Each Chromebook in the classroom is a window. Teachers and students can use those windows to look into art galleries around the world, observe animals in the wild and in the zoo in real time, and even walk along the plaza outside the Taj Mahal. But, more importantly, those windows can connect us with each other. Technologies that take advantage of Internet connectivity have cropped up in recent years to become household names, with Skype and FaceTime leading the pack. These apps allow us to talk with each other without the separation of audio-only discussion. We can see each other, in pairs or in groups, and react to body language, facial expression, and more.
In Sylvania Schools, teachers are beginning to take advantage of this technology through Skype and Hangouts, Google’s video communication platform. Packaged with everything else in our Google accounts, Hangouts is easily accessible and simple to set up. What these programs are doing in our classrooms is impressive.
Take the example of Kate Strausbaugh, McCord GATE teacher, and her eighth grade class. Students had read Joelle Charbonneau’s dystopian novel The Testing, and Kate wanted them to connect with the literature as an individually created work on a more intimate level. So, she contacted Charbonneau and asked if the author would be willing to talk to her students about the creative process involved in writing a novel. Charbonneau, who enjoys meeting and talking with her young adults fans, readily agreed. All that was left was set up.
This is where Skype came in. Kate set up her account in Skype and requested to be friends with Charbonneau. They scheduled a time, and Kate arranged for all of her eighth grade students to gather in class for the discussion, meaning that some were excused from other classes. Kate needed to make sure everyone could see and hear each other, so she secured a webcam, microphone, and speakers to enable the Smartboard to feature Charbonneau. Students would see her on the Smartboard and she would see them as a group.
At the same time Kate and I were setting up and testing the connection, she sent a form to her students to solicit questions in advance. She received over one hundred questions, from “How are you today?” to “What was your hardest scene to write in The Testing?” to “If you could tell your younger self anything when you started writing, what would it be?” The class was set and ready.
On the day of the discussion, Kate called Charbonneau through Skype, just as simply as one would make a phone call. The author picked up, framed by a Christmas tree and decked out in red. The cheer of the scene was matched by her exuberant and genuine nature, which made each student smile. The rest of the class period was spent in comfortable and enlightening conversation as Charbonneau told the story of her development as an author and answered the students’ questions. Through that conversation, she explored the challenges she faced with early rejection, noting that she “got really good at it.” She made the students laugh when in describing her first novel she noted, “I wanted to make people cry, but the only thing that people would cry about was all the hours they wasted by reading this book.”
The activity succeeded beautifully, and in doing so, the technology disappeared. Students, teacher, and author soon forgot about the Internet-based technology connecting them and immersed themselves in the connection, an opportunity for students to explore literature in a manner rarely done in classrooms.
Just as rare was the success accomplished through Google Hangouts in Marla Pawlowicz’s sixth grade English classroom, also at McCord. One of Marla’s students, Brenden Behan, was staying home while undergoing chemotherapy, so he was looking at weeks of being separated from his class. Before leaving, he had done the work for a Great Americans research project and presentation. Unfortunately, his absence would prevent him from presenting the work, and he very much wanted to present his work.
Marla thought that a solution must exist to Brenden’s problem, so she asked for help with a distance connection. Just like Kate, she worked with me on gathering hardware necessary to turn her classroom desktop into a audio/video connection, and we tested the connection with Brenden in advance. The process was simple: Marla logged into Google Hangouts through her school account and invited Brenden to a hangout session through his account. Brenden accepted and the connection was made. He could see and hear us, and we could do the same. In fact, with the connecting computer being the Smartboard computer, Brenden’s image was larger than life on the big screen in front.
Two days later, that larger than life image greeted students in second period. Brenden’s peers were overjoyed to see their friend back “in” class; each one waved and said hello. After the happy greeting, the class got to work. Brenden shared his screen with Marla, which meant that the Smartboard displayed what he was seeing on his Chromebook at home. In that way, he was able to display his Google Slides presentation, advance through the slides, and speak his part. The students in the class watched the presentation in virtually the same way they would have had Brenden presented in person. At the end, they applauded with quite a bit more vigor than a standard presentation would have earned. Brenden’s pride was obvious.
And that may have been the end of the story, but Brenden had one more surprise in store. When asked whether he wanted to keep the connection open to participate in the class, he readily agreed. He was able to hang out for the rest of that period and he has continued to do so for most class periods since. Marla and Brenden’s peers have come to see Brenden’s distance connection as commonplace now, and they love that they miss their friend just a little bit less.
Two stories at McCord Junior High School, two successes for simple digital technology connecting students to others. As Marla notes, “This is truly an exceptional (and easy to use) educational tool that is easy to use in any classroom!” As these tools become more familiar and comfortable in our classrooms, they disappear and the windows they open connect our students to a world that has become increasingly smaller.