.

After winning the Prize, in an interview with CNN, Nancie made a comment that has gone viral.  I'm sure you've seen it now.  When asked if she would advise kids to become teachers, she said:
"Honestly, right now, I encourage them to look in the private sector.  Public school teachers are so constrained right now by the Common Core Standards and the tests that are developed to monitor what teachers are doing with them. It's a movement that's turned teachers into technicians, not reflective practitioners.  If you're a creative, smart young person, I don't think this is the time to go into teaching."
And, as much as I admire and respect Nancie, I disagree with her on this.

She's not wrong about the fact that teachers have been turned into technicians.  She's not wrong that the culture in public education makes it difficult for teachers to do what's right for students.  She's not wrong that the way the Common Core Standards are being implemented is forcing teachers to value the content to be covered more than individual student needs.

But, it is the perfect time for creative, smart people to go into teaching.

People choose teaching because they want to make a difference.  They want to help students reach their potential.  They want to create a future that is better than the present.  They want to pass their gifts on to future generations.

People become teachers because they want to change the world.

No teacher I ever met went into teaching because they wanted a easy career. If they did, they are a fool. Teaching isn't easy. It's insanely complicated and hard. The most important things always are.

It's especially hard to be a public school teacher right now for all the reasons Nancie talked about. That's why we need creative, smart young people to flock to the profession.  And, it's all the more reason that we, as teachers, should be encouraging them to do so.  If we don't have an optimistic vision that we can overcome the profiteering off education, the political strife hurting our students, and the short sided view that numbers matter more than children, then who is left to fight for our kids?

Are things bad right now?  Absolutely.  But, the pendulum is swinging.  Parents are objecting to oppressive testing all over the country and opting their children out.  Students are organizing sit-ins and walk-outs all in brilliant displays of civil disobedience because they recognize what's being done to them.  Teachers are organizing to fight against anti-student policies. Just like so many other times in history, passionate people are affecting positive change.

The tipping point is coming.  And when it does, teachers will be in a position to help define what education should be and what learning will look like in an age of information abundance and connectivity. We will be part of the conversation about how education can be a tool to create a better world instead of creating higher corporate stock prices.

When that time comes, we need the most creative, passionate, visionary teachers speaking for us - teachers like Nancie and the other top-10 finalists for the Global Teacher Prize.

If you are a creative, smart young person who wants to be a teacher now is your time.  There's never been a better opportunity to change the world.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

The Power of Appreciation - Reflections from #TCEA15

Sometimes, as teachers, we forget the impact that we have on others.  Sometimes we also forget how much others impact us. And, sometimes we forget to tell people how important they are to us.

Over the past four days at TCEA in Austin Texas, I have been reminded of all three of those facts. As I hurtle through the air at 600 miles per hour 30,000 feet in the air on my way home, I want to take this post to remind those who impacted me so much in the past few days how appreciative I am.

Before I arrived in Texas, I had never met Karen Balbier, Andrea Keller, Joe Meza, or Gina Ruffcorn in person.  Karen, Andrea, Joe, and I have recorded podcasts together along with Dyane Smokorowski and Micah Brown for over a year now, but we had never met face to face. Gina and I had connected our students and talked through social media before, but had never met.  

I somehow won the PLN jackpot.  Sure, like many others, I’ve got an amazing group of thousands of teachers on Twitter, Facebook, and Skype that I learn from every day.  Beyond that, I have been so incredibly blessed in the past 12 months to get to really know so many of them as friends.  I don’t think there is anyone who has a more amazing group of friends who are changing the world than I do. Andrea, Joe, Karen, and Gina, are simply four of the most passionate, amazing educators that I know, and it was amazing to be able to see that in person for a few days.

Presenting a workshop to 90 teachers on global learning with Karen was a great experience.  Like many other sessions I’ve given before though, I was worried afterward that I hadn’t done as great a job helping them as I could have.  I am so passionate about the topics I talk about that sometimes I worry when I don’t see the same level of excitement from every member of my audience.  

I’m not sure if this is a feeling that all teachers get, but I’d imagine that we all face it at times.  Maybe this is one of the downsides to having an incredible PLN.  Being connected to other Top-50 finalists for the Global Teacher Prize, Presidential Award winning math and science teachers, Teachers of the Year, and thousands of others who have no award next to their name but deserve one can be humbling when you see the amazing things they are doing.

