Blair Smith is a Year 5/6 teacher in Australia. He is also a Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert and a Skype Master Teacher. Blair has so far organized eight “Skype nights” where his students slept at school to travel around the world virtually, over Skype. Blair describes how using Skype in his classroom has transformed his teaching and his students’ learning.
Where did the idea of a Skype night come from?
At the beginning of last year, my class became addicted to Mystery Skype. They loved the competitiveness of trying to solve the clues to locate the other class, and then getting to experience what life is like in that part of the world. It quickly became apparent that, due to the massive time differences between Australia and the majority of the world, it was difficult to connect with classes in the continents we really wanted to visit. So, I suggested we sleep at school and do Skype calls with as many classes around the world in one night as we could. The first night was a hit and it has now become part of what we do at St Therese’s. We have now had eight Skype nights since last year.
What have the benefits been for the students and wider community?
The most obvious benefit to the students has been their increased geographical knowledge, but Skype has enabled them to learn so much more than that. Through Skype, we have had the opportunity to expose the students to what life is like for the less fortunate children of the world. There is nothing more powerful than having your students listen to the stories from children their own age about their lives. This led to the students developing empathy for the less fortunate and a strong social conscience.
This year alone, through making connections via Skype in the Classroom, we have raised money to sponsor two penguins, a sun bear, five families in Kenya, as well as collected spoons and donations for children in Africa as part of the Spoon Appeal. Using Skype to meet the people who have less than them, or too meet the people on the ground making a difference, has inspired my students to make a difference in the world.
But not only has it benefited the students, it has also touched their families. Each Skype night, we have a number of parents and grandparents attend, and each and every one of them becomes hooked! Each Skype night, we also have a number of past students return to school so they can participate. On our last Skype night, one of our past students who no longer lives in our town had their parents make the three-hour drive back so they could attend.
Tell us about your Skype calls during your latest Skype night.
I always try and have a mixture of Mystery Skype, cultural exchanges, guest speakers and virtual tours during our Skype nights. This time, we had Mystery Skype sessions with classes in the USA, India, South Korea, Cyprus, Scotland and Wales. We learnt a traditional Indian dance and talked to a class about the book we had both been reading for Global Read Aloud. We also learnt all about how to code games from one of the designers of Call of Duty. We visited the Lisbon Zoo in Portugal and learnt about bio-diversity and ecosystems; and Mt Rainier National Park in Washington where we learnt about foxes.
But our favourite Skype call was when we reconnected with the Mitahato Education and Development Fund Teaching Farm in Kenya, and got to meet all the families that we have sponsored through their program. This was an amazing experience for the students and myself to hear first-hand from the people we have sponsored just how much our assistance has meant to them, and what they have been able to achieve with our help. We were very proud to find out that we were the first class to support this program. Interviews with my students and me are featured in a video about the project.
How do you find the people to call on Skype?
The first place I go to is the Microsoft Educator Community website. This site makes it so easy to connect with amazing teachers, guest speakers and virtual tours from all over the world.
How has Skype changed your teaching practices?
I think one of the biggest advantages of Skype in the Classroom is that I no longer have to try and be an expert in every field. Now, if I need to know about a topic, I invite a guest speaker into our room, or we take a virtual tour. This year we have had Skype calls with authors, scientists, animal experts, archaeologists, paleontologists, explorers, as well as classes from all over the world. We have learnt about different religions and cultures by talking with students from other parts of the world, and we have also become teachers ourselves, sharing all about Australia and our culture. I would highly recommend all teachers embrace their student’s curiosity and let them discover the world through Skype in the Classroom.
Teachers: Why not organize a Skype night for your students to celebrate Earth Day? Travel around the world with zero footprint by participating in Skype in the Classroom activities. Invite guest speakers, schedule a Skype lesson or virtual field trip so your students can learn more about our beautiful planet.
You can also take the Skype Collaborations Course to learn all about how to organize your own Skype Collaboration project and get 500 points towards your Microsoft Innovative Educator (MIE) badge.
Parents: Why not ask your school to get involved with Skype in the Classroom so your kids can experience the world live from their classrooms!