Here are my Top Ten reasons for creating and managing virtual classroom connections:
10. Making Introductions
Virtual visits provide students with the opportunity to learn and practice the art of conversation. We talk about the importance of introducing oneself when meeting someone new. The students introduce themselves to the virtual partners and then ask or answer questions. It is a small act, but introducing oneself is the first step in public speaking. This first step can often propel one past the anxiety of speaking publicly.
Any conversations provide students with the opportunity to determine what is important to share. These virtual conversations are another opportunity to determine that which is important to share, but given the time-constrained nature of virtual visits, this element of sharing become even more important. Conversations are succinct. Students understanding what is interesting and important to share grows during these virtual visits.
Just as students grow in their understanding of that which is important to share, so too does their understanding of what is important to ask of these virtual learning partners. The students learn to determine what is relevant. It might be fun to know which sports teams they follow, but more relevant is asking to understand these other students as learning. "How many students are in your classroom?" "Do you have Steps to Respect?" "How many of you can walk to school?" are questions that help us better know each other as learners.
Conversation is an art. We practice good conversational skills every day by raising our hands, looking at the person who is speaking, putting our hands down once someone is speaking to ensure we are listening and not thinking about what it is we were going to say, and building on ideas -- trying not to repeat what another has said. When the person or people are not in the same room, these conversational elements become even more important. The students and I talk about the importance of looking up during virtual visits, showing engagement on our faces, and letting the people know that we are listening.
Students today are more aware of the power of technology, for them it is not odd that the classroom extends beyond the four walls. What is important is seeing these connections as learning opportunities. Given the tight schedules of the school day, students do not often have the opportunity to share learning experiences with another classroom in the building. These virtual connections show that a classroom community can be so much more than just the students and teacher within the bricks and mortar.
5. Primary Source Conversations
The new wall-less learning community mentioned above is not necessary for this next role, but I think it improves the learning experience. The new learning partners become resources for primary source conversations. Students understand that they can get information from other people as well as books and electronic sources. Last week, my students participated in a conversation with students from Pennsylvania that wanted to learn about the geography of Massachusetts. It was thrilling to watch my students recall and parse information and come up with answers.
4. You've Read that Too?
It's common knowledge that readers are more engaged when they connect with other readers and have an opportunity to talk about what they are reading. Being able to express the messages, themes, and ideas in a book is an important skill, being able to do this with readers from across the country or around the globe is important and empowering. Seeing that a book can have an impact on a student (or students) across the country and around the globe is reaffirming and reassuring. We are all readers at heart.
Whether it be reading a book aloud together, creating in Google Apps, blogging back and forth, or participating in a mystery Skype, virtual connections can be a just-in-time collaboration related to theme or idea that brought the classrooms together. Students can create a collaborative drawing or brainstorm in a word cloud. Projects can be a one time event or longer. One of my fourth grade classrooms will be reading and commenting on the blogs of students in Georgia. I hope this collaboration will be ongoing.
The opportunity to share what one has learned cannot be undervalued. My students and I are appreciative of our virtual learning partners. These partners are a willing and authentic audience for projects and products. They allow my students to share their new-found knowledge. This relationship is reciprocal and we are equally as happy to learn from them.
Even though we cannot reach out and touch somebody's hand, we can reach out and make this world a better place. Virtual visits make the world a smaller place and hopefully instill in students a sense that we are part of something bigger. I hope that these early connections will sow the seeds of global citizenship.