Going Global: Adding a New Dimension to Your Classroom with ePals and Skype

by Guest Blogger Troy Tenhet

Going global is now nothing short of a necessity. There is no excuse for not making that connection that instantly increases the capacity of your instruction. The technology exists, and it’s free. Suddenly, you have a stage for your students to stand on, a platform that they can collaborate with, and a tool that they can see and hear each other with in real time… and you have the perfect global audience of their peers!

Keep It Simple
To create this new dimension to your classroom experience, you can use ePals and Skype, both free. Epals provides an email platform that will connect you to teachers and students just like you and your class. In addition to the safe email capability, there are project collaboration areas and a living directory of teachers from all grade levels, from all over the world. Epals users also have access to Epals partners National Geographic, Smithsonian, and Cobblestone & Cricket. When you get registered for ePals, see who is available around the world, decide what type of project you want to do, and then simply reach out and ask someone to join you!

Skype is great too. It is free and as long as you set the privacy settings to “your contact list only,” you should be ready to go. My only advice with Skype events is to have a plan and a time limit. Keep the Skype interactions short and sweet. Also, before you allow Skype cameras on in your classroom, make sure you have a personal Skype call with your global partner teachers in order to confirm their identity and context.

It’s Not What You Think
Picture this. It’s early in the morning and kids are walking into class with their parents. There’s orange juice, coffee, and donuts on the back classroom counter. The lights are down and the big screen (sometimes this is a SmartBoard) is lit up and there are 34 Icelanders smiling at you as you take your seat. You hear laughing and talking and realize that the Americans in the room with you are having conversations with their buddies over in Iceland. Since the time difference is seven hours, it is 6:30AM PST! We presented our “My Community, My Culture” books to each other and then made holiday plans to send Christmas stories and candies to each other.

How difficult was it to pull this off? It was easy. The kids chose the topics and the project and even came up with the candy exchange idea. They brought the refreshments and every single one of them showed up bright and early for the Skype event.

Another project, with a school in Binde, Norway, started as a creative writing project that the students turned into a Patriotic Haiku Project that focused on the patriotic passion of each classroom. It then transformed into a poetic project about friendship with stamped handprints in national colors.

Unintended Outcomes
During our interactions with our friends at Áslandsskóli School in Iceland, a rather large volcano erupted —and then disrupted the lives of people across the world. While we thought we’d get a first-hand accounting of the eruption from our friends, instead we got a first-hand accounting of how the glacier was melting because of the volcano and the fisheries were being adversely affected and many of the kids were worried about the safety of their loved ones. Now with the laughter, we added some tears. It was a day, and a meaningful relationship that none of us will forget.

Step Out of Your Comfort Zone
My students and I have worked with researchers in Antarctica. We’ve toured museums (virtually) in London. We’ve danced in front of students in Romania and traded climate projects with Pakistan. We’ve developed deep relationships with students in Iceland and worked on cultural projects with my colleague and friend Rose Manuel in Singapore. We have even worked on ancient Roman coin projects with a school in New York and presented oral book reports to kids in Glendale, California. I’ve collaborated with teachers on every continent and it has lead to presentations here in the US and over in Asia. What I’m trying to say is that you can add a new dimension to your professional capacity as well as to the overall educational experience of the students that learn in your classroom. Decide what you want, and who you want to work with and then send the email out. Epals can start you out and sustain you. Then Skype can bring the project to a dynamic new level as you conclude your global collaborations. Try it out. You won’t regret it!

Troy Tenhet teaches sixth grade at Panama Buena-Vista Union School District and is an instructor at Fresno Pacific University.