By Peggy Veal, French Teacher & World Language Department Chair, STEM School and Academy, Highlands Ranch, CO.
In 2017, STEM School Highlands Ranch introduced The SYNK into its building. Lead by Dr. Cannady, the SYNK offers an interactive whiteboard, connected to several large screens around a classroom size space. Utilizing the Zoom platform, the SYNK provides an ideal place for video conferencing.
Many classrooms at STEM HR have used the space in a variety of ways, from connecting with classrooms in rural areas of the US to tracking the Iditarod in Alaska as part of a school-wide project.
For the World Language program, it quickly became a great tool to extend learning and make authentic connections! The Spanish teachers starting connecting with a group of students in Mexico, while the Chinese teacher built a connection with several professionals in China.
As a French native, I had attempted several connections with schools in France, only to keep running into the same issue: time difference. It was just impossible to get our groups live on the air in our different time zones. It became obvious that the only way to make it work was to connect with Canada. I wanted to find a school in Québec that would be a good match with us in real time, and who would be open to having students discuss various topics in French and/or English. I stumbled upon a video of Jonathan LeProf, a social studies teacher at l’Ecole D’Iberville, in Rouyn-Noranda, Québec, Canada. In this video, Mr. St-Pierre (alias Jonathan LeProf), presents the stereotypical high school students: “La drama-queen”, “le retardataire”, “la revendicatrice” and “le gamer” amongst others. I found this video so reflective of my French 2 students that I decided to show the video to them the next day. I also noticed that the teacher had a Facebook account and I sent him a message asking him if he would be interested in connecting with us. I received a response within minutes. I could tell right away that Mr. St-Pierre was passionate about using technology in the classroom to enhance learning, so we made a plan to start connecting on padlet. We started with topics such as “School schedules” and “hobbies”, and since Mr. St-Pierre teaches Social Studies, the topics quickly shifted to discussions about current events and politics. In the midst of these discussions, students continued chatting about video games and everyday topics. A student would post a picture of her dog, followed by a challenge to listen to Canadian music. It took a life of its own as students posted outside of class and showed growing interest. It was time to connect in real time. After some scheduling struggles (a snow day in Colorado on the day we had planned on connecting), we finally connected on April 2. The students had prepared questions for their counterparts, and I had prepped them on how to effectively communicate on video-conference, the main criteria being:
- Be prepared to contribute!
- If someone asked a question you wanted to ask, ask a follow-up question!
- Ask to be recognized and wait for your turn to speak (the Synk has an audio system that picks up on voice, and rotates the camera onto the student who is speaking, therein the need to ask first before speaking).
- Make your contribution valuable, concise and clear
- Listen and pay attention to others’ ideas and input
- Don’t interrupt
- Speak up (if you are soft-spoken, raise your voice a notch).
As soon as the video conference started, both sides started clapping their hands. They were so excited to see each other live! We started with the questions we had prepared, but very quickly the conversation naturally flowed into spontaneous questions. Even the quietest, shy students were laughing and clearly engaged. It was very rewarding to see the concretization of their efforts. Mr. St-Pierre only had a laptop with a remote camera, so his students took turns to come up to the screen and speak. It was snowing heavily in Rouyn-Noranda that day so the students picked up their computer camera to show us the snow outside. They asked questions about gun control, elections and opinions on current events. It allowed for organic conversation, respectful sharing of opinions, and even a glimpse outside their classroom window at the snow falling outside.
In retrospect, we had no idea what this conversation would mean in the next few weeks. In light of the recent events at STEM School Highlands Ranch, our friends in Québec reflected on some of the deep questions that were asked during this SYNK connection. Many of them had explained that their families were hunters, and they had expressed their views openly about the possession of guns. Our students also had various opinions, and Mr. Saint Pierre had contributed some great insights about laws and regulations in both countries. We never anticipated that the topic would become so personal. After the May 7th school shooting at STEM School Highlands Ranch, Mr. Saint Pierre spoke to his class about the circumstances. We have not had a chance to finalize the school year with an additional connection via the SYNK, but our students have remained in contact and are sharing their support and continuing to learn about their respective lives. We look forward to starting the next school year with a new connection, and to continue to openly share thoughts on new topics. We want to ask Mr. Saint Pierre all about his recent TV appearance, have a makeshift fashion show, in real time, of course, to show each other what styles are popular in our areas, discuss our summers and share our hopes for the future. Perhaps someday we will meet in person, but until then, we will SYNK on!