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[Pt. 1] How to Travel the World Using Virtual Classrooms

Jun 22, 2020

Are you on the Bitmoji train?

A few weeks ago I joined this [ah.maz.ing.] group on Facebook that introduced me to the world of Bitmoji and the concept of virtual classrooms. 

For the past year I've been teaching in a virtual public high school and, believe it or not, the concept of creating a virtual classroom never crossed my mind. 

In virtual teaching, we use a lot of PowerPoints to share our lesson content. On the platform we use, in every "classroom" the PowerPoint slide deck is usually the first thing students see when they join the class session. Pretty much every other teacher I've seen, as well as myself, uses Bitmoji to liven up these slides and give them more of a personal feel. But when I saw a virtual classroom for the first time, it took that personalized-feeling to a whole new level. I was hooked!

As a virtual teacher, one of the things I miss the most about the brick-and-mortar setting is the ability to create a welcoming and comfy classroom environment. Although not impossible, that's really hard to do on a computer. I also miss being able to express myself and the values I want to instill in my students through my classroom setup. The virtual classroom makes this possible and, even better, the possibilities are endless with this format. [I'll get to more about that in just a bit!]

What is a virtual classroom?

So, if you aren't already familiar with virtual classrooms, they are basically digital classroom spaces that have the look and feel of an actual classroom. They may or may not be interactive. Most of the virtual classrooms I've seen include the teacher in a Bitmoji avatar form. The best thing about virtual classrooms is they can be designed in pretty much any way you could imagine and can be used to deliver pretty much any content you want to cover. I've seen kindergarten classrooms, decked out with reading corners, alphabet posters and anchor charts, and a small group table just like you would see in a "traditional" classroom setup. High school art and culinary spaces. "Research Rooms" for students to explore a particular topic. Libraries reflecting various book themes. Virtual field trips. And everything else in between. [This is what I mean when I say the possibilities are endless!]

I've chosen to create virtual classrooms that reflect my own passion and the values I want to instill in all who enter my classroom space. Thus, the Classrooms Around the World series was born!

My goal with these classrooms is to share culture with my students. To expose them to the great wide world that exists beyond their doorstep. I am passionate about teaching 21st century skills and introducing 21st century issues that my students are bound to face [and be challenged to solve] in their years to come, so I've also tried to weave this in, as well, to the content of my virtual classrooms.

Each classroom I create I try to make as reflective of the country and culture as possible. I do so in both the design of the classroom, as well as the interactive links I include.

[Related: Access my Virtual Classroom Library HERE]

Now, countries and cultures are dynamic [and complex in their own unique ways] so these classrooms are really only scratching the surface. Still, I feel like they have the potential to spark student interest and increase student engagement. They open a door for so many more learning opportunities to occur. There's also the potential to build off the themes of the classroom each week in the lesson and content I deliver [I'm looking forward to exploring more of these opportunities in the weeks to come as I begin planning for next semester!].

A glimpse into Classrooms Around the World...

Within each classroom, there are a few things I try to keep constant in every classroom I create. One reason I do this is to create a certain level of predictability. If students know a few things that they can expect and look for from week to week, I think it makes it easier to navigate. Another reason I do this is because there's some resources I've found that I truly adore and ones that can serve as great springboards for activities and skill practice. Additionally, some topics, such as music and food for example, deserve to be examined across all cultures.

Here's an example of my Brazil virtual classroom. I've circled some of the "constants" and explained below a bit more about why I include them in each classroom...


Top 10 "Constants":

1 - World map. Always need to have a world map! Besides the fact I'm nutty for world maps, when possible I try to include a marker to show where the country is. [It's all in the details!] I also use the world map to link to a virtual experience on a website called 360 cities. This virtual world map in the link includes panoramic images from all across the country compiled by actual travelers. It's seriously cool! [For example, check out this one of elephants being washed at a fair held along the River Ganga in India - COOL]

2 - Travel posters. I usually try to link something about the country or city depicted in the poster. Sometimes I use these posters to link to the city-walk, which is something I include in every classroom. This is basically 5-10 minutes of "walking" through a city in the country of study. There's SO much you can springboard from this, from compare/contrast activities, to connection-making, to inferencing, and beyond. [I plan to share more about these ideas in a future post!] 

3 - Globe. Like world maps, I'm a sucker for globes. I always include a link to a Geography Now! video about the country of study. These videos are typically entertaining and include a good overview for students to get introduced to the country.

4 - Read aloud. I try to include at least one [but usually more] book with some connection to the country. I also include a link to the book read aloud for students to listen to. Some of the books may seem primary in nature, but I believe that any age [until myself even] enjoys a good story. Especially if it goes along with the theme of the country.

5 - Flag. I link the flag to the national anthem and, when available, try to use a version with subtitles in English for students to understand the words in the anthem. 

6 - DIY recipe. I LOVE exploring food from another country and I think it's super fun for students to engage with food firsthand. For this reason, I like to include a popular food (or drink) item with a link to a recipe with typically easy-to-find ingredients that students can try making on their own.

