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Learning About Communities…Not From Textbooks

I recently wrote about Thinking About Learning Differently- Talking to Strangers, where I mentioned our third graders journey of skyping around the world to learn about different communities.

They have spoken via Skype with classes from a suburb of Los Angeles, CA , an rural community in Missouri and a city, Weatherford, TX. The latest connection was with Anna Faridaku, a teacher and children’s book author from Indonesia. Students took turns speaking with Anna, who was just amazing in connecting (via the screen) to the kids, answering and asking questions. She engaged them and pushed them to deeper thinking about similarities and differences about our communities.

They have now also spoken to a class from Prague, Czech Republic and we are working on our next connections with Argentina and New Zealand.

The goal is not to only collect cold data, but to:

  • make connections between the different locations and communities
  • learn about geography
  • talk "to strangers", practicing speaking skills and conversation skills, be aware of body language...
  • reflect on how and what we are learning
  • invite a global audience (including parents and grandparents) to continue a conversation via the classroom blog
  • continuously becoming better at asking questions and learning that questions don't stop at the end of a lesson, day, Skype call

Overcoming geographic boundaries

Conversations about Alligators in Florida and Prague :)

Two native Hebrew speakers meet across the Ocean

Documenting through various lenses


Using tools for synchronous and asynchronous collaboration

Formulating questions and collecting data

The comments on the classroom blog below came from family and friends of our students who continued to contribute to students learning after the call ended.

Family continues a conversation after the call ended

It is time to THINK DIFFERENTLY about learning!


3rd Graders Continue to Learn About Communites Around the World


Thinking About Learning Differently- Talking to Strangers

Our third graders are learning about different communities.They have spoken via Skype with classes from a suburb of Los Angeles, CA , an rural community in Missouri and a city, Weatherford, TX. The latest connection was with Anna Faridaku, a teacher and children's book author from Indonesia. Students took turns speaking with Anna, who was just amazing in connecting (via the screen) to the kids, answering and asking questions. She engaged them and pushed them to deeper thinking about similarities and differences about our communities.

Will Richardson talks about Three starting points to think differently about "Learning. In addition to "Thinning the Classroom Wall" and "Being Transparent", he lists "Talking to Strangers" as one of the starting point!

Being able to connect and learn with strangers is an important skill for all of us, and especially for a generation that will be learning online for the rest of their lives.

The above image visualizes how we are taking learning about a country from only looking at a map and reading about it in a book to talking to a "stranger "who lives in that country. We still used the map and books for background knowledge and preparation, but information is amplified:

  • Information comes from a primary source
  • Information is fluid, not rigid, it will adjust to the questions the students have (a book will only hold the information that editors have decided on including and will not magically switch in front of your eyes :))
  • Information can take on directions, tailored to your students' interests
  • Information can

"Talking to Strangers" is a critical skill to possess. It contributes to information fluency. It so dramatically contrasts the drill we heard over and over again from our parents. We used to be taught "DON'T talk to strangers" and now need the skills to do precisely that.

Disclaimer: I am not talking about talking to a stranger in a dark alley at night! :)


Connecting, Comparing, Contrasting, Learning…

Skyping Skills

Third graders have been busy learning and practicing Skype etiquette. Presentation skills, articulating questions, answering, and keeping a conversation fluid are examples of  skills needed to connect to other classrooms or experts from around the world. The class had several opportunities to practice these skills in "practice sessions" with me and with another class for the International Dot Day.

We firmly believe that no Skype call is to be an isolated event. We do not skype for skyping sake, but are using a video conferencing tool, such as Skype, to expose our students to skills and literacies vital for the 21st century.  A Skype call is directly related to curriculum content, it is a learning call.

We are introducing 3rd graders to a variety of Skype Jobs during the actual call. These job responsibilities will rotate with every new Skype connection we will be making.

After the actual Skype call with Mrs. Yollis' class from California (take a look at their classroom blog entry), our students were also asked to reflect on what they had learned.

3rd Grade Reflection of Skype Call between Florida and California from MJGDS Classrooms on Vimeo.


Bringing in Experts. Transformative Teaching & Learning?

As we are asking ourselves: "How do we upgrade a traditionally taught curriculum unit and bring it into the 21st century?"

... We need to test, probe and continuously experiment what works? How does it work? Is the upgrade transformative? Does it increase student motivation? Engagement? Learning?


I observe carefully if an upgrade, with the use of technology, is just automating the way we have always taught or is it informating and transformative? Alan November explains what he means by automating and informating in an article titled Creating a New Culture of Teaching:

I have learned about two ways to think about technology: one is called automating, the other is called informating. One will give you incremental improvement; the other will give you big improvement. Unfortunately schools and technology planning tend to focus on automating. This means that you bolt technology on top of what you’re already doing. Most of the investment in education is automating. We have kids write a five-paragraph essay with a $2,000 pencil in a word processing lab. The best improvement you can hope for if you automate is incremental. For example, if we automate report cards, the result is we have prettier report cards, but we don’t improve learning.

