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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Be the Skype Version of Flat Stanley

By Peter DeWitt — April 11, 2014 5 min read
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Jeff Brown published Flat Stanleyin 1964. If you’re an educator, student or parent who experienced elementary school, you have probably experienced Flat Stanley. He has appeared all over the world, and connected students with places they have never seen.

As a second grade teacher I used to read Flat Stanley, and then we would find people to send him to. I remember sending him to my brother when he was living in Saudi Arabia, and he took him to a camel farm and several other places. The students were always interested to see where Stanley would end up.

Although using Flat Stanley is still an engaging way to teach students about places other than their own homes, there are some other technological tools that are being used these days to engage students in real time.

Teachers are using Skype and Google Hangout to bring guests in a virtual way. Typically they are called Mystery Skype Guests. Lately, I have been a Mystery Skype guest with our third graders at Poestenkill Elementary School in Averill Park. While I have been out on my leave it’s been a great way to connect with the students, and see how they are doing.

How it Works

Over the past few months I have been able to Skype with the third graders, but there is a bit of a catch, because they have to guess where I am. Whether I was in Texas, New Zealand or even at home, the students were able to ask me about 10 questions so they could guess my location. Clearly, New Zealand was the toughest because of the time difference, but we worked it out, and it made me feel a bit closer to home.

After the students figured out my location, they began asking me questions specific to where I was located, which was not easy. They asked some really hard questions! I began feeling like the human version of Flat Stanley.

In the old days, when I was teaching, we used to watch a video of Tomie dePaola in his home. The video focused on where he writes, his art studio and his dog. Every year the students were excited to see one of their favorite authors in his home environment. As much as those videos can still be great, Skype offers a real time version to fit that need.

For me, Skype offered an instant connection, and turned out to be an engaging lesson with students.

Connecting with Professionals

It only takes a bit of planning. My friend, and fellow EdcampUNY organizer, Lisa Meade, who is a middle school principal in Corinth, NY recently Skyped with middle school expert Rick Wormelli...twice. Her staff was able to ask him questions, and the faculty meeting became a very personalized example of professional development.

Lisa said,

“Earlier this year, the Shared Decision Making team agreed to examine our school’s homework policy. Some of that examination included reading of current research. We also purchased a copy of Fair Isn’t Always Equal for every member and assigned applicable chapters to be read before each meeting. We would then use the meeting time to discuss what resonated (or didn’t - yet) with us and how it fit our evolving homework policy.

At the same time, I was new to twitter and happened to tweet to the author of the book, @RickWormeliabout his book. That same evening, I received a tweet back and a kind offer to “let him know if he could help anytime”.

That was all I needed. Once we finished reading what was assigned and fleshed out a revised homework policy, I reached out to Mr. Wormeli through twitter DM. He promptly responded and agreed to a Skype call with my SDM. That call was with our small committee but its impact was huge. The entire team found the call to be so incredibly helpful. His thinking that day challenged many of their thoughts and practices. He gave us thoughtful and specific feedback on our ideas and we used them to further revise the policy we hoped to eventually present to faculty.

That call had such an impact on the SDM team. I began to wonder what kind of impact the call would have on the entire faculty. By this time, we had shared out the proposed policy to the faculty and asked them to just start thinking about it. We agreed to read it, work with it and then come back in April to discuss any concerns the faculty would have about adopting it. In the meantime, I began to realize that the call the SDM team had with Mr. Wormeli was the exact same thing my entire faculty could benefit from.

I emailed Rick Wormeli again...

In the back of my mind, I was chastising myself for looking so greedy. This amazing presenter and teacher had already extended his help one time. Two times might be pushing it. But, that was not the case. He promptly agreed and we were able to hold an entire faculty Skype call at 7:40 am earlier this week. In order to facilitate the call, I had asked staff to post any questions or concerns they had relative to homework on a premade padlet link. We used those questions at our Skype call to conduct a Q and A call with Mr. Wormeli. We also heard other questions from the floor.

To put it in a nutshell, staff were somewhat stunned. Stunned, I think, that Mr. Wormeli would make time for our little Middle School. Stunned too, I think, at the needed possibility of change in some areas. But, they were also incredibly appreciative and impacted by his call and advice.

Since that call, almost every teacher has stopped by or written to me to share their impressions of that call. Even better, they have started to think about how to use this information to stretch their thinking so that we can all do things better today than we knew how to do yesterday. We will be able to implement a revised homework policy that is fair to students and more reflective of today’s professional practice.

The possibilities of these changes and this growth would never have happened without Twitter, and Skype made it so much easier for everyone to connect. And I want to thank Mr. Wormeli for being such an incredible, generous, thoughtful resource.”

Be the Skype version of Flat Stanley:

  • Find a reason to have someone Skype with your class. Clearly, it has to work into your curriculum focus.
  • Reach out to your class’s favorite author. Give it a try. It worked for Lisa and it has worked for others. You might be surprised how happy someone is you reached out to them.
  • If you know someone who lives abroad, reach out to them. Perhaps they can bring a guest...with an accent!
  • Skype with one of your student’s parents. Make it a real mystery guest where they cover their face until the students figure out who it is. Once again, it would work best about curriculum. Perhaps the parent is a scientist who is an expert in the area of science you are covering in class.

Connect with Peter on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.