Christian talked about how the flood waters were up to his waist in his house.
His classmate described how his dogs cowered under the bed during the hurricane.
An articulate fifth grader with tight braids laid out her family’s plan to stock up on food in case of the worst.
We got to visit with these fourth and fifth grade students in Florida whose community got slammed by Hurricane Irma.
They put a real face on the news we had all been monitoring. We asked our curiosity questions and got real answers.
We were in rural, west-central Indiana. They were in Florida. We visited with these students via Skype from the comfort of our classroom.
It didn’t take long to arrange this call. The students on both sides were totally engaged. We used tech we already had.
I’m convinced that using video calls (Skype, Google Hangouts, FaceTime) in the classroom is the low-hanging fruit of educational technology — for ANY content area or grade level.
Chances are, you’re already using video calls in your personal life. You FaceTime your far-away family or Skype friends from other countries.
“Use it in the classroom, though? I wouldn’t know where to start,” many educators say. “Where do I find these people?”
You’ve got this. You can totally do it. Just follow along with me.
Executing a classroom video call from start to finish
Recently, I got the fantastic opportunity to teach a lesson in a fifth grade classroom. The teacher, who knows me, asked, “Would you like to do something special with them?”
Ooh, YES, I responded. I knew exactly what to do.
They had been studying natural disasters and had not talked about hurricanes yet. Hurricanes had been very much in the forefront of news broadcasts and the minds of everyone in the United States with Harvey, Irma, Jose and Maria blowing through within weeks of each other.
We needed to talk to some kids who had ridden out the hurricane in their homes. So that’s what we did.
Every time I do a video call with students, we almost always go through the same steps:
1. Decide why you want to do it and what you’re curious about.
Why was it important to do this video call? For me, it all starts with the importance of communication. It’s constantly surging up the lists of important job skills for the future. (See chart at right from Ditch That Homework, which I co-authored with Alice Keeler.)
Plus, collaboration will be increasingly important. As easy as communication — even global communication — is anymore, the phrase “better together” comes to life more and more.
What are you curious about? This is a great question to brainstorm with students. There’s a variety of ways to find topics:
- Full-year topics
- Topics based on current unit or lesson
- Topics with a thread throughout several units
- Current events topics
- Curiosity topics that connect to content
2. Brainstorm the kinds of people who can help.
You don’t have to know the people you might get on a video call. But when you know the type of people you’re looking for, you can do something with that. Think of the kind of expertise and experience you’d like your guests to have.
3. Start targeting a list of potential guests.
I’ll list lots of ways to find virtual guests to your class. But before we do that, know this first …
This is the part that gives teachers anxiety the most. Part of it is interacting with people they don’t know. The other part is fear of the unknown — and fear of failure.
Now that we know what the common fears are, we can start to confront them.
- Interacting with people you don’t know: People are generally helpful — especially when kids are involved. (Plus, if the worst thing they can say is “no”, just move on if they do.)
- Fear of the unknown: You might not have done this before, but teachers all over the world do it all the time and rave about the results.
- Fear of failure: If you can’t find anyone that will help, you’re back where you were when you started — no worse off than before. The potential consequences are nearly non-existent, but the potential benefits are off the charts.
Here’s where I’d go to find virtual guests for your class:
- Microsoft’s Skype in the Classroom site (SkypeInTheClassroom.com) — A database of thousands of teachers, hundreds of guest speakers and dozens of free virtual field trips. With contact information. This is often the EASIEST option.
- Twitter hashtags — #mysteryskype is one of the most viewed Twitter hashtags in this space. Whether you’re looking specifically for a Mystery Skype game to play with another class or not, it’s a GREAT place to find other educators using video calls. Other top hashtags: #skype2learn and #skypeMT (for Skype Master Teachers, a community of people who can help!).
- Google Plus communities — Even if you don’t use Google Plus, you can search through and post message to these communities. If you have a Google account, you have access to these. (And if you don’t have a Google account, why not?!? Go get one!) Here are some with thousands of members who can help:
- Your own social media and family/friends — You might be surprised who can help you find the right virtual guest. Ask for ideas on a Facebook post (yes, your personal Facebook account). Someone you went to high school with that you haven’t seen in years just might have the perfect contact. You never know until you ask!
NINJA TIP — I’ve used this Google search tip to find the perfect virtual guest. I learned it from Skype Master Teacher Dyane Smokorowski (aka “Mrs. Smoke”):
- Go to google.com.
- Type in “site:twitter.com” and your topic. (Do this even if you don’t have a Twitter account.)
- You’ll find Twitter users with your topic in their profile. They’re likely to be sharing about this topic already and willing to help you.
- Start clicking on names and reach out!
4. Start reaching out.
You never know who you’ll get until you start reaching out. Case in point: A sixth grade girl wrote a fan letter to basketball superstar Shaquille O’Neal. He surprised her by saying he would Skype with her school and imparted some great wisdom. See the video call here!