You get very different results when you informate. The real revolution is information and communication, not technology. Let go of the word technology. If you focus on it, then you’ll just do what you’re already doing. The trick in planning as we move forward is to think about information systems, whole systems of the flow of information and communication.

As our fifth grade class prepared to study the American Revolution, I am conscientious of the upgrades we are planning and implementing for the unit. Take a look at my previous post titled: The Official Scribe: It's All About Learning Styles & Collaboration, where I share the transformative use of collaborative note taking (some with..some without technology involved) to address different learning styles.

Collaborative 5th Grade Bulletin Board

Another upgrade we are monitoring for results is bringing in "experts" into the classroom via Skype. I consider someone an"experts" who has a passion for a subject or topic, personal experience or can bring in another perspective.

As I started to mention on Twitter our planning to upgrade the American Revolution unit, Travis Bowman picked up on it. He is

a 6th generation descendant of Peter Francisco and has written an historical novel about Peter's life entitled Hercules of the Revolution.

Travis agreed to skype into our 5th grade classroom to talk about his ancestor's story and life. Students were able to ask questions, make connections to what they already had studied in the classroom and digg really deeper into their understanding and visualization of "what life was like" for a soldier during the American Revolutionary war. Take a look at a shorten summary of our Skype call. I hope you can get a feel of our students' engagement of the topic as well as the quality and critical thinking skills that went into their questions. Ask yourself if questions like these would have been encouraged with the use of a textbook alone? As Travis was speaking with the students, their teacher was circulating her iPad among them to pull up images or other info Travis was mentioning.

A second opportunity presented itself, when Richard Byrne, a History teacher from Main, and famous author of the FreeTechnology4Teachers site, accepted our Skype invitation to the classroom in Florida. Mrs. Z., the 5th grade classroom teacher, asked Richard to talk to her students about the battles of the American Revolution. Richard, instantly, was able to create a connection to our students through the screen. Students (ten & eleven year olds) who usually would be fidgeting when asked to sit and listen for 45 minutes to a lecture where engaged and interested. They were absorbing, questioning...making connections...

I also want to point you to a guest post from Heather Durnin, she wrote about HER students experience during a Holocaust unit, when I had been asked to skype in as "the expert" and share my family's history.

Is technology being used to transform teaching and learning by bringing in experts? Are students experiencing that learning and information does not only come from the pages of a textbook or a teacher lecturing in front of the class? Are students starting to make connections about the value of a network and being able to contact people from all around the world to learn from them?


Third Garders Being Called Upon As The Experts

Third graders had the opportunity to be called upon being experts. They were asked to skype into an educational conference presentation being given by Kelly Hines from North Carolina and share their experience of using Skype at school. Students were excited and prepared well by being assigned different job responsibilities during the Skype call.

Here were their job descriptions:

  • Answer and Hang Up Skype call
  • Greeter (Introduce ourselves)
  • Q&A
  • Photographer
  • Videographer
  • Live Blogger
  • Note-Taker- laptop
  • Note-Taker- paper & pencil
  • Note-Taker- Doodler - iPad

Distribution of Job Responsibilities

Mrs Hines sent us three questions ahead of time. As a class, we collaboratively brainstormed how we could best answer these questions.

Question: Preparation & Brainstorming

Skype Prep

Skype Prep

Here is the post from our Blogger:

Today we are skyping with about 50 teachers learning to skype. We are telling stories about our skyping. We are teaching teachers. We had three people to answer questions. We are telling stories of why it’s good to skype.

Here are the notes they took on the laptop about our Skype call:

* Skyping with North Carolina
* Teaching teachers
* About 50 teachers learning
* Answering questions
* Telling stories
* Never skyped
* Showing our teacher
* Asking to check out our blog
* Learning how to skype with other teachers

Here are the images taken by the student photographer (remember third grader!)


Note Taker- Pencil & Paper

Videographer & Q&A

Doodler/ Illustrator

Here is the screenshot of our "doodler/illustrator" from the iPad.

iPad "Doodler/Illustrator"

Here is an excerpt of the video taken by one of the third graders to document the connection.

It was a fantastic opportunity for the students to practice their oral presentation skills, learn about specific audiences (in this case teachers learning about using Skype in their classrooms) and documentation skills (paper & pencil, video, images, illustrations and blogging).



Mystery Skype Call with Fourth Grade

Mystery Call

We had a blast with a "Mystery Skype". Two classes connected without knowing WHERE each one was geographically located. The idea was, by asking targeted questions, to find out the city we each lived in.

