Tricia Ward’s third-graders gave the thumbs down to “War Horse.” The gesture wasn’t a review so much as a reality; it was their way of signifying that they hadn’t read the book.
On the morning of March 6, the Prairie Heights Elementary School students participated in a Google Hangout on Air with Stacey Derbique’s third-grade class at Westwood Elementary School in De Pere, Wis.
The 20-minute conversation was part of the West De Pere School District’s elementary celebration of Read Across America Day. The official Read Across America Day was March 3, but West De Pere elementary school students have been working on an ambitious new project to bring the day’s title to life.
“I’m not giving up until I get all 50 states done,” says Jennifer Zurawski, a library media/instructional technology specialist for the district’s elementary schools. “I just blew it up and turned it into this crazy thing with all the states in the country.”
Over the last week, West De Pere students have been video chatting using Google’s Hangouts on Air feature to connect over literature with their peers in each of the nation’s 50 states.
“The things that are coming out of these are phenomenal,” Zurawski says. “I told (teachers) it had to have something to do with reading. I didn’t want to give them rigid guidelines because I think people are much more creative when I just leave it open ended.”
The March 6 Hangout began with the Westwood third-graders recommending their favorite books to their Prairie Heights counterparts, before students switched roles, each reading short reviews and plot summaries that they’d written down earlier. They also asked each other questions about their schools and states, the weather, recess and favorite lunch foods.
“I love stuff like this. I love opportunities to use technology to help students connect,” Ward says. “I think it opens up windows and doors all over.”
Ward, a digital literacy trainer for the College Community School District, often employs technology to help her students with their reading skills. She lets them use her smartphone to record each other reading aloud and then has the students watch the videos to see where they struggle.
“Sometimes they’d rather read to a video camera than me,” Ward says. “Their reading is more relaxed.”
“There’s not that pressure,” adds Gina Rogers, a technology consultant for the Grant Wood Area Education Agency. College Community is one of the districts in the agency’s service area, and Rogers was on hand for the March 6 Hangout.
Stacy Behmer, coordinator of digital learning technology for the agency, was also in Ward’s classroom for the Hangout.
Behmer met Zurawski last year when they presented at the same conference. Zurawski had Behmer lead West De Pere teachers in a Hangout about Google Hangouts and when it came time to find teachers in classrooms across the country, Zurawski knew she wanted to involve one of Behmer’s districts.
“I know she has the tech skills to make it work,” Behmer says about selecting Ward to participate in the Read Across America project. “There’s some innovative things going on at College Community.”
Zurawski already hosts monthly book talks using Hangouts on Air for all of West De Pere’s elementary classes, and she said a West De Pere first-grade teacher actually came to her with the idea of incorporating Skype or FaceTime for Read Across America.
“When I heard what she was thinking about, I thought, ‘No, we can make this bigger,’?” Zurawski says. “Let’s really make this read across America.”
Zurawski said she hopes to reach her goal of hosting Hangouts with classes in all 50 states by the end of March. She still needs to solidify plans for classrooms in Virginia, West Virginia, Wyoming and New Mexico.
“We’re stuck in our quaint little city of De Pere, and it’s really interesting to see what’s going on outside this area,” she says. “It’s been really neat researching the backgrounds of the schools too and seeing what it’s like in those different areas.
Meanwhile, back in Cedar Rapids, Behmer, Ward and Rogers wasted no time brainstorming how they could use the Hangouts on Air technology to connect with students in other states and even throughout the world.
“This could be a huge motivator for some of those nonreaders,” Ward says. “(The students) were so excited. ... I would like to do something like this next week.”
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