Teaching Geography With Skype

This is a post that appeared on my previous, now defunct blog a number of years ago, updated for your reading pleasure!
We were a few weeks away from a unit centered on the 5 Themes of Geography, and my options were looking like either a) pull the info from the textbook, or b) do something the kids would be excited about.  So I started doing some research and some thinking and this is what I came up with:

We would still use the 5 Themes framework, but I wanted them to branch out beyond the borders of North Carolina.  I also wanted them to work collaboratively while sustaining interest in a project that was going to span a few weeks. I began with a regional map of the United States:


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*Disclaimer! There are about 100 variations of what states are in what regions– I wish I could say that I chose this one scientifically, but honestly I liked the colors.
Anyway, I split up the kids and let them choose their regions.  Each and every group was excited about their region because someone had some connection to a state, so we were off to a great start!  The next step was to figure out a way to organize our information, so as a class we developed this graphic organizer:

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And, yes, I am aware that this only covers 4/5 of the geography themes– I decided to omit the “movement” theme for the purpose of this unit, as we will be learning about it later in the year.  We discussed the themes as they related to Charlotte, North Carolina, and began with Location.  They immediately realized that finding the absolute location of their region was going to be tricky, and after some discussion as a class we had a group suggest using the absolute location of the state capitol building in one of their states. For relative location, some groups chose to describe it for the capital cities, some chose to focus on the region itself. I wanted to make sure they understood the concept, so we were able to have some flexibility with that.

We went through each of the remaining themes like this: I modeled, they applied. I assessed them with a simple rubric of 3 (mastered), 2 (partially mastered) and 1 (not mastered), and provided support where needed. I expected to be tearing around the room with my hair on fire, but the kids were really into this and did an amazing job of working collaboratively.

We finished our graphic organizers (this took about 4-5 class periods of 45 minutes each) and I was (fairly) confident we were ready to set up our first Mystery Skype. I found a list of jobs and tweaked it to meet our class needs. What we ended up with was this:

  • 1 note taker (records the clues on paper)
  • 2 tweeters (to live tweet the event, of course!)
  • 3 moderators (the faces of our class– asked the questions from the inquirers and relayed answers to the mappers)
  • 4 state experts (answered the questions from the other class)
  • 3 inquirers (asked questions based on the mappers’ notes)
  • 4 mappers (used maps of the U. S. and Google Earth to narrow down the other class’ location)
  • 2 photographers (used iPads to document the experience)

For the first few calls, I assigned the jobs but in subsequent ones, I have had them pull them out of a hat (a fancy word for “quart-sized storage bag”) and given the option to trade.

To set up the call, I turned to the Great and Powerful Twitter.

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Within hours, we had three classes wanting to connect. I learned quickly that scheduling can be a challenge with our regimented days, but with some creative rearranging we managed to find a time to connect with a class in Iowa. I told them from the get-go that we were completely new to this in case we breached some Mystery Skype protocol or etiquette that we were unaware of. We took our cues from them and we were off and running! Their first question asked us if we were in the U.S. and where we were in relation to the Mississippi River. It took all I had to restrain myself and let the kids figure out the strategy! I’d like to say that everyone stuck to their job and their assigned classroom area the whole time and everything went perfectly… However… we had sound issues which made it all much more difficult than it should have been. We couldn’t get skype to work on our desktop, so we were using an iPad. The speakers I had weren’t working, so the only audio we had were the tiny sounds coming from the iPad speakers. In a room full of excited 8 year olds, this is not ideal. At one point, I was leaning in to the speaker to listen, not realizing my face was right in the camera. Not exactly the big screen debut I was hoping for, and I’m pretty sure I reappeared in a subsequent nightmare or two because that was one intense close-up. Also, the kids were SO excited that they were (of course) all over the room, talking over each other, doing each other’s jobs, and often doing everything but paying attention to the clues. BUT, we made it! After 45 minutes, they had guessed our location and we figured out theirs (with a little help).
This process has evolved for me over the years– now we do a couple of practice calls by dividing the room in half and assigning each group a mystery state. We also use a shared Google Doc to record the questions we ask the other class and those that are asked of us and use them in a whole class reflection. Our jobs look a little different, and we will sometimes use TodaysMeet for a backchannel discussion to learn fun facts about their school and area (without giving anything away!). You can also go to the Microsoft in Education program site to connect with other educators doing Mystery Skypes (as well as learn about a host of other creative ways to use Skype!)
The bottom line is that the kids L-O-V-E this activity almost as much as I do. It breaks down the walls of our classroom, gets them problem solving, thinking critically, and collaborating. Once we did a few calls, my 3rd graders were able to manage it almost completely on their own and that was probably the coolest part of it all.
Thanks for reading if you made it this far! I’d love to hear any questions you have, so please feel free to leave a comment! Happy Skyping!
–M.

