World, meet classroom: Pine Valley Elementary holds 24-hour global Skype event

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Second-graders at Pine Valley Elementary listen to students in Canada via Skype Thursday. The virtual chat was part of a 24-hour 'Skype-a-thon' to connect local classes to those in nearly 30 other countries. Photos by Hilary Snow.
Second-graders at Pine Valley Elementary listen to students in Canada via Skype Thursday. The virtual chat was part of a 24-hour ‘Skype-a-thon’ to connect local classes to those in nearly 30 other countries. Photos by Hilary Snow.

Did you know water in Iceland is heated by its underground volcanic rocks? Or that in Serbia, schools have an onsite dentist? How about the Ecuadorians’ taste for barbecued Guinea pigs?

Pine Valley Elementary School students certainly know those fun facts, but they didn’t get them from a trivia book. Instead, they heard them straight from the mouths of their peers around the globe.

For the second year, Pine Valley staged a 24-hour “Skype-a-thon” that kicked off Thursday morning in an effort to connect kids school-wide to the wide, wide world. When it wrapped at 6 a.m. Friday, the school had connected with classes in approximately 30 countries, as well as California and Hawaii.

The non-stop Skype concept is the brainchild of second grade teacher Beverly Ladd, who developed the idea of a marathon-style video chat after her class asked if they could virtually visit kids in Australia.

“They quickly realized they couldn’t do that because of the time difference, and so this 24-hour idea came out of that,” Ladd noted.

It makes for quite a long day, of course. A core group of 36 students in second, third and fourth grades, along with Ladd, were on campus two hours before the first bell Thursday, then picked back up after everyone else went home for the day. In between, other classes in grades K-5 got a chance to participate.

Teacher Beverly Ladd came up with the idea for the Skype-a-thon when her students asked to chat with kids in Australia.
Teacher Beverly Ladd came up with the idea for the Skype-a-thon when her students asked to chat with kids in Australia.

Sleep deprivation is luckily nothing new to Ladd, who was often up in the middle of the night talking to teachers in other countries during the 10 months it took to plan the Skype-a-thon. The tech-savvy Ladd was able to connect with most of her fellow educators around the globe through, naturally, online professional networks.

“More teachers now are doing more global learning…Teachers are really eager to break down the walls,” Ladd noted.

And students are just as enthusiastic. Armed with prepared questions and statements they came up with themselves, students stood eagerly in line in front of a laptop Thursday afternoon, waiting for a chance to be in front of the camera and catch a closer glimpse of their Canadian counterparts.

They giggled, oohed and aahed upon learning about loonies and toonies–$1 and $2 coins, respectively, used in Canada. They shared the meaning of the U.S. flag and heard lots about maples.

But most importantly, Ladd said, they learned.

“Students are more passionate and engaged when they’re talking with their peers,” she noted.

Principal Rebecca Higgins Opgrand agreed. She said the entire school gets behind the one-day project, with some students writing journal entries about their Skype experience and others, designated as Tweeters. Some were responsible for mapping out the destinations reached and others still kept track of the miles “traveled.”

Teacher Margaret McLaurin holds cue cards to prompt students and keep them focused. Students came up with their own questions and did their own research in preparation for the Skype event.
Teacher Margaret McLaurin holds cue cards to prompt students and keep them focused. Students came up with their own questions and did their own research in preparation for the Skype event.

Cross-curriculum though it may be, Opgrand said there are some deeper lessons inherent in the Skype-a-thon, ones that can’t be gleaned from any textbook.

Last year, for example, students were able to chat with a class in Nepal. Two weeks later, the developing nation was nearly devastated by an earthquake.

“The children felt like their closest friends were involved,” Opgrand said.

And they came to their friends’ online rescue by pooling together $4,000 in donations to help the country rebuild a school.

“That never would have happened without the Skype-a-thon,” Opgrand said. “That was an outgrowth of that human connection made through Skype.”

It’s also good for kids to get a peek at other classrooms, she said if only to note the sometimes “stark contrast” in the abundance of resources and technology in New Hanover County schools versus those half a world away.

When Pine Valley classes chatted with a group of Mexican students, Ladd added, they were confused to discover that the school was in need of security to keep kids safe on the playground.

“That was an eye-opening experience for our students because they don’t deal with anything like that here,” Ladd said.

Answering the call Ladd hoped they’d hear, students involved in the Skype-a-thon collected pledges for their participation. Every hour involved in the event equaled money raised for American Red Cross relief efforts around the world.

Hilary Snow is a reporter at Port City Daily. Reach her at hilary.s@portcitydaily.com.