“Have I done enough?”
“Did I have the impact that I should have?”
“Would it have been better if I… ?”

These were the thoughts swirling around in my head after our session when I checked my Facebook notifications and saw that Nikki Greene had tagged me in a post. She was thanking me for encouraging her to apply for a grant that she had just received, and for giving her the confidence to pursue the things she is passionate about.  To be perfectly honest, I don’t remember encouraging her. She is a two-time state finalist for the Presidential Math Award, passionate about finding new ways to create great experiences for her students, and an amazing teacher, and I have no doubt that at the time I just told her the truth about herself.  But, her thanking me in that post did just as much for me as I could have ever done for her. It allowed me to see the positives from my session and to feel confident that my enthusiasm made a difference.

Her expression of appreciation allowed me to remember that the most important things we do as teachers often go totally unnoticed by us.  We do good for others because it’s who we are. The lunch money you give to the kid who is worried because Mom didn’t wake up before he left for school, or the smile you give to cheer up the girl who is walking down the hall with her head down are instantly forgotten by you.  But, for the student who can breath easier knowing they can get lunch, or the kid who sees that smile as a sign that someone cares about how they are feeling, those actions mean everything.

Over the next two days I ran into several people in the convention center, got private messages on Twitter, and emails from participants that confirmed that there was a ton of excitement built from our workshop. We generated an excitement in teachers to empower their students and connect with others around the world to provide amazing educational experiences for their students. I have no doubt now that the session was a complete success and that I was being overly hard on myself. 

I learned lots of new tools at TCEA that I am going to share with my colleagues. The one thing that I am most committed to as I travel home isn’t implementing a new tool, though.  I am committed to doing for the teachers around me what Nikki did for me.  I want to show them the unseen impact that they have on those around them. As we enter the time of year when state assessments and preparation can send even the most positive teacher into a funk spiral, I want to help those around me feel the joy that comes from knowing they are making a difference.  

Because they are, and they deserve to know it. 

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Maybe I'll Quit Teaching and Try Being a Lawyer

This morning, as I was having my cup of coffee I opened up Tweetdeck like I do every morning. As I was checking my notifications and updates on some of the lists I follow, someone I follow posted this:
"A friend of mine is a lawyer and is thinking of quitting to teach English. Does anyone have any advice for her?"
"Yes." I thought to myself. "Go back to college, spend some time student teaching, and get a teaching degree."

I didn't reply to the tweet, though.  I thought better of it, and being snarky rarely leads to any kind of positive outcome on social media. All day, that tweet has bothered me, though.

What on Earth would lead someone to believe that they are qualified to teach when they have done nothing before that qualifies them to teach?  Maybe I'll quit teaching and try being a lawyer for a while.  After all, I've seen lots of episodes of Law and Order and watched Legally Blond 2.

As someone who has dedicated my adult life to my profession, it makes me angry that our job is viewed as something anyone can do.  Having a law degree doesn't make you any more qualified to teach English than it does for you to practice dentistry.

People don't seem to understand that teaching isn't about the content - it's about kids. Think about the best teacher you ever had.  Think about why they were amazing. It wasn't because they knew more about their subject than anyone else, was it?  As Yeats said, "Education is not the filling of a pail, but a lighting of a fire." Amazing teachers know how to light fires.

Great teachers aren't great because they know their content better (As I'm typing this I'm thinking of the Big Bang Theory where Sheldon bombs as a guest lecturer).  Great teachers understand how learning happens.  They understand child development, brain science, and most importantly they understand students.  They know how to inspire, motivate, and bring out the best in each one of their students.  They know when to use formative assessments and what feedback will help students most.

Last I checked, they weren't teaching those skills in law school.  Then again, I haven't really checked lately.  I figure, I won't need to go to law school if I decide to switch careers. There's bound to be a Law and Order marathon coming up on TNT sometime soon.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Easy to Make Fraction Wheels

Fractions are often a difficult concept for students to visualize.  Today I had the pleasure of working with a group of 5th grade students.  In order for them to show their knowledge of fractions, we spent 15 minutes creating fractions wheels. Below is a step-by-step guide on how to do this with your own students.

Materials needed: Cheap white paper plates, marker or crayon, scissors, ruler

First, have students completely color one of the plates.

