Dec 222009

Last month I had the amazing luck to receive a tweet from a fellow educator, Gerardo Lazaro, who teaches at St. George’s College in Lima, Peru.  He asked me if I was interested in doing an online collaboration project with his students.  I immediately jumped at the opportunity.  We weren’t really sure exactly what kind of project we wanted to do, though we knew we would do it with 6th graders since he teaches middle school and the oldest students I teach are in 6th grade.

The Planning
Finally, after a few weeks of playing “Twitter tag,” we found time to Skype and discuss an online video conference with our classes.  During our 2 hour Skype session, we pulled together the whole plan.  We were able to share our vision for the conference, share links and use his classroom wiki to do our planning. While Skyping, I pulled up his wiki on my computer by clicking on the link he provided in the Skype chat.  I immediately clicked on the ‘join’ button and he approved me to begin editing the wiki.

We had decided to have our students research a little about each others’ city based around these four areas: History, Culture, Geography, Political and City.  We split up the topics, each choosing one to edit.  When we were done, I used an iframe code to embed the wiki page and project description we had created on his wiki into a page I created for the project on my wiki.

When the whole thing was done and we signed off for the evening, I was blown away. In 2 hours we had planned a whole project and were ready to go for Monday.

That is the power of social media.

On Monday, we tested the last hurdle of the project: the actual video part of the conference.  My district blocks Skype (apparently it ‘does something’ to our network), we couldn’t get iChat to work because he doesn’t have a Mac, we couldn’t get AIM to work when we tried earlier in the week at work, or Oovoo either.  Finally, my brain clicked: Google chat with video!  We had used Google chat before to connect during the school day, so I knew it wasn’t blocked. At 8am Monday morning, 4 hours before our meeting, we tested it out. It worked like a charm.

The Meeting
At noon, my 6th grade class came down to the lab.  I had arranged the room so that the iSight camera on my Macbook was trained on them, and I had the desktop microphone I had purchased earlier in the week ready to go.  I called Gerardo up and there they were–a classroom of 6th graders smiling back at us.  We started with the typical nervous laughter, smiles and waving, and we started asking each other questions based on some of the research that we had done on each others’ cities.  At one point our students danced for each other and we were able to show each other our favorite drinks (a purple drink for them and Coke for us).  The students in Peru also got to describe some of their local cuisine, such as ceviche to our students, who named cheese steaks as their favorite. 

There were times when we couldn’t hear each other well, and sometimes my students and I had trouble understanding his students’ accents, but overall, it was a lot of fun!  And surprisingly easy.  Due to the Thanksgiving holiday, my students didn’t have a lot of time to do research, but Gerardo’s students were able to create presentations based on the research they did.  Sadly, my students were never able to see them because the site Gerardo put the presentations up on is blocked by my district.  As a side note, we had discussed the possibility of using VoiceThread to allow students to share their work and ideas, but that, too is blocked by my district.

They were, however, able to leave comments on my project wiki page for the students in Lima to read.

Unfortunately, it was the end of their school year (Peru is below the equator, so the seasons are opposite to ours), so we won’t be able to plan another meeting for a while.  Hopefully, by then, I will have better equipment and we will have more time to plan.

(and I will make sure my designated photo-taker takes photos of the other students, too!)

We had also set up Twitter accounts for both of our schools (@Bluford_Elem and @SGC_Senior) in case we wanted to students to Tweet answers to each other.  While that did not pan out due to planning limitations and my students’ unfamiliarity with the Twitter format, it is has opened up that possibility in the future.  I am also glad that I have a Twitter account for my school.  I hope to be able to incorporate it into our parent communication and perhaps further communications with other teachers and schools.

The Sad Reality

Sadly, within the network firewalls of the School District, many of the powerful social media tools available for connecting classrooms are not available to us due to poor understanding of their potential and unsubstantiated or illogical fears.  There is a whole site dedicated to connecting classrooms to authors using Skype.  The hundreds of thousands of students in classrooms in Philadelphia will miss out on this opportunity due to it being blocked. (Although I’m hoping to find an author willing to use iChat or Google Chat.)

