Well, I have finally entered the realm of the flat classroom. After attending a ITEC 2010 Conference in Coralville, Iowa, I was privileged to hear Vicki Davis, a.k.a. Cool Cat Teacher, speak about the flat classroom project that she was instrumental in creating. Her keynote address sparked an interest in me that chose to linger long after the conference ended. How could I incorporate global learning into my current curriculum without reinventing the wheel? That question pestered me for several days and then, out of the blue, I was hit by the inspiration train.
I was sitting in my living room one evening, perusing my Facebook page when I came across a status update by my niece Jennifer who teaches 6th grade language arts in Arkansas...some 477 miles away. She commented that it was awesome to see the excitement on the faces of her students when they picked up their 1:1 computers for the first time. After the initial wave of jealousy washed over me, (we aren't a 1:1 school yet and probably won't be for at least another two years) my brain kicked into high gear and began dreaming up ways that my classes could collaborate with hers. There had to be SOMETHING that I was already doing with my kids that could involve hers as well. After a few minutes of pondering, my brain settled on the national parks wiki project that we were about ready to begin. It took a bit of scrambling on my part and Jennifer's to figure out the logistics, but within two weeks of intense planning we were ready to launch our "mini-flat classroom" project.
To start off with, we used Skype to teach in a virtual classroom. Since Jennifer had never done the project and was fairly new to the concept of wikis, I took the lead and taught both my class and hers about the project and how to interact with a wiki. I must admit it felt a little bit strange teaching to a classroom of students that I could not see. It was very rewarding, however, to see how engaged the students were. It's as if they felt they were on display for one another and didn't want to be thought of as disruptive or immature. The students who normally exhibited a short attention span stayed focused for much longer periods of time. The students who normally had difficulty keeping quiet during lessons were suddenly transformed into well-mannered, respectful students. I was so proud of them!
Once we paired up the Iowa students with the Arkansas students, we were ready to begin the research process. The biggest obstacle, however, was finding a way for the paired students to communicate with one another as they worked on the project almost 500 miles from one another. Our initial plan was to use individual Skype accounts for the students. This, unfortunately, was out of the question because the Arkansas students were not yet allowed to have individual Skype accounts. We thought about using Google.docs, but that plan failed because 6th graders have not yet reached the required age (13) for their own Google accounts. So we chose to use TypeWith.me, an on-line collaborative document site that allows students to type simultaneously within the same document and which has a chat feature that students can use to talk about what they are doing. The end result was fantastic! We left Skype up and projected on the big screen in the event the students need to do some face-to-face consulting. This also allowed us to feel connected to the students in Arkansas even though we live hundreds of miles away.
The final step in the collaboration project will be a celebration of our final product. As I write this blog post, students haven't even yet begun to create their own wiki pages within the class national parks wiki. But once they start that phase, the project will be close to completion. I can only imagine the excitement on the faces of the students when they see their handiwork on the Internet for the very first time. When that day comes, I assure you I will proudly write another blog post that brags on my student fine work.
While a project of this magnitude takes a lot of planning and preparation, it is one of the most rewarding of all the projects I've done throughout the past 20 years of teaching. It has been an incredible experience for the students, for Jennifer, and for myself. Even now my brain is spinning in an attempt to come up with other opportunities to go global with my students.