Thursday, May 2, 2013

Taking Pen Pals to the Next Level-Using Skype to Foster Student Connections and Learning

At a year end "Pen Pal Reveal" Field Trip, Michele and I
finally got to meet after exchanging
letters throughout third grade.

         My best friend Michele and I started out as pen pals when we were eight years old. Matched up by our teachers, we exchanged letters, notes and assignments across our town. Six years later, we crossed paths and had the feeling that somehow we “knew each other.” We hugged and smiled as we realized that we were pen pals in third grade and knew each other from so “long ago.” Little did I know that this penpal would become a friend for life!

Reflecting back to elementary school, I can’t think of more important writing assignments than the letters and notes that I sent to my pen pal. Those letters helped me connect with someone outside of my small bubble of Room 8 and impacted my future! I find it so exciting that with today’s technology, teachers can rethink the concept of pen pals and take them to the next level by connecting students not only across towns; but throughout the world by using technology tools like Skype.

This year, I’m supporting teachers with using Skype in the Classroom to connect their students to other classes. I find that the most effective Skype calls come back to that basic idea of letting students discuss ideas and learn through conversation.  The more students that take part in the Skype, the more they learn.  The more voices on the call, the more interesting the call becomes.

Below are a few of the most engaging Skype lessons that I have been a part of this year. These are examples of lessons and activities that take Skype beyond a video presentation or Q&A session. With a few adjustments, flexible grouping and a bit of creativity, teachers can create a captivating Skype call experience.
Marie Pinder
Third Grade, Gardner Bullis Elementary
Sleuth Skype with “Who Am I” Animal Clues

Los Altos third graders in Mrs. Pinder's class using Skype
to learn more about animals from students in New York.
Have you checked out Skype in the Classroom’s website? You may find something that will work perfectly for your students and curriculum! Marie Pinder found this Skype lesson listed online that connected to the work her students were doing with researching animals.  She responded to the lesson request and started communicating via email with the Media Specialist in New York to plan the call. During the Skype call, pairs of students in New York presented several clues for coordinating pairs of students in Los Altos. The New York students shared “Who Am I” clues relating to different Chinese animals while the corresponding “detectives” in Los Altos listened and jotted down notes in graphic organizers.  Students in Los Altos collaborated with their partner and did further research to make educated guesses about the identity of the Chinese animals. By breaking up the whole group call into parts that were for partners, students were on the edges of their seats-waiting for their partner team to present their clues. The partner Sleuth Skype was a fun approach to Skyping and broke the call down into manageable chunks of listening time for the third grade students.

Lily Alberts
Fourth Grade Teacher, Loyola Elementary
Documentation Experts

Lily Alberts creates an incredible “newsroom” type experience with Skype calls in her classroom. Students choose from a variety of roles ahead of time in order to have differentiated activities during the Skype.  Days before the call, presenters and librarians develop the script filled with facts and information. During the call, live bloggers, photographers, librarians and “Google earth” searchers are busy documenting the facts, activities and locations mentioned during the presentations. In case a presenter forgets their lines, prompters follow along with the script to help. Students run these calls so effectively, I think they could occur without Mrs. Alberts being present! Within a day or two of the Skype, Mrs. Alberts posts a fully student-created blog post recapturing the essence of the call.  During my last visit for a Room 15 Skype, the adult observers jaws dropped as Mrs. Alberts explained the wrap up instructions following the Skype. Her explanation went something like this…

One student photographer from Mrs. Alberts class uploads,
edits and selects the best photos to include in the class blog post.
“Student photographers, drop your photos onto the shared iPhoto library and email the best 2-3 images to our bloggers. Bloggers you need to wrap up your shared draft and send it to me by the end of the day. Google Earth searchers, please take screen shots of the geographic places mentioned and email those jpgs to our bloggers as well.”

   Clearly, Mrs. Alberts is modeling the use of technology for collaboration and communication! Her students are so comfortable with these tasks-not a single student blinked an eye! Amazing!

Robin McLaren
Fifth Grade Teacher, Santa Rita Elementary
Daily Small Group Skypes during Literacy Block

Robin McLaren’s students started Skyping with a class in Ottawa after she posted a lesson request on Skype in the Classroom. Expanding on the question, “Is Geography Destiny”” groups of students in Los Altos and Ottawa created Google presentations for each other about their hometowns and where they live. Instead of the traditional whole class call, Mrs. McLaren and the other teacher had a standing 10:30 AM Skype time for about a week. Each day, during Mrs. McLaren’s literacy block, a different group would head outside to the picnic tables to have their Skype group call with another group of students in Ottawa. Students appreciated their "private" Skype time and were amazed when students in Ottawa had snow falling during one of the calls. Meanwhile the students in Los Altos were sitting outside in t-shirts! If you are considering have students Skype independently, consider trying Quicktime to run a video and audio screen recording. Then you’ll have a video of the call!

Julie Presant
Sixth Grade Teacher, Springer Elementary
Use of Edmodo Groups with Skype Pals and Five Simultaneous Skype Calls
Small group Skype calls involve more students in the experience.
Julie Presant set up her students in Edmodo small groups with their Skype pals prior to their Skype calls. Students posed questions and responded to comments to discuss certain books and articles. On the day of the Skype, Ms. Presant and her coordinating teacher in South Korea, Mrs. Erin Zaich, set up five Skype simultaneous calls. With this approach, all students have ample opportunities to participate multiple times in the Skype call. I can tell you, the excitement was palpable in the room when Ms. Presant told all the students-“Go ahead and call your group.” All the laptops were connecting and it was so exciting to see their South Korean friends pop up on the screen!

I enjoy seeing how teachers are using Skype in the Classroom to breathe life into their curriculum, provide authentic audiences and allow students to practice social/emotional skills as well.  I can only imagine how my life would be different today, if at a young age I was Skyping and interacting with students from different states and countries!

As our world becomes more interconnected, the work teachers are doing in their classrooms to foster student collaboration with students in other geographical places is extremely meaningful and relevant. Students need to build effective verbal and written communication skills with people from different cultures. They need practice with working with a variety of people through email, shared documents and/or video conferencing. In some ways, Skype learning experiences may shape the future of the world. By giving today's youth the opportunity to discuss important issues and learn from each other, our next generation of leaders will be more informed about the people of the world. You never know, the problems of tomorrow may be solved by the relationships and connections we build today. Skype away! 

Ellen Kraska is the Technology Integration Instructional Coach within the Los Altos School District. She is passionate about teacher professional development, edtech, creativity and collaboration within innovative learning environments.  You can email her at and/or follow her on Twitter @kraskae.

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