“It is the dim haze of mystery that adds enchantment to pursuit.” By Antoine Rivarol
Guest Blog Post by Megan Mehta
We were a few weeks away from a unit centered on the 5 Themes of Geography, and my options were looking like either a) pull the info from the textbook, or b) do something the kids would be excited about. So I started doing some research and some thinking and this is what I came up with:
We would still use the 5 Themes framework, but I wanted them to branch out beyond the borders of North Carolina. I also wanted them to work collaboratively while sustaining interest in a project that was going to span a few weeks. I began with a regional map of the United States:
I split up the kids and let them choose their regions. Each and every group was excited about their region because someone had some connection to a state, so we were off to a great start! The next step was to figure out a way to organize our information. We are a BYOD school, but not all of my kids have devices, so we discussed ways to keep track of our learning and research and decided on a common graphic organizer:
Hey! That’s only 4 themes! I decided to omit the “movement” theme for the purpose of this unit, as we will be learning about it later in the year. Anyway, we discussed the themes as they related to Charlotte, North Carolina, and began with Location. They immediately realized that finding the absolute location of their region was going to be tricky. One group’s solution was to do it just for the capital cities in their respective states; the other groups declared them geniuses, and everyone was happy with the solution. For relative location, some groups chose to describe it for the capital cities, some chose to focus on the region itself.
We went through each of the remaining themes like this: I modeled, they applied. I assessed them with a simple rubric of 3 (mastered), 2 (partially mastered) and 1 (not mastered), and provided support where needed. I expected to be tearing around the room with my hair on fire, but the kids were really into this and did an amazing job of working collaboratively.
We finished our graphic organizers (this took about 4-5 class periods of 45 minutes each) and I was (fairly) confident we were ready to set up our first Mystery Skype. I found a list of jobs and tweaked it to meet our class needs. What we ended up with was this:
1 note taker (records the clues on paper)
2 tweeters (to live tweet the event, of course!)
3 moderators (the faces of our class– asked the questions from the inquirers and relayed answers to the mappers)
4 state experts (answered the questions from the other class)
3 inquirers (asked questions based on the mappers’ notes)
4 mappers (used maps of the U. S. and Google Earth to narrow down the other class’ location)
2 photographers (used iPads to document the experience)
For the first call, I assigned the jobs but in subsequent ones, I have had them pull them out of a hat (a fancy word for “quart-sized storage bag”) and given the option to trade.
To set up the call, I turned to the Great and Powerful Twitter. Within hours, we had three classes wanting to connect. I learned quickly that scheduling can be a challenge with our regimented days, but with some creative rearranging we managed to find a time to connect with a class in Iowa. I told them from the get-go that we were completely new to this in case we breached some Mystery Skype protocol or etiquette that we were unaware of. We took our cues from them and we were off and running! Their first question asked us if we were in the U.S. and where we were in relation to the Mississippi River. It took all I had to restrain myself and let the kids figure out the strategy! I’d like to say that everyone stuck to their job and their assigned classroom area the whole time and everything went perfectly… However… we had sound issues which made it all much more difficult than it should have been. We couldn’t get skype to work on our desktop, so we were using an iPad. The speakers I had weren’t working, so the only audio we had were the tiny sounds coming from the iPad speakers. In a room full of excited 8 year olds, this is not ideal. At one point, I was leaning in to the speaker to listen, not realizing my face was right in the camera. Not exactly the big screen debut I was hoping for, and I’m pretty sure I reappeared in a subsequent nightmare or two because that was one intense close-up. Also, the kids were SO excited that they were (of course) all over the room, talking over each other, doing each other’s jobs, and often doing everything but paying attention to the clues. BUT, we made it! After 45 minutes, they had guessed our location and we figured out theirs (with a little help).
In all, it was and continues to be an amazing learning experience for these kids. They are learning so much about U. S. geography, and thrilled about connecting with other kids across the country. We will definitely continue this throughout the year! If you are looking to connect with us, our Twitter handle is @MehtasBESpandas.
**Update! This process has evolved throughout the year, and I’m sure it will continue to do so next year. I’ve since added the job of “back channellers” where we set up a room on TodaysMeet.com and ask questions about how many kids they have in their school or class, what their school mascot is, etc. We also use Google maps to find out how long it would take us to travel to their school by car. Something we may do next year is come up with a short bio about us and the Charlotte area to use as a wrap up or conversation starter once the locations have been correctly identified. We also need to talk about time zones and the 13 original colonies– both those questions came up a few times and stymied our state experts. I’ve also learned that guessing the state is the easy part– guessing the town or city is really tough! I think the biggest take-away I have from doing these this year are how quickly my kids took over and rocked it out. There was a lot of initial coaching, but by the end of the year, THEY were the ones taking the lead, keeping each other in check, critically thinking, and collaborating. And no one will ever be able to say one of our Pandas can’t find xyz on a map of the U.S.!