We stated the rules at the beginning of the call:

  1. One class starts asking a question to determine the geographic location of the other class.
  2. Questions can only be answered with "Yes" or "No".
  3. If the class who asked receives a "Yes" answer, they continue to ask another question until they receive a "No". It will be the other class's turn then to ask a question.

On our end, we gave students different jobs to help figure the location out.

Questions & Answers

  • Q & A: students were in the "hot seat" asking and answering questions in front of the webcam


  • Scribe: Student who wrote the clues we received on the board to keep track of positive and negative responses




  • Researchers: Students were ready and waiting with Google Maps open on their computer or with an atlas to take the clues received and narrow the search down and to feed information to the Q&A speakers.

We had a blast trying to figure each other's location out and learned that we need to learn to ask good questions that will narrow possible answers down. We also learned that we all need to work together (Q&A, researchers and scribe) and communicate in order to solve the mystery of our Skype connection's location.

Here are some of the clues we figured out:

Our skype mystery connection lives:

  • in the USA
  • where it is cold right now
  • in the North of the USA
  • does not live in North Dakota
  • in Michigan
  • about an hour from Detroit
  • close to a lake
  • in a small town

We needed some help to continue finding their exact location: We received the following clues:

  • they are close to the border with Ohio
  • the first part of their city's name is a "baby sheep"

Our mystery class was from Lambertville, Michigan!

This mystery call was a lot of fun and teaches students critical thinking skills as well as collaboration, communication and geography skills!


Behind the Scenes of a “Quality Commenting” Video

Take a few minutes to watch the following "Quality Commenting on Blogs" video by third graders. Then follow along the description of the creation process and "behind the scenes" work that went into the production of the video. Let's dissect the video creation and look at the learning process itself.

We were inspired by Mrs. Yollis's 3rd grade "How to Compose a Quality Comment" Video...

...and watching our own 2nd grade class' tutorial "How to Navigate the Classroom Blog",...

..our third graders were ready to create their own video about "Quality Comments". For the ones that believe a 5 minute video takes about 5 minutes to produce... you are in for a surprise...

We started out by brainstorming what we already knew about commenting. What does quality even mean? What would a "quality comment" on the third grade classroom blog mean? We then compared what we came up with with Mrs. Yollis's advice.

Quality Commenting Brainstorming

We really liked how Mrs. Yollis' svideo had their Panda bear woven into the script. So our third graders came up with the idea of writing their scripts around being a newscast. It was a perfect timing, since one of our school's family had just been featured in our local news.

Watching a sample Newscast video clip

It was time to introduce the concept of storyboarding. How could we make sure that we were going to include all of the brainstormed ideas of what a quality comment was in our news show? What characters would we need in the show? Who would take what part?

Storyboarding as a Class

The class created a collaborative storyboard that everyone was happy with. The next part was for each student to write their script. What were they going to say in the movie? How could they teach others how to leave a quality comment?

Students wrote their scripts, had them peer edited and classroom teacher approved before they went into the computer lab to type the group scripts (anchors/reporters/interviewees) into a Google Doc, which they shared with me.

A tip I learned from Dean Shareski's K12Online Conference Keynote was to use my iPad as a teleprompter. I had downloaded the iPrompt Pro app, then copied and pasted each group's script from the shared Google Docs into the app and we were ready to start filming.

Students were reflecting, writing and drawing about their experiences during the process of creating the video in their (paper) journals.

Filming started and the kids were very enthusiastic and patient as we had to re- film several scenes over and over again. They started to be their own critics, wanting to do their best work.

As we filmed different scenes (out of order due to time challenges, illnesses and absences), the storyboard became even more important. Although students did not edit the video directly, I tried to involve them as much as possible in the process. By projecting the iMovie project onto the big screen, I asked them to use their previously created storyboard and "read" alongside as the movie played. I paused several times in between to have them help me "predict" the next scene and help me drag and drop the correct clip into place. They also helped suggest appropriate text titles placed onto the movie clips and had the final say in approving the movie before it was exported.

Extending the Classroom

We could have ended learning about quality commenting with the completion of the video... but... how do we make more connections for our students? How do we take learning off the pages off the book, open up the walls of our classroom and tear down the barriers of subject separation in the context of the school day? How can we extend the learning that took place during the production of the video?

It was a logical choice to try to connect with Mrs. Yollis's class from California. It was them who inspired us to start thinking about quality comments. After reaching out to Mrs. Yollis on Twitter, they immediately left us a comment on our blog.

Students could put their newly found "quality commenting" skills to use by responding to their California peers.

Mrs. Yollis's comment on our 3rd grade classroom blog

We arranged a skype call with Mrs. Yollis's class. The students loved recognizing their students (and Panda!) from the video. We learned a lot about their state and school community as well as shared facts about ours.

Take a look at Mrs. Yollis's blog post about our Skype connection or view this short video below.