What’s in the Future?
Now that I know how easy it is to plan such an event and even how fairly painless it is to pull it off, I look forward to similar experiences in the future with my students.  I am talking with a Kindergarten teacher in my building about getting an author or another class connected with his. 

I hope to do more collaborative work within my school and hopefully with other schools. It is so important for my students to interact with people outside of their communities, as many of them rarely get a chance to do so (see my previous post on this). A friend of mine who is a lab teacher in Germantown (a section of Philadelphia) and are planning a video chat with our students.  There are more social media tools I am hoping to use soon.  I will begin using my Diigo teacher account with my 5th and 6th graders for the research project they have coming up in the spring. I have already tested it with one of my 6th graders who is working on a separate project, and she loved it.  Hopefully tools like GlogsterEDU and VoiceThread will soon be unblocked so I can start using them!

Feel free to share your experiences with connection across continents or ways you have used social media in your classroom!

Nov 022009
I had a meeting today ‘downtown’ at our District’s main offices.  There were about 40 TTLs (Technology Teacher Leaders) from different schools across the city all crammed into a small lab all eager to hear why they were there.

What ensued was an overview of resources and procedures that we, as TTLs, should know.  Links to directions on how to access public folders, links to how to order new hardware, dispose of old hardware, etc….  All stuff I’ve known about for years now.  Siiighhh…I patiently sat through the overview while I set up my email on the new iPod Touch we had all received at the beginning of the meeting (more on that later).

At the part of the agenda when we were talking about filtering, I heard my name float across the room from the main speaker, who happened to be standing in the doorway.  I looked up in surprise.  I had no idea who he was, but he addressed me by my first name….hmm….  He was discussing the district’s new system for attending to requests to unblock sites.  I’ve been, well to put in nicely, hounding the filtering team about unblocking GlogsterEDU and VoiceThread since August to no avail.   Apparently I am (in)famous ‘downtown’ for my persistence and big mouth.  He said something to the effect of, “We were hoping to bribe you, Mary Beth, with the iPod to appease your filtering requests.” I smiled.  I liked the guy already.

What the gentleman (who, it turned out is head of Technology Services for the district) began to explain made my heart go ‘pitter-patter.’  He understood.  He explained how they are changing the system by which sites get reviewed.  “We need to have more input on the instructional side.  Right now we have IT guys reviewing sites, and they don’t always get the educational value of a site.”  He explained that the new committee would be made up of members of the Educational Technology Group (ETG), Information Technology and the highest-ups in the district when it comes to technology.

Starting in a few weeks, rather than sending an email to ‘filtering,’ we will fill out an online form stating what the site is and why we want it blocked or unblocked and then the form must be approved by our principal.  That form is then sent out to all 7 members of the committee for review.  He also explained that they are working closely with the company the district hired to do the filtering to get some sites reclassified.  As of now, sites are blocked by software that classifies websites and blocks them according to classification.  By changing the classification, they will be able to unblock those sites.

After the meeting I discovered that filtering is something that even the heads of departments ‘downtown’ have limited control over.  For all of the complaining we do, it is not the people in IT or the people at ETG’s fault.  It is (surprise, surprise) the lawyers who scare the district into such strict filtering that has little human input.  Hopefully, with this committee reviewing sites monthly, there will be more rhyme and reason into what we see filtered in our network.  I also found that I had friends down at 440 (the main district offices) who knew of my efforts and had my back.

The battle is far from over, and who knows if we will ever win, but I feel that this news today was a tiny victory along the way.  I still can’t help but think of that old saying about the squeaky wheel.  Apparently my voice hasn’t gone unheard (for better or for worse).

Battle photo courtesy of eisenbahner on Flickr
Filter photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons