Brewer third-grade class travels across country

Posted March 06, 2010, at 4:07 p.m.

BREWER, Maine — Third graders at Washington Street School have traveled to five states this year and are planning trips to every other state in the nation before the school year is out.

The kids, age 8 or 9, went to Minnesota first, then Tennessee, Utah, Illinois, and were at Pine Valley Elementary School in Wilmington, North Carolina on Friday.

How is that possible?

By using the world wide web and video conferencing.

Teacher Cherrie MacInnes said the “Chatting Across the USA” project started out as a way to stay connected to a student who moved to Minnesota last year, and has since blossomed into a on-line learning experience for both her students and herself.

“The kids were so excited about what they learned and the video conference we had” the decision was made to reach out to each state in the union, she said.

“I don’t think the kids will forget this experience,” said the teacher who has been guiding students for 20 years. “I hope it sparks life-long learning.”

MacInnes has set up meetings, via Google Chat or Skype, with third grade classrooms in 49 of the county’s 50 states.

“All we need now is Georgia,” she said.

To create the on-line connection, MacInnes simply uses a Macintosh laptop that has a built in web camera. She projects the digital image of the visiting class onto her classroom’s white board for her students to see, and at the same time sends their image to them over the Internet.

The students keep journals of what they learn during the meetings and place state flag stickers on a huge map in their classroom, after they visit the state. To ensure each student gets a chance to ask a question or tell a Maine fact, they have formed teams that represent the class during the 20-30 minute Internet learning sessions.

Brewer’s team Lighting Beam led the class on Friday. The Maine students learned that North Carolina has poisonous snakes and two carnivorous plants, including the venus flytrap, and that the two states have a lot in common.

Maine and North Carolina both have a long coastline abutting the Atlantic Ocean that attract tourists, are connected by the Appalachian Trail, and have farmers that harvest blueberries, and grow strawberries.

The two groups of students compared how far away they were from their state’s capital, what their state flags look like, and what the area around them was like.

After a red-headed Breanna told the group from North Carolina about Maine’s mountains and the snow, Wilmington Teacher Jennifer Netro said the southern state rarely sees the while stuff.

“We experienced snow this year and we haven’t had snow for 8 years,” she said.

At the end of the short Internet session, they talked about regional accents.

Ethan, one of MacInnes students, said some Mainers drop their Rs, which makes Bar Harbor sound like “Bah Haaba” and a Leah, from North Carolina, spoke in a thick southern drawl that she called a “country accent.”

“I always wanted to talk like that,” one of MacInnes student said.

In addition to learning about geography, and things associated things like time zones, the students also are learning about how to communicate through technology, networking and teamwork skills, the longtime educator said.

“I think this is really fun because we can see how different and how the same we are,” said Lauren, 9, said after the Internet connection in Brewer was severed.

MacInnes said she learned that connecting classrooms via the Internet, while not a new idea, is not commonplace. She and the Brewer technology team are beginning to create a database under a new Web site, ClassChat.com, so teachers across the county can easily connect to one another.

“We have the base [information] now and can do it,” she said, adding the application could be used for students of all ages, and even expanded to include classrooms outside of the U.S.

“This is something that opens a lot of doors to education.” MacInnes said. “Who knows what kinds of things we can bring to the table.”

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