It can also come together faster than you think. Don Wettrick is an Indiana educator who teaches a class called “Innovation and Open-Source Learning.” His students were curious about the Israel/Palestinian conflict. Don encouraged them to reach out to any sources they could find on both sides of the issue. Within DAYS, they had set up video calls with people in Israel and Palestine and were asking their questions to them personally.
5. Get your video call platform up and running.
Get a Skype account and install Skype. OR log in to Google and go to hangouts.google.com. OR make sure your FaceTime is ready to go.
Does this step seem out of place? Worried about having the tech set up before you start finding virtual guests? If so, YOU may have things out of sequence. Here’s why:
Focusing on learning the tech first can be a never-ending cycle. Plus, there’s so little about Skype/Google Hangouts/FaceTime that you really need to know to make this happen.
If you get your guest(s) lined up first, you’ll be forced to get your tech ready and you’ll figure out only what you’ll need to make it happen. This keeps you from getting stuck in the techy mud, so to speak.
6. Start scheduling.
Get on your virtual guest’s calendar — and get it scheduled on yours. Coordinate. And don’t forget about the time zone. Be overzealous about stating which time zone you’ll be using. (Often, I’ll state both my time zone and my guest’s time zone every single time I list a time just to be safe.)
7. Make a plan for each call.
There’s no magic formula here. You don’t have to take a class to come up with a plan. Envision how the conversation might go and how it could fulfill your goals and those of your guest.
“Plan your work for today and every day, then work your plan.” — Margaret Thatcher
Like Margaret Thatcher suggests, “work your plan” — change it as necessary as the day draws near or even while the call is going on.
Oh, and communicate your plan with your guest. When your plans are in sync, you can both help each other reach your goals for the call.
8. Do a practice call.
This is the easiest way to ward off technical glitches that can derail your precious time together. Do a practice call a day or two before the live call with your class. Make sure you can connect and the audio and video work. If there are problems, you have time to fix them (or get someone to help you fix them!).
Don’t worry about it being awkward. I’ve done tons of these practice calls. If you’re worried about the awkwardness, here’s the script for most all of my practice calls:
- Say hello. Smile.
- Thank them for agreeing to do the call. Tell them why you’re excited to be doing the call. Continue to smile.
- Ask if the video and audio are good on their end. Tell them it looks good on your end. (If there are problems, see if you can work them out together.)
- Ask any questions you have. See if they have any questions. Smile while asking.
- Confirm the time/date/length of the call.
- Thank them again. Smile. Hang up.
9. Prep your students for the call.
There’s not much to this, either. Let them know what your plan is. Discuss behavior expectations. Encourage students questions, brainstorm some possible questions and leave them on the board so kids can use them as necessary. Tell them why you’re excited to be doing this and why you think it’ll be great for everyone.
10. Initiate the call.
I almost always do a quick message (via Skype or email or however we’re communicating) the day of to ask if my guest is still good to go. I’ll usually do another message an hour or less beforehand. (I’ll ask, “T-minus one hour until we talk. Everything still OK?”.)
Aim the camera so your guest can see as many students as possible. Try to get students on camera as much as possible.
Call as close to the appointed time as possible. Avoid being early or late. If you’re going to be late, keep your guest in the loop.
While the call is going on, enjoy it with your students! Don’t stress too much about having “the perfect call.” Learn right along with your students.
Ask unplanned follow-up questions. These are the best. They encourage students to be good listeners. When they just ask pre-written questions, they miss out on the best discussion topics — the ones that come up during conversation!
When students talk, have them look into the camera (not at the screen), state their name and ask their question/make their point loudly and clearly.
When you’re done, smile and say thank you. Let the students get on camera and say goodbye, either by crowding around the camera or by pointing the camera at everyone.
11. Reflect on the call afterward.
This is important. It lets students process what they just saw and heard. It also helps remind them of important things they learned in the call.
Simple questions like “What stood out to you?” or “What did you learn?” or “What was most important to you?” can reap huge rewards. Address any teachable moments by asking targeted questions about a specific guest response or statement that needs more discussion or explaining.
12. Choose other guests to flesh out the experience you want.
One call doesn’t have to be the end! Would someone else have contrasting or differing views? Showing students both sides of an issue and letting them decide can be powerful and a great skill to prepare them for the real world.
Video calls are some of my favorite classroom experiences and can enrich practically any lesson! If you haven’t tried them, give it a shot.
You probably already have the tech. You have curious students. Pick that low-hanging tech fruit!
Question: What questions do you still have about using video calls in the classroom? What would you add based on experiences you’ve had? You can leave a comment by clicking here.
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Interested in having Matt present at your event or school? Contact him by e-mail!
Matt is scheduled to present at the following upcoming events:
|Date||Event / Event Details||City / More Info|
01/02/2018||Salem CSC||Salem, IN|
01/05/2018||Taylorville CUSD||Taylorville, IL|