Skyping in to Detroit to talk current events

On Tuesday, I had the privilege of being a guest teacher for nearly an hour in a fifth grade classroom, where we started to discuss what’s going on in Syria.

What makes this particularly cool is that the fifth grade class is in Detroit… and I live 500 miles away, in Durham, North Carolina.

I “met” the fifth graders’ teacher, Ben Curran, because he found my blog at the beginning of this school year and he took the time to comment on a post. We started tweeting and emailing; we even scheduled a time to Skype with each other back in September, and we’ve become friends.

In addition to teaching 5th grade, Ben is also one of the curators of Engaging Educators, a fantastic blog that I read on a regular basis.  It’s worth checking out.

A few weeks ago, Ben and I wondered what it would be like for me to Skype into his classroom to try some of the current events teaching I plan to do on a regular basis with sixth grade students at the middle school I’m opening in 2013, Triangle Learning Community.

Ben and I planned on Sunday, and then I made a short 4-minute YouTube video early Monday morning as a way to introduce myself to Ben’s students (apologies if you watch it — I had a cough — but it was cool for his students to get a preview of their mystery guest). He played the video in class on Monday and then had his students read and discuss an article we selected. It was about reporter Anthony Shadid and how he died of asthma while in Syria covering the protests against the government.

His students then came up with questions, which they recorded on a Google Document that I was able to review so I had a sense of what they were thinking about before Skyping in on Tuesday.

Ben has a great account of what happened in his class on his blog.

When you do a video call on Skype, you can share your screen, and so once the students saw my face and we said hello, I switched to “share full screen” to let them see my screen projected on their computer.

As you can see, we talked for a little more than 53 minutes.

I started by showing them around Durham, where I was calling from, and then I asked them questions about their school in Detroit.  What I found fascinating was that some of Ben’s students learned — for the first time — that they live five miles from one of the largest concentrations of Muslims in the United States — Dearborn, MI.

As a result of our Google Earth session, Ben and his class may take a field trip to an Islamic Center in Dearborn.  That suggests to me that there are lots of opportunities to use Google Earth to learn more about your own neighborhood.

[Update: Ben and I set up a Google Document so we can share resources for his students to read as they follow up on Syria, and Ben just posted a link there to an article in the Detroit Free Press about how hundreds of Syrian Americans in Dearborn are rallying in SUPPORT of President al-Assad.]

Once we moved away from Detroit and over to Syria, we started empathizing with the people who live there. I showed the students some of the cities that have been under attack, and I showed them a picture of Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria. We then read the blurb about Assad from Wikipedia:

I asked them why they thought he ran unopposed in the elections in 2000 and 2007.  They first wondered if he was very popular because he took over from his father, but then they saw his father was a dictator.

We did a sort of role play, where I asked for volunteers to stand up to run against Assad. Each time someone volunteered, I explained that the volunteer — along with his/her family would be killed as an example of what happened to people who wanted to oppose my government. We did this a few times and they soon “got” what happens to people who dare to oppose President Assad.

I explained that I was exaggerating a bit, but not by much.  That explained why he runs unopposed.

Our conversation moved to a discussion of what you could do if you lived under such conditions, and some students said they would leave the country. We talked about how that’s happening — in a limited way — as people become “refugees” (some of them learned a new word).

Then Ben and I asked them what they thought would happen if the government let anyone leave who wanted to leave.  They got the idea that if that happened, there would not be many people left for President Assad to rule over.

I then showed them this political cartoon, and since they’d seen a picture of Assad, they got that he was the one being depicted in the cartoon.  And they were able to figure out what the cartoon was saying, just by us providing them with the primary document and asking “what do you think the cartoonist is trying to say here?”

We didn’t get into the UN or Russia’s role yet, but they got the idea that he was killing his own people — and they were confused about why that would happen.

And that was a great place to leave off — with some cognitive dissonance.  Why is this happening in Syria? [And why do some — but not all — Syrian Americans in Dearborn support President Assad?]

Ben’s students did a great job and seemed very focused (he set up the camera so I could see most of them on Skype), even though we went for more than 45 minutes.

Ben’s students went on break for a few days after we had our session, but when they come back on Monday, he’s going to continue following the story in Syria.  We’ll keep in touch, and I plan to Skype back in again soon.

We’re planning to have his students make an online guide that will explain what’s going on in Syria (and in the overall “Arab Spring” movement, of which Syria is a part) to young people around the world who might be curious. More as that plan develops…

But this was an incredibly cool thing to be able to do for an hour, and it suggests all sorts of possibilities for using current events as a vehicle for developing empathetic global citizens.


About Steve Goldberg

I teach students at Research Triangle High School (RTHS) about US History. RTHS is a public charter school in Durham, NC, whose mission is to incubate, prove and scale innovative models of teaching and learning. The blog posts here reflect my own personal views and not those of my employer.
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One Response to Skyping in to Detroit to talk current events

  1. Lindsay says:

    I loved learning about what you did via Engaging Educators. I am going to start teaching my students in a similar fashion about Syria and if you had time and wanted to join our classroom in Minnesota, that would be great! Thanks!

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