Why I Use Skype to Teach World Geography and Cross-Cultural Competency

Why I Use Skype to Teach World Geography and Cross-Cultural Competency

My computer rings and I feel the excitement bubbling up in my suburban Maryland classroom. My first-graders know a Mystery Skype game is about to start. They grab their supplies: large, laminated world maps, dry erase markers, and magnifying glasses — and join their team on the rug.

Aloud they wonder how many hints they will need to determine where the other children are and what clues they will share. In teams of four, my students formulate several questions to help them solve the mystery:

  • Are you in the northern or southern hemisphere?
  • Are you near an ocean?
  • Is it morning or afternoon for you?
  • Are you in a big continent?
  • What is your main language?

I turn on the Smart Board to begin the adventure. One by one, my students come to the webcam, introduce themselves, and ask questions in the order they’ve agreed to. Soon, my room is alive with the children’s chatter. Huddled over their maps, they eliminate continents and countries. Magnifying glasses come out. When the whole class thinks that they’ve figured out the other children’s location, they shout out: “Are you in Chile?”
They’re not correct, so they return to study their maps and ask more questions. Finally, my class solves the mystery, and the students in the other class take their turn.

This session, my class is meeting with a group of second-graders in a bilingual school in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Their native tongue is Spanish, but their English is wonderful. My students learn that even though their partners have strong accents, they can understand them if they concentrate. The children in Argentina squeal with delight when they discover we’re in North America, especially because they’ve never met children in the United States before. The two groups then chat about their areas, cultures, and schools. My students are shocked to discover that children in Argentina also trade Pokemon cards and play similar recess games. The two groups also discern differences in time zone, season, and continent during the conversation.

As a teacher at McDonogh School in Owings Mills, MD, I continually find that Mystery Skype gives students valuable hands-on experience with world geography and helps them develop cross-cultural competency.

Mary-Catherine Irving’s first-graders participate in a Mystery Skype lesson. Credit: McDonogh School

A Window to the World

While many teachers view their Smart Board as a piece of technology to facilitate students’ computer and Internet use, I see it as a window to the world. As we meet children and adults on every continent this year, my students learn to collaborate, hone their communication skills, develop empathy, and enrich their problem-solving ability.

I started using Skype in my teaching in 2005, two years after the platform debuted. At the time my school was holding fundraisers to help a school in New Orleans affected by Hurricane Katrina. I reached out to a teacher, and our classes began to meet. We discussed local food, holidays, and our school communities. The video was often very pixilated, but the children’s idea exchanges revealed the power of these sessions. Our students became friends, and soon my class wanted to use Skype to share school events with their peers in New Orleans.

Skype’s potential as a teaching tool increased after Microsoft purchased the platform in 2011. Microsoft aims for teachers to learn and participate in a global community through activities such as Mystery Skype and virtual field trips. In addition, Microsoft educational consultants select guest speakers, ranging from engineers to authors to marine biologists, whom teachers vet to ensure productive learning for students. Today, more than 500,000 teachers and experts on all seven continents use Skype in the Classroom. More than 10 million students, speaking 64 languages, have seen other parts of the world in their classes through this technology.

Virtual Field Trips

I use Skype in the Classroom a great deal now. Typically, I’ll hold two or three sessions a month at various times in the day, during social studies, morning meeting, or lunch.

My first-graders have taken part in several virtual field trips, guided by guest speakers. Every two months, we take a gander through the platform and my students choose which experts to meet. As part of a unit on penguins, we met a penguin researcher outdoors in the middle of a rookery in Antarctica in December. Although my students know it’s cold in Antarctica, it was not until they met with Ms. Pennycook that they began to understand just how cold it is. They saw she had to wrap her laptop up in hand-warmers so it would not crash. She also showed them how desolate her home was while she conducted her research over several months.

Ms. Irving takes her students on a virtual field trip to Antarctica to learn about penguins. Credit: McDonogh School

In October, we met with a great white shark expert 30 feet underwater in a shark cage. Seeing sharks swimming around made my first-graders truly grasp their enormity.

First-graders learn about sharks in a virtual field trip in Ms. Irving’s class. Credit: McDonogh School

In November, we met with a paleontologist as he scaled a wall filled with dinosaur fossils in Utah. In each case, we never left the classroom.

Before each of these 45-minute sessions, I email with the experts to plan the lesson. I also show a video or read nonfiction to my students so they have sufficient background knowledge to ask meaningful questions. During Q&As, I am impressed with how seriously these experts treat my young students. When we were chatting with Ms. Pennycook in Antarctica, one student asked how the penguins know when to make the journey back to the rookery where they were born. She responded that scientists have not yet answered that question. She suggested my students read, learn math, and problem-solve with groups. Perhaps they would join her one day to answer that question.

