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Chatting the USA:
Building Understanding Through Web Conferencing



More Than Minutia

"This project has been exciting since the very beginning," says Cherrie MacInnes. "Each conference is different and each has memorable moments. State trivia is a great interest to all students."

In addition to learning about their country, students who take part in Chatting Across the USA learn about one another. MacInnes allows some time during each conference for questions about topics that most interest kids -- favorite foods, video games, sports, and more.

Along with state symbols and geography, the third graders discovered that the electric guitar was invented in Wisconsin and that Minnesota has the largest mall, complete with an indoor rollercoaster. Everyone was surprised to learn that the state bird of landlocked Utah is the seagull.

"These are the types of facts that really intrigue the students!" reports MacInnes.

The project has made studying the geography of their country much more than memorization of a map. The students actually connect with every region.

"The states seemed so abstract to the students in the beginning," their teacher added. "Students asked if the other children lived in homes like theirs, had electricity, and spoke English. They don't ask these types of questions any longer."

"There are so many academic benefits that come with using Web conferencing in the classroom," Cherrie MacInnes observes. "I really believe that as more children meet other children from around the world with different cultures, lifestyles, and beliefs, they will begin to alleviate the fear of the unknown."

Last year, MacInnes and her third grade students conversed through Web conference with classes from Florida to Alaska and were intrigued by their differences, but it was the many similarities the children shared that forged a special connection among them.

"Making connections, finding out how much we have in common with one another, is key to breaking down barriers," says MacInnes. "My hope is that by providing opportunities for children around the world to meet and learn from one another we can instill understanding, compassion, and respect for one another."


MacInnes's Web conferencing odyssey began when a student from Washington Street School in Brewer, Maine, moved to Egan, Minnesota. Students there study the New England region, which prompted the students parents to contact their old district in search of a third grade teacher willing to participate in a shared technology experience.

MacInnes pounced on the opportunity. She and a teacher in Minnesota formed a plan that had students create and trade questions about their states, and then perform research to prepare accurate answers. The kids used Web conferencing to teach one another about their home states. MacInnes was so inspired by the project that she wondered how she might expand the activity, and the idea to conference with a third grade in every state -- Chatting Across the USA -- took shape.

Through online searches and email, MacInnes set out on a quest to find classes to correspond with. Her inbox soon filled with messages from interested teachers from every corner of the country. In a surprising turn, she discovered that not one of the responders had previously used Web conferencing in the classroom.

"Third grade students in our school district learn about Maine, its forests and mammals. We study Maine's geography, history, industry, etc., and then students do research on the wildlife of Maine," MacInnes explains. "Being able to teach this information to third graders around the country has demonstrated a mastery level of understanding."

As part of the ongoing project, MacInnes's students use literature and computers to complete their state research, and present information through programs like PowerPoint. For most, the project is the first time theyve used technology for "face-to-face" exchange of knowledge. Working in teams, students rotate the role of "lead teachers" for their online conversations. After each experience, they note the location on a national map and reflect on the discussion through journal writing.


Students Web conference with
students in other states.

Students Web conference with students in other states. "Using a computer, projector, Web cam, and Google Chat or Skype, classrooms are able to discover the fun of instant response," reports MacInnes. "Chatting live allows for additional conversation to enhance understanding. Because Google, Skype, and Apple provide a chat format free to users, schools with webcams are able to participate in this great learning experience at no cost."

When they first began, the third graders used a built-in microphone on a computer, and it was difficult for other classes to hear their communications. A separate microphone promptly resolved that issue. MacInnes also learned to back up her occasionally weak wireless signal with a phone jack. Although their conferences -- with an occasional delayed signal or frozen audio or video -- aren't always "perfect," those moments serve as opportunities for students to see problem-solving in action. The kids realize that much information still can be shared.

"We conferenced with a class in Kansas, and you could have heard a pin drop in my room when the students explained how they do tornado drills at school," MacInnes told Education World. "There were only six students in the classroom we conferenced with in South Dakota, and New Jersey had a fire drill during the middle of our conference! A collective gross" was heard when students in Alaska told us about eating muktuk -- raw whale blubber."

