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.
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