The conversation between the two classes is continuing via the classroom blogs!


Florida is two hours away from Orlando. How far is Los Angeles to Disneyland?

Evie, Jonah, Yoni

We had a wonderful time skyping with you! One thing we learned is that the highest point in Los Angeles is 14,000 feet. Thank you for letting us skype with you.

Your Friends
Ben, Drew, and Zoe

The differences between Florida and California are California has mountains and Florida is flat. California gets earth quakes and Florida gets hurricanes. California doesn't get much rain, Florida gets a lot!

your friends from Martin Jay Gottlieb Day School,

Jamie and Elior

Hi this is Liam,Itamar and Zachary from the 3rd grade we loved skyping with you we learned a lot.How long did it take to make your movie? What inspired you to make your movie? Did you get the idea of making your movie about quality comment from watching another video?We would like to skype with you again! The ocean here is very warm most of the year it's in the eighty's.

Dear Mrs. Yollis,

We enjoyed skyping because we learned new things about California.
We like skyping because you get to meet people around the world.
We think it is cool that you live 20 miles away from L.A. !

Rebecca,Savonnie,Ethan :)

Lindsay and Adia said...

Lindsay♥ and Adia♥

Dear Rebecca, Savonnie, and Ethan,

This is Lindsay and Adia from Mrs. Yollis' class. We loved your comment! It doesn't seem as if you are beginners! You are amazing commenters!

We had a fun time skyping with you too! Have you ever been to Disneyland in L.A.? If you have been in Disneyland before, how did you like it? Did you meet any Disney characters? What was your favorite ride?

Both of us have been to Disneyworld in Florida. Adia loved meeting Minnie Mouse because she was so cute! Lindsay liked meeting Mickey. It was extremely fun!

P.S. Adia earned her own blog and she included the URL for you. It is above their greeting

Dear Ben, Drew, and Zoe,

We loved skyping with you. It was wonderful learning about your community, and sharing about our community. A similarity is we both live near the ocean. A difference is that we live across the country! We are very excited to be your blogging friends.

Jaden and T:-)cker

So, do you still think that creating a 5 minute video takes about 5 minutes? Do you still think that the only thing that students "got out of" filming the video was FUN? It was NOT about using the technologies and creating a movie.

It was about

  • the writing process: brainstorming, pre-writing, drafting, revising, proofreading and publishing
  • all the skills and literacies that students touched upon and practiced
  • extending the classroom and finding an authentic audience
  • making connections with experts and peers from outside of our local community
  • collaboratively working together

Take a look at the following template, I have been using with the teachers to plan and reflect when upgrading a lesson or unit to include 21st century skills, literacies and the roles to empower learners (based on Alan November)

The "X" indicates a role that we did not assign to anyone in this particular upgrade. It is not necessary to use all the roles all the time, but by documenting the roles that were used we, as planners and facilitators, become aware of what we might want to focus on the following upgrade.

Digital Storytelling is a wonderful and natural medium of the 21st century.

Digital Storytelling Skills

And here without further ado is the final product. The Seminole Swamp Morning Show:

Students are so proud of their work, they invited their parents into the classroom to present the story "Behind the Scenes" of the creation of their video.

By taking images of every step of the process, we created another storyboard. This time we used PowerPoint to show the scenes. Each student was responsible to tell about one step of the process with the appropriate slide being projected in the background.


Third Graders Skype with Los Angeles, California

Our 3rd grade students connected with Mrs Yollis's class from Los Angeles, CA after they left a comment on our classroom blog here at MJGDS.

Also take a look at their fabulous post on THEIR blog describing our skype connection.

The Skype call personalized and made our virtual connections and visits to each other's blog real. Hearing from the other class (and vice versa) that they recognized individual students, made students understand that they work has a real and global audience.

The Skype connection also started a relationship between the two classes (students and classroom teachers) that will continue by visiting each other's blogs, leaving comments and helping extend each other's classrooms by broadening our horizon.


Kitah Gimmel Skyped with Memphis, TN to celebrate Tu B’Shevat

Our third graders connected with Margolin Hebrew Academy from Memphis, Tennessee. We had the pleasure to hear them present to us several songs and a play about the holiday Tu B'Shevat- The Jewish "New Year for Trees".

Both classes learn Hebrew with a curriculum program called "TaL AM". Each unit ends with a celebration of what was learned. It was a wonderful connection for our students to see and hear the other class sing and perform the same songs, read the same books and use the same vocabulary as they do.

Students were shy at first, but it did not take them long to chime in and sing the songs with the kids on the other side of the screen.

The possibilities are endless to connect language learners (especially for less commonly taught languages) , allow collaboration among teachers who teach the same curriculum and give students the opportunity to experience that the language they are learning is NOT only taught and spoken within their classroom or school walls.