Sue Ann Clanton, the teacher of the tiny class in South Dakota, was alerted to the project through a message from her superintendent. Today, she is thankful she was urged to take the opportunity to communicate cross-country.

"My students most enjoyed meeting the other teachers and students and comparing the sizes of classes and schools," Clanton stated. "Only one other class -- Hilo, Hawaii, with 10 students -- came close to being as small as we are. They also enjoyed comparing state nicknames and state mammals."

Clanton brought parents into the project by asking them to discuss with students the most important facts about their state. After deliberation, her class chose to focus most of its attention on places their counterparts would see if they were to visit the state in person.

"My students had a great interest in researching the areas we wanted to share," said Clanton. "One student, a bit of a struggling reader, was tasked with locating information on the history of the Black Hills of South Dakota. He found that George Custer was in the Hills not long before he went to the Battle of Little Big Horn. This young boy's father recently returned from a tour in Iraq with the North Dakota National Guard, and he is very interested in most things military. Because of this project, we found a new area for him to explore -- the life of General George Custer."


Video conferencing has opened doors to unanticipated learning experiences beyond the classroom chats. Carlene Anderson, a participating teacher from Paterson, New Jersey, invited MacInnes's students and a class from Florida to watch a jazz concert in her classroom. The "Cool Waves Saxophone Quartet" performed and demonstrated instruments.

"Our first video concert!" recalls MacInnes. "We were able to use the video aspect of Skype when it was just my class and New Jersey, but once Florida joined us, we were only able to use the audio. The Skype program displayed who was participating along with a volume meter for each classroom. We were able to talk with both states so all could hear. We even were able to all sing along while the quartet played the national anthem. It was pretty neat."

In addition to that session, which coupled music appreciation and technology literacy, Anderson's students investigated their town's rich history and its integral role in the American Industrial Revolution as a leading producer of silk.

A student uses a map to log a completed conference. "My students have used Google maps to obtain satellite images of the schools we've conferred with," explained Anderson. "They've used MapQuest to calculate the distance and travel time between us and students in other states. We've begun an in-house Skype project in which students with webcam capabilities partner with classmates who do not have computers and, with parental supervision, periodically communicate with me via Skype from home -- further enhancing their technology literacy skills."

The students in New Jersey are still talking about how their partners in Hawaii reside near a continuously erupting volcano.

"Learning that the students in South Dakota live on ranches and drive cattle with horses was also a thrill," Anderson observed. "When we shared that our state mammal is the horse, a female student there cheered, 'You guys rock!' She shared that she does rodeo and barrel-racing as well as roping calves."

Anderson foresees a time when teachers at every grade level and in all content areas will interact with peers through video conferencing. She touts its advantages to colleagues and recently "matched" a fellow educator in Paterson with a math teacher in Florida for, appropriately enough, a bridge-building project using toothpicks.


The project took MacInnes on her own great adventure last April, when she spent some vacation time with Anderson's class in New Jersey. She has gained so much from video conferencing that MacInnes spurred IT specialists within her district to create, a Web site that enables all teachers to easily connect with peers to organize online learning experiences.

Chatting Across the USA receives raves from MacInnes's students, too. Madisyn N. was intrigued by the accents in the voices of students from other states, and Libby H. was impressed with the dedication of one cooperating teacher who delayed going to the hospital for treatment of a toe injury until after the class's video conference.

"I thought it was really interesting when we found out that the teacher in South Dakota had a grandfather who found dinosaur bones in his back field," cited Jon M. "Scientists dug them up and put them together, and theyre now on display at a museum in Idaho."

This year's incarnation of the project will include a class of first graders at Washington Street School who will be the third graders' "travel buddies." Their teachers plan to virtually travel around the world together via Web conference.

"We want to arrange to have one day in which students stay in school until 8:30 pm, to accommodate time zones, so we can use that day to connect with children in each of the inhabited continents," shares MacInnes. "We also envision sampling cuisine from each of the areas we learn about."


Article provided by Cara Bafile
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