“Ms. Clark, when are we going to do that again?” Nothing makes me happier as an educator than hearing those words – and lately, I have been hearing them a lot! It is not the question, as much as the look on the faces of my students, that I enjoy the most. It’s the inspiring glow of engagement and enthusiasm plus the fire in their eyes that makes me want to keep trying new projects. Their relentless desire to do collaborative-based work is proof that they enjoy the journey, the connections, and the role of play in their learning. One of the thrills about being an educator in 2013 is this ability to redefine the typical classroom landscape in this way. This year, we did it campus-wide with some pretty amazing projects that helped everyone see the value in collaborating, and the immense power of thinking outside the box – in this case, I literally mean the constrictive box of the traditional classroom.
As we began our journey, some of our classes had 1:1 iPads, but others did not. All it took was a projector, an Internet connection, and a teacher who was willing to take a risk. I had a handful of those change-agents this year, so I tirelessly knocked down their doors with ideas of how to expand the classroom.
If collaboration is something that interests you – and it should – here are five easy and highly engaging ways you can begin (or even improve) your journey. With each example, I try to offer advanced ideas for those innovators who have already tried these collaborations.
Photo: Students at San Diego Jewish Academy take part in a Mystery Skype with a class from Massachusetts.
1. Mystery Skypes
If you have not heard of a Mystery Skype yet – stop what you are doing and read this amazing blog post by a really innovative educator Craig Badura (@mrbadura) from Nebraska. A Mystery Skype brings two classes together with each class developing a series of “educated” questions to help them intelligently deduce the location of the other school. (If your school blocks Skype, consider using Google Hangouts).
In this scenario, kids get to apply and use geographical knowledge, critical thinking, and the skill of deduction. Students might strategically ask the other school questions like: “Are you east or west of the Mississippi River?” or “Are you landlocked?” They continue this process until they have surmised the exact location of the other school. When I was a kid, I read about geographical concepts and places in a textbook, but I never got to apply that learning to a real world situation like students can do now via a Mystery Skype. I have been pushing educators to think beyond geographical-based Mystery Skypes and to try applying this engaging collaboration tool to their own subject matter. What about mystery characters, mystery missions (for those of us in California) mystery historical characters, or even mystery scientific concepts?
Tip: The world is your oyster with this type of project. Think big and design your own mystery ???. When you do, please share your idea with the world on Twitter by using the hashtag #mysteryproject.
2. Google Docs (on steroids)
I think most educators see the value in having students within their own class collaborate on a Google Doc – but it is time to think bigger! It is time to collaborate with another class from a different city, state, or even country. There are some logistical issues to work out with this type of collaboration, but such risk brings great reward. For example, Dianne Shapp (@dshapp) had her fifth grade students collaboratively write a paper on sugar with a class from Illinois. They ended the project by having a class debate about sugar via Skype.
Tip: This class used Google Docs, but a great project like this could easily be done with something like Kidblog.
3. The 100 Word Blog Challenge
This blog challenge is exciting because it lets students write about what interests them. As a teacher, I was afraid that my students were “fake blogging” (forced blogging because I assigned it) when I gave them a prompt. This solves that dilemma. Giving children purpose in their writing helps motivate reluctant and advanced students alike.
“… but I wondered what I would do…”
“Each week a prompt is given, which can be a picture or a series of individual words and the children can use up to 100 words to write a creative piece. This should be posted on a class blog and then linked to the 100 Word Challenge blog. The link is usually open from midnight on Wednesdays until midnight the following Tuesday.” (taken directly from 100 Word Challenge Blog). The best part – kids from around the world comment on each others blogs, often inspiring even the most reluctant writers.
The 100 Word Blog Challenge is also a way to re-frame the concept of a blog within the context of class content, allowing students to add their own interests to their academic writing. For example, students could re-frame blogging by writing about Hamlet, but rather than a traditional assignment, they may have to create a series of posts about why Hamlet might like surfing. In this example, students have to offer up reasons based on his personality characteristics in the story that would prove he might like the sport. This way, the blog itself is more passion driven – part English requirement and part student interest.
Tip: To get more comments on the student blogs, consider using the hashtag #comments4kids to solicit comments from other educators on Twitter. Comments from around the globe really get students excited about their interactions online.
As the name implies, a QuadBlog involves four classes blogging together with one class blogging while the other three comment – all classes take turns being the main contributor. This is empowering because you know the kids will have an authentic audience for their blog. My students are often obsessed with the analytics of whose blog post gets more comments, and it opens up discussions about content, catchy titles and word choice. The most fun is to have this conversation with a kindergarten class. It would blow your mind how they can begin to understand these concepts at such a young age.
Tip: Connect with teachers from international schools in faraway locations like Singapore – to make your quadblog even more impactful.
5. YouTube Interactions
Did you think, YouTube was just for posting videos? Well, think again! It is a great way to collaborate on projects. My students are obsessed with Australians – but we can’t always do collaborative projects with Australia due to time zone constraints. So instead, we take part in what I have come to call YouTube Interactions, where we send videos back and forth between time-zone-challenged classes. We hold debates, and build stories together, but instead of blogs, we use YouTube to share our work. Again, the sky’s the limit … think big and use videos to bridge the timezone gap.
Tip: Use Vimeo if YouTube is blocked. Sometimes Vimeo makes parents more comfortable with online video postings, and I let the parents pick their preferred platform. I always make sure to discuss the purpose of the project with parents at Back to School Night, so I can explain the purpose and safety involved in this type of project.
A final note
These collaborations did not always play out perfectly. In many of our attempts, there were some failures – even massive failures. What is pivotal though, is that the teachers took a risk and their students are now much richer for the experience. The important thing is that we have to model failure for our students so they won’t be afraid to try.