Brewer class chats its way across USA

Posted March 07, 2010, at 11:15 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 and Illinois, and were at Pine Valley Elementary School in Wilmington, N.C., on Friday.

How is that possible?

By using the Internet and videoconferencing.

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 since has blossomed into an online learning experience for both her students and herself.

“The kids were so excited about what they learned and the video conference we had” that 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 lifelong learning.”

MacInnes has set up meetings, on Google Chat or Skype, with third-grade classrooms in all 50 states.

To create the online connection, MacInnes uses a Macintosh laptop that has a built-in webcam. 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 the other class over the Internet.

The students keep journals of what they learn during the meetings and place state flag stickers on a 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- to 30-minute Internet learning sessions.

Brewer’s team Lighting Beam led the class Friday. The Maine students learned that North Carolina has venomous 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 Atlantic coastline that attracts 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 are from their states’ capitals, what their state flags look like, and what the area around them is 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 white stuff.

“We experienced snow this year and we haven’t had snow for eight 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 Hahba”; 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’ students said.

In addition to learning about geography, and associated things such as 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, after the Internet connection in Brewer was finished.

MacInnes said she learned that connecting classrooms by 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, ClassChats.com, so teachers across the country 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 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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