Next, have them use the ruler to find the center point of both plates. This is a great time to introduce or review vocabulary having to do with circles such as "diameter", "radius", "chord", etc. 

When they have found the center of both plates, have them cut the radius of each plate.  

Finally, place one plate on top of the other and twist them so they interlock where they have been cut.  This will allow students to rotate the plates to create representations of different fractions. We spend a bit of time having them showing different fraction representations and explaining why they believed those representations to be accurate.

After spending some time exploring fraction concepts, students will use their creations to teach those concepts to other students around the world through short videos as part of the Distance Teaching Project

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Global Holiday Song Exchange Skype-a-Thon

The following post is cross posted from the "21st Century Learning at the South Elementary" blog that I also author.  There I post the great learning experiences that we bring to our students.  Unfortunately, with all that is happening lately, I have struggled to keep up with sharing some of those great experiences here.  I am going to try cross-posting some of my favorite activities in both places to see if I can do a better job sharing with you all.

Global Holiday Song Exchange Skype-a-Thon

South Elementary music teacher Jean Shields leads 3rd grade
students in song.
Yesterday the students at the South Elementary got to experience one of the great joys of the holiday season - music from around the world.  Through Skype, our students took part in seven different group calls that allowed them to exchange holiday songs with students from five different continents. The planning of the project over the past 2 weeks was done with the help of a lesson posted on the Skype in the Classroom website.  We asked for classrooms in other locations to contact us if they wished to participate.  Many of our connections were made through that posting.   We wanted to make sure that we had 2 other classrooms connecting with us in each of our time slots.  During our group calls, each class had the opportunity to sing three of their favorite holiday songs for their partner classes.

The first call of the day partnered our 3rd grade students with children in Russia and Poland.  Some of the Russian students dressed up as traditional holiday characters from their country: Papa Frost and his granddaughter who deliver presents to children on New Year's Eve.

Our next session partnered our 3rd graders with students in France and Venezuela.  A French newspaper wrote about the interaction here:  Mende : Jeanne-d’Arc connectée au reste de la planète.  The highlight of this call was when all three schools sang "Jingle Bells" in their own language.  It was a beautiful three-continent, three-language sing along.

 The third group call connected students in Mrs. Spitzer's homeroom with students in Greece and Canada.  Our Greek friends shared a bit about their Christmas traditions and insisted on taking a three-country picture at the end of the call.

Our fourth connection stayed within the United States. Mrs. Gates's second grade class connected with schools in Massachusetts and Delaware.

Session five also stayed within the United States.  Our 4th and 5th grade chorus got the opportunity to share the songs they had been practicing with a Middle School chorus in Virgina and a group of 4th grade students in Utah. There was some fantastic singing going on during this call as you can see in the video below.


The sixth session of the day of the day brought countries in North America together.  Second grade students in Mrs. Gates's and Mrs. Seifert's classes and Mrs. Conklin's Kindergartners sang for and with students in Mexico and Canada.  Since the Mexican students spoke Spanish and the students in Canada were French speaking, there was another multi-language caroling activity at the end of the call.

Our last connection of the day was between Mrs. Flynn's second grade students,  first graders in Colorado, and third graders in Hawaii.  The Colorado students played the xylophone along with their songs.  The Hawaiian students sang a unique version of "The 12 Days of Christmas" that substituted in gifts from Hawaii like coconuts, giant squid, and papaya trees.

In addition to our seven connections during the day, classrooms that could not connect live due to time zone restraints or holiday breaks sent us videos of their students singing.  We received videos from Serbia, India, France, and Kenya.  Those videos can be seen on the Distance Teaching Project website and will be played as part of our morning news broadcast during the next few days. This was an amazing experience for everyone who participated.  We've already had multiple requests to plan another Holiday Song Skype-a-Thon for next year.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Connected Classrooms and the New World of Learning

Yesterday I was blessed with the opportunity to share some of the great work our students have been doing with some of the most passionate do-gooders of the world at the 2014 Social Good Summit in New York City.  The summit was sponsored by Mashable and the United Nations Foundation.  My talk with Wendy Norman from Skype about the power of students connecting globally via videoconferencing to change the world was broadcast to over 160 countries and translated into 7 languages.  This was undoubtedly one of my career highlights.

The video is embedded below.  Wendy speaks for about 7 minutes before introducing me and letting me finish the presentation.