“We can be so much more global and so much more aware of what’s past the surface level understanding of a thing. We can actually experience it through talking to these other people.”

Teachers are checking Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Skype in the middle of class — not to goof off, but to connect students to learning opportunities across the nation.

Video chat services are gaining popularity in classrooms for a number of reasons, partly because it’s free, but primarily because students cement in concepts quickly through experiences.

“The more voices I can bring to our experience in the classroom, the better quality of ideas we’ll have,” said Paul Carver, fifth-grade teacher at Eisenhower Elementary School in McPherson. “We can be so much more global and so much more aware of what’s past the surface level understanding of a thing. We can actually experience it through talking to these other people.”

This technology connects students to professionals around the world, increasing their understanding of topics previously taught strictly through textbooks.

“As a teacher, I want to find these go-to connections to strengthen our conversations in class. You don’t need to ask someone to take off work and travel because these conversations are so quick,” Carver said. “We Skyped a pig farm when we were reading ‘Charlotte’s Web.’ Maybe we can talk to someone on the east coast for our 13 colonies conversation. We have Coronado Heights — we’ve been there and know that landmark’s history — so it would be really cool to hear about another person’s experience at a Revolutionary War landmark.”

Social media has a growing role in the classroom, both as a means of gathering information and for students to learn its many uses.

“Personally, I think some of it is about getting kids to realize that social media has more merit than reading your friend’s Facebook posts. Beyond that surface level, people can see the true power of social media, and that’s how we can connect, learn from others and grow. When these fifth graders graduate, the world is going to look really different,” Carver said. “The technology in their hands right now is the oldest technology they’ll ever have. We need to make sure that they’ll leave our building knowing how to use it and use it in a way that is a credit to our future, as opposed to a risk.”

Carver primarily uses Skype for chats, in addition to using Facebook, Instagram, Google Hangouts and Twitter to find connections through corresponding hashtags. Although, throwing out a hashtag can have its surprises.

“Last year, I posted a photo on Instagram of our students using a graphic design website called Canva to make menus. One of their graphic design artists saw the photo through the hashtag I used and connected with me. We ended up Skyping this woman from Canva, and she was located near Australia. It was probably one of the best Skype calls we’ve ever done just because her experience is just so different from ours,” Carver explained. “She’s a professional artist, which was exciting for our aspiring artists, and she told us about how she uses technology in her job, what she does and how she got started. When we told her about us and where we live, she was so interested in hearing about how much snow we get in the winter, or driving and only seeing flat crop land. She lives in a big city, so those comparisons were huge for us.”

Communicating with strangers online naturally feels risky, but it’s a risk worth taking when teachers consider the value of these short conversations in a student’s education.

“I have kids who remember trips we've taken three years ago. These aren't experiences that are easy to forget,” said Maria Loewen, a sixth and seventh grade science teacher at McPherson Middle School. “I think one of my favorite Skype experiences so far was a chat with a friend who was serving in the Air Force in Afghanistan. He played a game with my kids of 20 questions, where they guessed which biome he was located in to connect with our science curriculum. Afterward, he answered questions about his job and his time overseas. He and my students wrote a few letters back and forth, and it was a very personal experience for all of us.”

Kylie Lofdahl, a third grade teacher at Soderstrom Elementary School in Lindsborg, uses Google Hangouts in class to play guessing geography games with peers across the US.

Once the webcams are on, students in both classes take turns asking questions to narrow down the other’s location.

“They quickly learned that the best question to ask is ‘are you east of the Mississippi River?’ because that eliminates half the states. It’s amazing to me to see how quickly they figure out which questions they can ask to get the answer the quickest and still be correct,” Lofdahl said. “Instead of just sitting there, each student has a laminated map in front of them so they can mark the states as we ask questions. Three students are the questioners and do the speaking, and other students mark the responses on a large map for the whole class. Two other kids use an app called SeeSaw, and they’re reporters. They take pictures or videos and upload those to the app so parents can see what we’re up to through the app.”

This year, Lofdahl’s class connected with 12 states, including a class at Southeast of Saline.

“It’s a great way for kids to connect with other kids elsewhere in the U.S. to learn about their communities. It quickly becomes much more than just social studies — it’s a multi-curriculum activity where we can talk about a lot of topics at once,” Lofdahl said. “Some things come up when we ask questions, like when the other class asked if we’re landlocked. My kids look at me and ask what that means, so we have a quick mini vocabulary lesson as well. We also might do a quick multiplication problem to see how many kids are in their grade at their school. It’s valuable for them because they’re exploring new topics that they may not have seen before.”

These mystery connections are gaining steam simply because they open deeper conversation about topics a teacher may have skimmed over.

“After these conversations, I’ll pull up a map and talk about where that state is located compared to Kansas and other states we’ve connected with so they have a visual of where that class is,” Lofdahl said. “We also talk about other things, like what that state flower looks like. We go above and beyond the normal day-to-day things to learn more about the world that’s out there, other than what’s just in their small community.”

As a teacher, Lofdahl quickly stepped past the initial hesitation of integrating something new in the classroom when she saw its benefits.

“If you’re not integrating technology to the best of your ability, you’re not doing justice for the kids,” Lofdahl said. “You have to get out of your comfort zone and take those risks. Honestly, I think it’s empowered me as a teacher.”

The newness — and fear — of the technology will wear off, Carver explained, and hopefully video chats will be a staple in classroom learning.

“There’s always going to be fear or anxiety with a new technology. Change always has inherent anxiety, but when you empower yourself with the role of facilitator, the benefits far outweigh the risks,” Carver said. “Right now, this is an underutilized opportunity, so taking the change to talk to people about their experiences is huge. We want to make sure we’re being safe and respectful with others we communicate with and teach our students to be good digital citizens. We also want to be good global citizens and realize that the ideas and values McPherson holds dear are different because of different reasons for others.”