The Importance of Advocacy

“She’ll grow out of it.” “It’s developmental.” “She’s so cute!” “It’s just a maturity issue.”

All of these phrases and more were used by teachers, family, and me to describe my daughter, L, when she began school in Pre-K and on in to early elementary school. I suspected that something was not quite right with her reading development, but I wanted to believe what her teachers were telling me…so I did. And to be fair, they believed it, too. In kindergarten, it took her all year to memorize 100 sight words, but there was no way she could spell or write them on her own. When she began first grade, that spark and excitement about school started to fade and we had so many tears and angry outbursts over the nightly reading requirement. I tried in vain to get her to segment words and sound them out phonetically but she wasn’t making any headway. I remember thinking, “I’m a teacher, for crying out loud! Why can’t I help my own child?!” A conversation with her second grade teacher confirmed my suspicions that she was lagging behind her peers, and so my spouse and I decided to get her a full educational and psychological evaluation done by a private agency. We wanted a complete profile of her as a learner and wow did we get it. Though her IQ was average, her phonological memory and phonological processing was weak. These issues along with a few others led to her being identified as dyslexic, with a bonus diagnosis of ADD. I didn’t know it at the time, but this was a turning point for me not only as a mom, but as a teacher and I coped the best way I knew how: I started researching and learning about dyslexia. This put me in the front seat of an emotional roller coaster that I am still on today. The biggest question I had was: Why on earth, in all my years of teaching, have I not received any information or training on a learning disability that can affect up to 20% of the population and is relatively easy to fix if it’s caught early on? The mom part of my brain was heartbroken, knowing my child had a lifetime of extra challenges ahead of her, as well as knowing how much she had been struggling in school but wasn’t able to verbalize it to me. The teacher/ mom part of my brain was frustrated because I didn’t know what to do to help my own child, despite my years of experience in the classroom; and the teacher part of my brain wondered how many parents had I said the exact same sentences to over the years, when really their child was facing a struggle that was beyond my knowledge and expertise? Argh!

But back to the turning point:  It’s worth noting that I teach in the school that my children attend, and before you start thinking about how lucky I am, let me be clear that it’s hard. It’s much harder than I imagined because of this whole thing– now I was in a position where I had to advocate for my child, and the thoughts and feelings of colleagues I had worked with for years had to be secondary and this shift didn’t happen overnight. I will spare you the details, but for the past two and a half years, I have been fighting to get my child the help she needs, while educating everyone I can on the true nature of dyslexia. Throughout this process, I have learned all about nuances in the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) and the ridiculously complicated process of proving that my child needs help beyond what the regular education teacher can provide. We have been fortunate to have many teachers past and present who are willing to listen and want to help. Unfortunately, it’s a subject they know little about and in no way do I fault them for that, but I am trying to do something about it.

