During a recent week, Michael Dunlea and his Grade 3 students enjoyed virtual visits with a shark expert and a microbiologist exploring the Arctic. The week before that, they discussed local watershed issues online with a conservationist and had a video meeting with students in Ireland. “This is a very close, passionate project of mine—teaching beyond the four walls of my classroom,” said Dunlea, who teaches in Tabernacle, New Jersey.
He isn’t alone in that pursuit. During the pandemic—as schools have shifted among in-person, hybrid, and remote learning—teachers have relied on technology to provide core instruction and engaging experiences for their students. One popular approach has been to connect students via digital platforms with experts from different fields as well as with classrooms around the world. The practice can support student learning and boost engagement, and many teachers say they’ll continue to use it in the future. This subject was the focus of the most recent Great Minds® Educators Engage webinar, “Bringing the Outside In: Using Digital Tools to Connect Students with Experts and the Real World.”
Providing Comfort, Deepening Learning
Katie Scotti, a Grade 4 English language arts teacher in Baltimore City Public Schools, who also works with Great Minds to support teachers implementing Wit & Wisdom, moderated the discussion. She said she saw the power of connecting her students to outside experts when a cardiologist made an in-person visit to her classroom last year to talk to her students while they were studying a unit on the heart. The doctor was treating the brother of one of Scotti’s students who had a heart condition. “I really believe that module was able to provide her with some comfort because she was able to have a literal understanding of what was happening with her brother,” Scotti said. She added that the student and her classmates deepened their knowledge during the visit and enjoyed sharing their knowledge with the doctor.
Meeting Famous Authors
Similarly, albeit virtually, Grade 8 students in Sumner County Schools in Gallatin, Tennessee, recently met author Kwame Alexander after reading his book The Crossover. Jean Hesson, Sumner Connect Coordinator, said the students loved the experience and benefited from hearing the author explain how writing is sometimes a struggle, even for him, and requires perseverance. “It was a super impactful way to make a really big author available to our students,” Hesson said. She noted that she had also seen the strategy work for her district’s youngest learners. For example, Kindergarten classes studying farm animals while reading The Little Red Hen by Paul Galdone took virtual field trips to farms and orchards, and a teacher even brought her chicken to a virtual lesson one day.
Baltimore City Public Schools Grade 1 teacher Rodrick Johnson, who is also a professional development and implementation specialist for Great Minds, said he sometimes takes his students on virtual field trips and brings in outside experts. At other times he uses digital tools to help students see him out in the real world. For example, he might take a videorecording of himself reading a book by the ocean or in a park. Johnson believes that, amid the challenges of distance learning, those experiences help his students connect with him and encourage reading. He said it’s always important to be intentional about the use of technology in the classroom and map it to teaching and learning goals.
Dunlea said one of his biggest goals in connecting his students with others has been to broaden their horizons and help them gain perspective. “This started with me really noticing that I wasn’t having a lot of global perspectives in my teaching. … My students and I both needed to have a shift in our learning and our teaching,” Dunlea said. He got involved with a program that allowed him to connect his class with students and teachers around the world who were interested in learning about and addressing climate change. He also said he came to see the need to connect his mostly White students with students of color and partnered with a friend teaching in Memphis to connect their two classrooms virtually. “We live in a very segregated society, and there are a lot of ways you can use the digital world to bring people together,” he said.
All teachers on the panel use social media to get ideas about ways to connect their students to the world beyond the classroom and to engage with authors and experts. They agree that connecting with outside experts engages families as well as students. Educators have found that with so many parents and guardians working at home alongside their children this past year, families often listen in when visitors join class lessons.
If you missed the Educators Engage discussion, check out the recording below. Our panelists had suggestions for digital resources to explore, including the following:
- Teach SDGs—provides information to educators interested in working toward the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and connecting with each other
- Skype a Scientist—enables classrooms to connect with scientists for video chats
- Empatico—connects classrooms around the world
- Loom—offers a platform for video messaging
- Radio Garden—lets you listen to radio stations around the world
- Flipgrid—allows for video-based discussions
If you use tools and resources that might be helpful to others who want to engage students in this way, please share by tagging us on Twitter at @greatmindsed or on Facebook at @GreatMindsEd.
Jenny has over a decade of experience in education policy and research. She has worked with states and districts on the development and implementation of college and career readiness policies, especially around the implementation of rigorous standards and high-quality instructional materials. She has extensive knowledge about K–12 standards, graduation requirements, assessments, and accountability systems nationwide. Additionally, she has conducted research for school districts to address pressing needs in those districts. Jenny received her B.A. in English and education from Bucknell University and her M.Ed. in education policy from the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education.