My first-graders and I have virtually met some tougher circumstances this year as well. After Hurricane Matthew hit the Bahamas last fall, we connected with a teacher whose town in Nassau had been devastated. Initially we were only able to talk with the teacher by phone because the school was closed due to the conditions after the storm. My students raised money to help the class buy cleaning supplies by completing chores at home. When the school’s power was restored, her students met mine and described how they prepare for a storm of that magnitude and what it was like to live through it. We listened in awe.

Cross-Cultural Relationships

Skype in the Classroom helps my students cultivate virtual pen pal relationships.  For the past few years, my classes have had a relationship with students in Buenos Aires. We frequently hold morning meetings together, or meet to play games. Bilingual Simon Says and Rock, Paper, Scissors are favorites. During these sessions, the two groups teach one another poems, songs, and games from their countries. My students are now most avid Spanish students. Our Spanish teacher remarked that they are the only first-graders she has ever had who take notes, because they have a reason to learn the language.

My students are not the only ones building relationships abroad. I have tapped into a worldwide network of educators who are as passionate about bringing the world into their classrooms as I am. We frequently collaborate about teaching methods and content via Skype.

Over the years, I have developed some deep friendships. When my partner teacher in New Orleans had breast cancer, I supported her throughout her recovery. When my colleague in Argentina was contemplating changing schools, we Skyped at night to discuss her options. In fact, I have traveled to New Orleans, Mexico, and Argentina to visit teachers I had only met online, and hosted them when they came to visit. My colleague in Argentina stayed in my home for a month last winter, teaching with me and visiting other schools in Baltimore. I never could have imagined that I would make friends around the world with whom I would talk about my students, family, and life!

Far-Reaching Benefits

Many teachers wonder whether these virtual visits benefit them and their students. Looking back over my own experience, I realize that my students and I are more passionate about learning and our place in the world after connecting with others via Skype. During this school year, my students traveled more than 50,000 miles through Skype and my Smart Board.

My former student, Andrew, perfectly captured the significance of what he was learning this way: “Through Skype, I have talked with people all around the world. It makes me wonder if we all really do have a lot in common.”


Mary-Catherine Irving

Mary-Catherine Irving has taught first grade for 27 years. In 2016, she was selected as a Microsoft Innovative Educator as well as a Skype Master Teacher. NAIS selected her as an Innovative Educator in 2011. In addition, she is a certified National Geographic Educator. She can be reached at Mirving@McDonogh.org to provide guidance if you wish to try bringing the world into your room.

Why Multilingual People Have Healthier, More Engaged Brains

Prior to the 1960s, scientists thought children who spoke more than one language had a handicap for learning because they had to spend too much time distinguishing between languages. With more modern brain imaging technology, researchers can now see how multilingualism actually strengthens the brain. People who speak more than one language have a higher density of gray matter that contains most of the brains neurons and synapses.

Scientists are also beginning to distinguish between young children who grow up learning and speaking two languages as compared to those who learn a second language in adulthood. Children use both hemispheres of the brain to acquire language, which means they often grasp the emotional implications of language more deeply. In contrast, adults who learned a second language tend to approach problems presented to them in that language in a more rational, detached way. Scientists hypothesize that it’s because adults often acquire language through the left hemisphere of the brain.

Learn more about the fascinating brain research around multilingualism from this TED-Ed video and the accompanying lesson plans. Many classrooms are filled with students who speak more than one language and they should know that ability is a great strength.

Why America Lags Behind the Rest of the World in Language Education

The Atlantic
In 2013, roughly 198,000 U.S. college students were taking a French course, while just 64 were studying Bengali.

Vivek Prakash / Reuters
Educators from across the country gathered in Washington, D.C., this past Thursday to lobby in the interest of world languages. It was Language Advocacy Day, an annual event on Capitol Hill that is aimed at garnering more federal support for language education.

As I sat in sessions and congressional conference rooms, I heard a persuasive urgency in these educators’ voices. Each year as national budget priorities are determined, language education is losing out—cuts have been made to funding for such instruction, including Title VI grants and the Foreign Language Assistance Program. And the number of language enrollments in higher education in the U.S. declined by more than 111,000 spots between 2009 and 2013—the first drop since 1995. Translation? Only 7 percent of college students in America are enrolled in a language course.

Another challenge emerges when looking at the languages these students are learning, too. In 2013, roughly 198,000 U.S. college students were taking a French course; just 64, on the other hand, were studying Bengali. Yet, globally, 193 million people speak Bengali, while 75 million speak French. In fact, Arne Duncan, the U.S. education secretary, noted back in 2010 that the vast majority—95 percent—of all language enrollments were in a European language. This is just one indicator demonstrating the shortcomings and inequalities in language education today.
Education is dominated by disputes over priorities, largely because of politics and limited funding. Some people, for example, think arts instruction is financial quicksand, while some believe that sports don’t belong in the schools. Others, meanwhile, even assert that schools’ emphasis on math could be holding students back. Language is another subject area whose importance is greatly debated. Advocates and educators disagree about whether it’s a worthwhile investment—whether it’s something that produces a greater return than, say, social studies. And within the realm of language, advocates clash over which ones should take precedence.