Somewhere along this journey, I got in touch with a grassroots advocacy group, Decoding Dyslexia. I initially saw them as a resource, but after I posted a few comments on their Facebook page that may or may not have been a little rant-y about the lack of awareness of dyslexia in North Carolina public schools, they reached out to me and asked me if I wanted to be a parent advocate. I jumped at the chance– how could I turn down an opportunity to help not only my child, but thousands of kids across the state of North Carolina?

These past few months, I have been on the phone with parents in similar situations, blown up my Facebook feed with dyslexia facts and symptoms; attended a Charlotte City Council meeting with the head of Decoding Dyslexia NC, Linda William (who is a force to be reckoned with!), where they declared October “Dyslexia Awareness Month” and played a video where I shared L’s story; all of this leading up to a meeting this past Tuesday (March 14) with our state’s new superintendent of public instruction, Mark Johnson.

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All of these women are an inspiration, and they are getting it done. They are moms, advocates, teachers, and everything in between. We shared our stories, and emphasized the need for legislation addressing dyslexia. North Carolina is one of only 11 states with no laws addressing students with dyslexia, dysgraphia, and dyscalculia. Of those 11 states, 7 of them have pending legislation, so we will soon be one of 4 states.  We were grateful to Mark Johnson for taking the time to listen to us and ask questions, and being willing to learn more about what we as a state need to do to meet the needs of ALL our kids. Never in a million years would I have imagined that I would be where I am now, but I am proud to be a part of this. Stay tuned for another post soon about signs of dyslexia and resources to learn more about it. If you made it this far, thank you of reading. I share this because I know there are other parents out there with similar experiences and if that is you, then please don’t hesitate to reach out. Leave a comment, DM me on the Twitter, or fill out the blog contact form; and know that there are people working very hard to get kids in North Carolina the very best possible education they can. Good night, all.

–M.

Welcome!

Hello and thanks for visiting! I’m not sure where to begin, so let’s just jump right in, shall we? First off, let me just say that I have intended to get this up and running since about August of 2016 (ok maybe sometime in 2014) but better late than never. Who has time? As educators, we are beyond busy and hardly have time to take care of ourselves, let alone our family, significant others, friends, pets, and of course, our professional learning, right? If I have learned anything over the years, it is that it’s imperative that we make time for our own professional growth– otherwise, we will burn out. I was very close to that point a few years ago, when I got a grant funded from Donors Choose for two iPads.

I reached out to our school’s tech contact at the time, the amazing Jill Thompson (@edu_thompson), and she started me on a path I have yet to look back on. She showed me a few easy tools to get started (Show Me for screen casting, Toontastic for creating stories) and the effect upon my students learning and enthusiasm was instantaneous. Suddenly, I was able to actually listen to a short presentation on perimeter to see if they truly understood the concept without sitting down and conferencing one on one, as they narrated their solution to a problem I set in the back of the room for them. During our literacy block they were collaborating on stories, rejecting the pre-made characters and settings on the app for their own creations. They couldn’t wait to show me what they had done. I saw back and watched this in awe– they were creating, they were collaborating, they were *gasp* reflecting; and most importantly, they were so excited to share what they were doing. This spurned me on to find other ways to enhance their learning and I discovered the world of Twitter Chats. Seriously, I was like a kid who had been given an all access pass to Toys R Us. My little laptop was suddenly a gateway to a whole lot of educators who were passionate, knowledgeable, supportive, wanted to do what was best for their kids and wanted to help others be successful as well. Over the years, my network has grown– it’s primarily focused on North Carolina, but my Professional Learning Network extends across the globe– how can I not want to be better at what I do when I can learn from so many amazing people from around the world? It was a renaissance I didn’t know I needed.

I have come a long way since then. My point to all this is that if we are going to be on the front lines and working with these kids every day, we have to keep learning. For me, that learning includes reflecting and sharing which is what I plan to use this space for. So again, thanks for stopping by! I’d love to know where you’re from and how you are involved in K-12 education, so please let me know if the comments! Also, followers = motivation so please subscribe!! Until next time…

M.