Texting, blogging and streaming history: 3 teachers use technology to break down walls

Posted: Friday, March 05, 2010

Across the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District on Wednesday three different high school world history classes learned about Russian absolutism simultaneously via Polycom teleconference screens and SmartBoards.

Photo By Brielle Schaeffer
Photo By Brielle Schaeffer
Skyview High School students in Rob Sparks' class learn about Russian absolutism from Soldotna High School's Gregory Weissenberg during a "classroom without walls" lesson that links history classrooms at Kenai Central, Skyview and Soldotna High through webcams and TV screens.

Called the "Classroom without Walls," this teaching method technologically links Rob Sparks' class at Skyview High School, Greg Zorbas' class at Kenai Central High School and Gregory Weissenberg's class at Soldotna High School monthly to receive different lessons from one of the teachers.

Wednesday's instructor was Weissenberg. He was talking about the cause and effect relationship between absolutism and the Russian Old Believers on the Peninsula. Weissenberg, also a Russian teacher and originally from Russia, has a singular perspective on the country's history and culture.

And that's exactly what the three colleagues had in mind when they came up with the idea to technologically share classes and lessons a few years ago.

"My kids are benefiting from getting the story on a different perspective," Zorbas said about having his class learn through the teleconference screen. "It's not just the same old textbook and the same old story every time."

Occasionally the teachers will even switch places for a day and be guest teachers in the others' classrooms to really hit the topics home.

It also helps that they are incorporating tools that the students use regularly and are comfortable with.

Texting questions

Sparks said that over the years the Classroom without Walls has evolved along with the technology. The latest addition is using cell phones and blogs to continue the classrooms' connections after the lesson is over.

Students use their phones to text questions to the instructor through other students in that teacher's class called, "receivers."

Texting during class has become a discipline issue at the schools. These teachers decided to turn it to their advantage.

"Good teachers take problems and use them in a positive way and texting was a problem," Sparks said. "The kids were all into the idea of having their cell phones out."

"They want to think of questions so they can text," Zorbas added.

Texting also helps the instructors with the slight time delay and occasional audio problems with the Polycom systems, he said.

Students in Weissenberg's class at Soldotna High said they like texting their questions because it's anonymous and makes them feel more comfortable.

"Texting eliminates singling out," said sophomore Ryan Beckel. "You don't feel like the question is so dumb."

Blogging assignments

The other addition of blogs as an educational tool has expanded the Classroom without Walls beyond the monthly instruction day.

"The blogging thing is another electronic way for us to get my kids talking to his kids talking to his kids," Zorbas said. He said wants students from different schools to start a conversation about the topic if they bump into each other at Fred Meyer.

"Part of the concept that I see is not only do we break down the walls when we do our lessons but we're establishing communication," he said. "We can get our kids communicating between the curriculum, get these kids thinking in bigger terms."

Sparks said that incorporating blogs in the classroom is something he would not have ever done himself. Self-described as a "technophobe," he said that using technology in the Classroom without Walls has changed things for him. He said he is learning from his students about the new technology, which is another lesson in itself.

"When kids can see their teachers learning out of their comfort zone it gives them the idea that it's okay for them," he said. He stresses the idea of being "lifelong learners" to his students. "It's a really powerful message."

The Classroom without Walls is a way to teach through technology and in a sense train students to use the tools they might one day need professionally.

"We're not trading the substance of what we're doing," Weissenberg said. "It's just an enhancement of the substance."

The students seem just as enthusiastic as their teachers about the program.

Rachel Wyatt, a Soldotna High School sophomore, said that Classrooms without Walls and communication between the three classrooms has "introduced ideas I never even thought about."

"It's such a brainstorm -- it's like a brain tsunami," she said. Wyatt said that the interactiveness helps her to learn more and be involved in her education. The program has made her closer with her peers at the other schools, she said.

"We have this stupid sports rivalry but we shouldn't have a personal rivalry."

Lizzie McDermid, fellow sophomore in Weissenberg's class, agreed.

"This is the first history class I've ever liked," she said. "I wish we could do it more often and in other classes."

Brielle Schaeffer can be reached at brielle.schaeffer@peninsulaclarion.com.

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