Only 7 percent of college students in America are enrolled in a language course.
Less than 1 percent of American adults today are proficient in a foreign language that they studied in a U.S. classroom. That’s noteworthy considering that in 2008 almost all high schools in the country—93 percent—offered foreign languages, according to a national survey. In many cases, as Richard Brecht, who oversees the University of Maryland’s Center for Advanced Study of Language, said on Thursday: “It isn’t that people don’t think language education important. It’s that they don’t think it’s possible.”

Language proficiency is just as hard to build as it is to maintain. But the same could be said even about core subjects, such as math. Five years ago, I took Multivariable Calculus and Linear Algebra; now, I need a calculator to multiply four by seven. Still, my math classes taught me something more valuable than how to solve a complex equation: I learned skills that help me with the accounting, bookkeeping, research, and budget strategizing required in my day job. Like math, language-learning is shown to come with a host of cognitive and academic benefits. And knowing a foreign language is an undoubtedly practical skill: According to Mohamed Abdel-Kader, the deputy leading the DOE’s language-education arm, one in five jobs are tied to international trade. Meanwhile, the Joint National Committee for Languages reports that the language industry—which includes companies that provide language services and materials—employs more than 200,000 Americans. These employees earn an annual median wage of $80,000.

Kirsten Brecht-Baker, the founder of Global Professional Search, recently told me about what she calls “the global war for talent.” Americans, she said, are in danger of needing to import human capital because insufficient time or dollars are being invested in language education domestically. “It can’t just be about specialization [in engineering or medicine or technology] anymore,” she said. “They have to communicate in the language.”

The Joint National Committee for Languages advocates for integrating language education with subjects ranging from engineering to political science—anything, really. “Languages are not a side dish that’s extra, but it’s a side dish that complements other skills,” Hanson said. “You can use it to augment and fortify other skills that you have, and expand the application of these skills.” But students, especially those in college, are often discouraged from language courses or studying abroad because of stringent requirements in another subject matter.

But perhaps educational institutions can address this challenge by integrating language into their other programs. One solution cited by advocates is dual-language instruction, in which a variety of subjects are taught in two languages, thereby eliminating the need to hire a separate language instructor. At the elementary level, these programs appear to have immediate impact on kids’ learning. Bill Rivers, one of the country’s most prominent language lobbyists, points to significant evidence that students in dual-language programs outperform their peers in reading and math by fourth grade—regardless of their race or socioeconomic status. And advocates say dual-language programs are cost-effective because they typically don’t require extra materials for the language instruction; a science textbook, for example, would simply be published in the target language. That means districts buy the same number of materials as they would without the language element. The same goes for the number of teachers needed—though those teachers need to be bilingual as well.

“It isn’t that people don’t think language education important. It’s that they don’t think it’s possible.”
Then there’s the question about what languages to offer. Roughly 7,000 languages are spoken worldwide, and it’d take a several lifetimes for any one person to learn them all. French and Spanish are often default offerings at institutions across the country, but beyond that, there’s a good deal of variability—and focuses have tended to change over time. Janet Ikeda, a Japanese-language professor whom I met on Thursday, put it like this: “Administrators are cutting established programs for what I call the ‘language du jour’.”

She’s right. Americans learn certain languages when, for example, emergencies hit. Slavic languages during the Cold War. Middle Eastern ones during the “War on Terror.” The Modern Language Association has tracked data over seven decades showing the influence of international and domestic developments on language education. But these pop-up programs may be misguided: Learning a language in a non-immersive classroom setting takes years. So if schools are offering learning the “language du jour” today, it’s bound to be the “language d’hier” tomorrow.
And then there’s the problem of teacher shortages. Even if schools embrace the various benefits of foreign-language instruction, finding qualified, experienced, and engaging, bilingual teachers in a crunch is tough. The language-policy analyst Rachel Hanson describes this as a big chicken-or-the-egg challenge in language education: “You can’t expand language education if you don’t have the pool of teachers to teach it,” she said. “And, if the students aren’t learning the language and becoming proficient, they won’t become teachers.”

“It’s not a nice-to-have, languages are a need-to-have.”
Today, schools are having a hard enough time finding instructors in traditionally taught languages. In fact, the average proficiency of language teachers is below that needed by the military, Hanson said. But efforts to recruit qualified teachers to address the nation’s language deficit often face the additional obstacle of developing programs focusing on less-traditional languages. The list of languages designated by the federal government as “critical” include ones that many Americans have probably never even heard of before. There are more people in the world who speak Javanese than there are those to speak German, for example, and more who speak Lahnda than who speak French.

The country has faced shortcomings in language education for at least the past several years. Enrollments have been persistently low, as have proficiency levels; the same goes for non-Western language offerings. And with English as a lingua franca of trade and international politics, bilingualism has become less and less of a priority. True, many people speak English proficiently. But 19 million Americans and billions of people globally do not.

“It’s not a nice-to-have,” Rivers said. “Languages are a need-to-have.”