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When two classes across the United States talked on Google Chat, they discovered they had a lot in common, including the same state fish.
But while Maine and Alaska both claim the salmon as their fish, they don't share frozen whale blubber. After the third graders in Maine heard about the Eskimo delicacy called muktuk, their jaws dropped, teacher Cherrie MacInnes said.
Video calls like this one have shown the students a close-up view of the culture, mammals and customs through the voices of third graders across the United States. By the end of the school year in June, MacInnes' class from Washington Street School in Brewer plans to talk to a class in each state on the Internet-based software Skype and Google Chat.
And while not all the other classes have time to spend 20 or 30 minutes with 49 schools in four months, the students are sharing what they've learned about their home states through the Chatting Across the USA project.
Instead of just rotely memorizing information, the students in MacInnes' class are actually mastering the facts that they study.
“The kids know what they’ve learned so much better because they’re sharing it with other people, and we’re learning so much about other states,” MacInnes said.
Last year, the second- and third-grade kids at Abbott Loop Elementary didn't always remember what Dawn Bell was teaching them about Alaska. But this year, they do.
“My students retained that information better, and it also motivated them because they don’t want to be embarrassed in front of somebody that’s their age,” Bell said, “so they’ve got to really know those facts.”
They share facts such as Alaska's official flower, fish and bird through a jeopardy game that Bell created. Through these calls, the kids from Anchorage compare their states, cultures and history.
“We found out that 19 Maines would fit in one Alaska,” Bell said. “And the kids were like, 'That’s cool.'”
Back in Maine, the third-graders had never seen a ranch before, but they talked to six students who grew up in a ranching culture in South Dakota.
“It’s really great bringing those communities right into our classroom,” MacInnes said, “and it makes it so real."
In addition to ranching, the kids from Buffalo Elementary told them about their state's history and geography. As part of the project, their parents helped them choose what information to share about South Dakota, and then the kids researched it.
One of the boys who struggled with reading decided to talk about the Black Hills, where gold was discovered in 1874 and where Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer spent some time before he went to fight in the Battle of Little Big Horn. That really interested him, teacher Sue Ann Clanton said.
“I had a hard time getting him away from the Custer stuff,” Clanton said.
Preparing for these video calls has allowed students to cover all the subject areas they need. They research the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, study the history of their area, mark states that they've talked to on a map, write a paragraph about what they've learned and work on their stage presence in front of the webcam.
The third-graders have already talked to three states and have two more coming up. But shhhh, one of them's a secret ... at least from the kids. For that call, they'll have to guess which state they're talking to based on the clues that a teacher gives them.
“I really like that twist,” Clanton said, “The kids are really excited; they can hardly stand that they don’t know what state it is.”
Talking with students from other states has energized MacInnes' class and helped them learn how to communicate effectively through different technology tools.
And the project is so much more than just learning facts. They're learning their place within the country and seeing how they compare with kids their age in other areas.
“I think any time you can make something meaningful and relevant, kids naturally want to learn,” MacInnes said, “and they gravitate toward that kind of an activity or that kind of a learning experience.”
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