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July 1, 2011

Teachers Show Their Skypes

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Before first using Skype, Sacramento, Calif., elementary computer lab teacher Alice Mercer says that her professional interactions were limited to people in her district. "Skype expanded my professional network and let me, rather than a textbook company, define my curriculum," says Mercer. "I always wanted to bring this same eye-opening experience to my students, because many of them are limited to the geography of their neighborhood."
It wasn't until this year that Mercer met her Skype soulmate, Fay Crooks, a veteran 2nd grade teacher at Northfield Community School in New Jersey, and came face-to-face with this ambition. In a bit of social networking serendipity, Mercer is a tweep of Northfield's technology instructor, Kevin Jarrett, so when she put a call out on Twitter looking for Skype partners, Jarrett facilitated the introduction.
Mercer and Crooks plan lessons over e-mail or using Google Docs and develop a formal pre-assessment of the skills to be taught and then informal and formal assessments of both student learning and their own professional practice.
"Working with someone who is grounded in good teaching practices and curriculum, like Fay, has helped keep our eyes focused on the prize, expanding our kids' experience and knowledge," Mercer says.
Working with the whole class and partners via Skype, Mercer's and Crooks's students practice reading and oral fluency; take turns teaching new content; and learn about life, culture, and geography in their disparate locales.
Along the way, the teachers have made adjustments. For example, they found that initial whole-class meetings were too chaotic, with everyone wanting to talk at once. Quieter students, particularly English language learners, were getting lost in the crowd. In later meetings, students were paired in smaller groups and took turns meeting, while the rest of the class worked quietly on something else.
Mercer connected with Skype through an educator in her Twitterverse, but she could have also used the recently launched Skype in the Classroom site, which offers a central, searchable directory of teachers facilitating projects around the world. Teachers create profiles on the site and use the Projects tab to search for collaborators based on students' age range, language, and subject area. They can also specify whether their project involves connecting with a whole class, an individual teacher, or an expert to be a guest speaker.
Just a month after the site's official launch in Spring 2011, thousands of teachers had posted hundreds of projects and resources to the site.

No App for Good Teaching

However you bring Skype into your classroom, it need not involve a steep technical learning curve. While your students look out across state lines or continents, teaching and learning are what's front and center.
Before using Skype, you should consider logistics like setting up a Skype account and suitable equipment, knowing your partner's Skype name and time zone differences, and finding a quiet time and place to communicate. It's also important to organize your ideas and talking points in advance and to know how to right a derailed conversation.
To make the most of Skype lessons, students need to practice a set of skills not always necessary in the traditional classroom, says 6th grade science and social studies teacher and digital learning enthusiast Bill Ferriter. Through a set of role-plays Ferriter designed, students practice how to help draw out shy participants, what to do when one student dominates the conversation, how to use good questions to keep things rolling, and how to respectfully disagree or respond when misinformation is brought into the dialogue.
But what about getting over insecurity regarding what might be new-to-you technology? Partnerships are an opportunity to play to your strengths. "Skype was something that was totally new for me," says Crooks. But with technical support from Jarrett and her teaching partnership with Mercer, Crooks was using Skype without training wheels after only two experiences.
Likewise, Mercer has drawn on Crooks's classroom expertise. "Having a teacher who is patient and committed is much more important than having someone who is technically proficient," she says.
"I'm proud of myself—and look forward to many more Skype adventures," says Crooks. "It's truly a worthwhile activity and gives new meaning to classroom pen pals."

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Additional Resources

Want to use Skype and videoconferencing in your classroom? Check out these resources.

  • <LINK URL="http://education.skype.com">Skype in the Classroom</LINK>

  • <LINK URL="http://twitter.com/SkypeClassroom">Skype in the Classroom on Twitter</LINK>

  • <LINK URL="http://digitallyspeaking.pbworks.com/w/page/17791583/Videoconferencing">Bill Ferriter's Videoconferencing Resources</LINK>

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