At The Same Moment Around the World...
Updated: Jan 30, 2021
I have had the opportunity to participate in many forms of virtual exchange with my students since 2017. My classes have Skyped, Zoomed and Facetimed with people all over the world. However, up until fall 2019, I had really only focused on using virtual exchange for my students to communicate with experts or one adult at a time. My father likes to take credit for my use of virtual exchange in the classroom and he might be right.
Our first class virtual exchange was with my father in 2017. My father lives in Queens, NY and his house is about 14 miles from my school. My students and I were doing an inquiry study on a turtle shell I found in my backyard when I was a child. When designing their research plan to help them figure out the type of turtle it belonged to, they decided they needed to interview someone who was an expert on my backyard and me.
They asked if they could interview my father. Initially, I was just going to email their research questions to my dad but he decided he wanted to talk to the kids himself and that he wanted to do it over Skype. 14 miles may seem insignificant but in New York City it is huge whether you are driving or taking public transit. Skype helped us to close the distance and experience interviewing as a research technique.
Since then my students have used virtual exchange to speak with travelers and experts in Colombia, Cambodia, Mongolia, Bolivia and Antarctica. These virtual exchanges have enriched our classroom experience and helped my students to understand that people in different parts of the world have different feelings and perspectives. The relationships they have formed with these travelers and experts have resulted in an understanding that there is more than one way to live life and be a human. In November 2019, I was given an assignment by Fulbright to collaborate on an inter-school activity with a 5th grade class in Hollywood, Florida. Ms K and I chatted over email about what this activity could look like and we considered questions like, “How can we meet our students’ varying ability levels? How can we make this experience interactive? How can we keep high levels of engagement and student voice? What global competencies should we focus on?”
We chose to read “At the Same Moment Around the World” by Clotilde Perrin. This book uses beautiful illustrations to introduce the concept of time zones, how the time of day has an impact on human behavior and how people around the world live in very different environments. Even though we were teaching in the same time zone, we knew that living in Sunset Park, Brooklyn is very different from living in Hollywood, Florida. After reading the book to our own classes, we gave them a homework assignment. Their assignment was to draw an illustration of what they did or what they saw on the following Saturday afternoon. We used the repeating sentence “At the same moment in…” to caption each student’s picture and we made our own version of the book using our students’ illustrations. Finally, we decided we would have a Skype session with the two classes.
Ms K had never participated in virtual exchange at all and I had only facilitated them with adults. I wasn’t sure what to expect with two classes of 4th and 5th graders. We decided to have the students take turns sharing their pictures and then have a Q&A session between the students afterwards. Today I rewatched the recording of that call. I rewatched it because since November, the use of virtual exchange has really changed in classrooms all over the country. I remembered being so excited about how well the call went but I wondered if post remote learning I would still be impressed by it.
I found that many of my initial feelings of excitement and joy were still present as well as some of the things I had wished we had done differently. The first 30 minutes of the call was very organized and managed by myself and Ms K. We had the students take turns showing their illustrations and explaining them. We prompted students to speak clearly and loudly. We asked clarifying questions to help students rephrase their explanations if they were unclear.
If I could do this part of the call over again, I would have waited until our finished ebook was complete. It would have been nice to show the finished ebook to both classes simultaneously and then discuss questions like, “What does this book show us about Brooklyn? What does this book show us about Hollywood? How are our Saturday afternoons similar? How are they different? What do you wonder about life in Brooklyn? What do you wonder about life in Florida? Is there something missing from our book? If you could add more pages to our book, what illustrations would you include?” Unveiling the completed book together would have given the students a deeper connection so they could form a relationship.
The best part of our virtual exchange was the Q&A session. It was lively and completely student driven. Neither of the classes prepared questions in advance so these questions were spontaneous and genuine. Through the Q&A the students discussed how climate can influence daily living choices and engineering designs in a community. My students learned that because it is always very warm in Florida, the playgrounds have a cover or roof to keep the playground equipment cool. My students used amazing descriptive language to tell about snow and all the ways you can play in snow. There was shock and awe when my class described 55 degrees as pretty warm because in Florida, 55 degrees means you put on your gloves, boots and hoodies. We discussed Everglades National Park and Ms K’s class shared their knowledge of the wildlife and some of the customs within the Everglades National Park. When my students did their reflective writing afterwards, it was all centered on the information exchange during the Q&A session.
“Today I learned that they have never seen snow before. I was surprised that it was 80 degrees outside in Florida.”
“Today I learned that they talked about the alligators in Hollywood Florida.”
“Today I learned that they could wrestle with alligators. I was surprised that alligators fall asleep when they are rolled over on their back.”
“I was surprised that Ms K’s class likes to play Fortnite.”
“I learned they have 20 minutes of recess.”
“Today I learned Ms K’s class is closer to the equator than us.”
“I was surprised at how big Ms K’s class was.”
Ms K and I wanted to have a follow-up session with the classes but due to the pandemic, we were unable to follow through. My 5th graders read a text in the spring about Everglades National Park and I was looking forward to having another exchange that focused on that topic. Ms K’s students live very close to Everglades National Park and have taken several trips there. One of her students is part of the Seminole Tribe that resides on a reservation within the Everglades. We did get to send Ms K’s class photos and videos from the first big snowfall of the year. Most of the students in her class had never played in the snow before and my students were eager to share the first snowfall with them.
It would have been nice to continue to build on the relationship we forged through that first virtual exchange. We could have used FlipGrid, Voicethread or Padlet to continue to interact with each other. The idea of pen pals has been around for a long time but now we have access to technology that allows for a quicker exchange so that all students can participate regardless of language or print abilities. Although my class had already established norms for virtual exchange, if we had continued, we would have been able to establish unique norms for our two classes. I look forward to establishing this type of student to student exchange in my classroom during the 2020-2021 school year.
It’s scary to try something new in the classroom. As teachers, we are trained that management is king and very often our desire for management is translated through control. This often results in limiting student voice. Our experience with Ms K’s class shows me that virtual exchange has to be mainly powered by student voice and that the teachers should be facilitators who take a step back. We should have established norms and protocols for virtual exchange but they should be co-constructed by the students. Teachers should take a step back during a virtual exchange so that our students are empowered to communicate ideas, ask clarifying or divergent questions and explore perspectives. This will result in empathy building and an understanding that there is more than one way to be human on this planet. Virtual exchange is about empowering our children whether they are speaking to experts or they are speaking to other children sitting in a classroom at the same moment around the world.