GREENFIELD — Syanna Hook and Addison Bowman passed out maps of the United States to their classmates, then took their posts next to a dry-erase version of the map, ready to mark out locations eliminated by their guesses.
An electronic pinging signaled the start of the Skype video call, and moments later eight students and two adults from a classroom across the country popped onto the projection screen, prompting cheers from students on both sides. Then, the questions began: Are you west of the Mississippi River? Does your state border Canada? Are you Cubs fans?
For second-grade teacher Angela Graddy, watching her students actively engage with the virtual lesson — aimed at helping them apply geography skills to determine where their counterparts were video-calling from — proves the district’s efforts to incorporate technology in the classroom are making a difference for even the youngest learners.
For the past two years, Graddy has been working with students at J.B. Stephens Elementary School to integrate video chats into their curriculum, from mystery classrooms like Tuesday’s call to virtual field trips, learning about different places and talking to experts hailing from locales unreachable by school bus. For most students in her class, this is their second year of virtual travel — more than 30,000 miles, per their tally — because Graddy switched from teaching first grade last year to second grade this year, keeping many of her students.
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Graddy enjoys watching her students interact with professionals in their fields; it gives life to what they before could only read about.
“We learn a lot by talking to experts,” she said. “We spoke with a person in England who writes code. We were learning about coding, and I wanted them to see that coding is a real thing.”
Their Skyping partners on Tuesday turned out to be from Hampton, Nebraska, a town of about 400 people. After each class discovered where the other was located, they spent a minute or two sharing information about their towns and their schools. Hampton Public School’s entire second-grade class held eight people, compared with the J.B. Stephens classroom of 25.
The students hope to speak with a classroom from all 50 states by the end of the school year, Graddy said. For the students, it’s fun to quiz the other classrooms, but their teacher knows they’re at the same time reinforcing United States geography concepts through the activity, connecting places with the people they talk to.
The Skype sessions not only bolster lessons in geography — with students learning about other places in the world they’re able to see through the Web cam — but social studies, mathematics, computer science and even social etiquette.
“They know that when they ask someone a question, they are to stand there, listen and look at them while they answer and say, ‘thank you’ when they are finished speaking,” Graddy said. “We’ve gotten several compliments from others who said we’re the most polite classroom they’ve spoken with.”
Through virtual field trips, the students have toured an underwater laboratory off the coast of Florida, learned about penguins from a scientist in Antarctica and even interviewed Nancy Krulik, author of the “George Brown, Class Clown,” book series Graddy’s students read in class.
Paige Cooper, 8, remembers the Skype call to Antarctica fondly; a call the class made to a turtle rehabilitation center was another of her favorites.
“We got to see a lot of different kinds of turtles,” she recalled with a smile.
The messaging software provides students a tangible way to connect facts they learn to reality, but it also expands their world views, Graddy said.
“How many of us here will travel to Antarctica, you know?” she said. “I want them to have those opportunities. I want them to know there’s so much more out there.”
Graddy lets her students direct her toward possible interview subjects, and the students prepare their questions days before the scheduled talks, she said.
And sometimes, the conversations take them in unexpected directions — especially when students become particularly enthused about a topic. Last year, after speaking with a biologist at a penguin sanctuary, the students took it upon themselves to raise money to adopt two penguins at the sanctuary. The penguins’ photos remain displayed next to the whiteboard at the front of the room, a reminder of the impact the students’ connections have made.
Graddy sends messages and emails to prospective interviewees on her own time. During Christmas break, she estimates she emailed 75 to 100 people inquiring whether they’d be willing to speak with her class. She’s heard back from two people so far, she said.
Second-grader Parker Cupp has his fingers crossed Daniel Middleton, an English YouTube personality who goes by the name The Diamond Minecart, will agree to speak with his class.
“He’s one of my favorite YouTubers,” he said. “It’s my dream to meet him.”
“I want them to have those opportunities. I want them to know there’s so much more out there.”
– J.B. Stephens Elementary second-grade teacher Angela Graddy, on the use of virtual field trips in the classroom.