7 - TED talk. In all my classrooms you will find this little crystal ball-ish decor item that links to a TED talk related in some way to the country of study. To say I love TED talks would be an understatement. TED talks are an excellent way of offering students new perspective, a chance to explore new ideas, and opportunities for critical thinking and inspiration. LOVE. LOVE. LOVE.

8 - Speaker. Playing music from the country of study amplifies the authenticity of the experience. I plan to incorporate the music into our routine, like as students enter the classroom for example, to set the mood for the class. 

9 - Laptop with greeting. I think it's important to expose students to other languages as much as possible, so I also include a link for students to explore the basics of the language from the country of study. They can at least walk away knowing how to greet someone and introduce themselves in a language besides their own!

10 - Street food tour. Like I said, I love exploring food from other countries and I believe it offers so much insight into the culture. Street food tours are AMAZING not only for checking out some different popular dishes within a region of the country, but to see life in the country up close and personal. The street food tours I link to have really engaging guides that make watching someone eat food on a video actually interesting! 

So besides these top 10 things I always include, I also try to work in links related to art/instruments/dance, sport, animals, and interesting features about the country. Additionally, I like to include at least one link related to some sort of global issue reflected in the country. Some of the things I've hit on so far include pollution, poaching, deforestation, and animal conservation. Google Earth guided tours have also been an excellent resource that really enhances the virtual experience, so I try to include a couple of those links in each classroom as well.

[Related: Access my Virtual Classroom Library HERE]

 How can you use virtual classrooms?

As with the design process itself, how you use virtual classrooms is pretty much limited only to the extent of your creativity. [And if you aren't feeling particularly creative, check out the group I mentioned at the start of this post and you can get ALL the inspiration you need from amazing teachers around the globe!] I'm still working out the details for how I plan to use these during the next school year, but there are a few things I have in mind so far.

I definitely plan on introducing one "Classroom Around the World" per week. I'm hoping to use the themes within the classroom as a springboard for lesson content and activities, as I mentioned before. 

Now, let me just say, this is going to look different depending on what and who you teach. I am currently teaching high school special education, 9th and 10th grade levels. As I mentioned earlier, I also teach in a virtual public school. Next year I will see my students on a rotation of 30 minute small groups, 4 days per week. As you can imagine, 30 minutes isn't a whole lot of time for a lesson, so the activities I do with my kids will be "mini" in nature. I'll be working with them on remedial skills, so the plan is to build my mini-lessons and activities with the theme of the week's classroom in mind. The hope is that using these virtual classrooms and building my content around these themes will increase student engagement and buy-in. 

If you are a teacher, I don't have to tell you that engaging students is half the battle of teaching. Last year was my first year teaching virtually, as well as my first year teaching high schoolers. My greatest challenge was engagement.

When you are teaching on the computer [no video], it's super difficult to assume what things look like on the other end. There were countless times I felt like I was talking to a wall. On top of that, most of my students were behind in grade level, many had difficulty with focusing and attending to class [imagine the potential distractions around them in the home environment too], and a lot of them had the mindset that a D was a good enough grade and school just wasn't that important because it wasn't their "future". Most of them didn't really want my "extra help" or remedial skill-building lessons. By this point in their schooling, they had sort of given up on the idea of "improving" and settled with just getting by enough so that they could graduate. 

For next year, I've completely changed my mindset. Yes, I want to offer them help and support and I hope they will leave me even a little bit stronger in their academic skills. But more than that, I want to create a space where they can practice real-world critical thinking and problem-solving. I want to stir some curiosity within them. I want to expose them to new perspectives, new ideas, and challenge them to think in new ways. I want them to make connections and feel excited to share what they are learning with someone at home. I feel like if I focus more on these things, and less on percentages and letter grades, then the progress and growth will come. I don't want them to just think of my learning space as the "special ed" group. I want them to feel excited to come to my learning space everyday and I want them to feel like it's applicable to them and their life on some level. For me, these virtual classrooms provide the opportunity to springboard this type of learning environment.

So what next?

I know I didn't go into the tech-y details about how I will actually implement these virtual classrooms, whether that's via Google Classroom, Google sites, sharing by link in class, sending via email, etc. I have some ideas in mind, but I'm still playing with the process. In the next few weeks I look forward to sharing more about the technicalities of how I plan to implement these classrooms virtually.

I also have been toying with ways to build off of these classroom themes in order to deliver content. Again, I've got some things in mind and hope to share with you soon once I have a chance to explore some of the possibilities first.

If you're reading this and you're thinking about creating your own virtual classroom, but you're not sure where to start, my first bit of advice would be to check out this group on Facebook to get some inspiration. I've seriously never seen, nor been apart of a community like this anywhere. Everyday there are SO MANY new ideas being shared freely, ideas bounced around, and work collaborated on. The teachers in this group are super supportive and truly there to help one another. It's a teacher's paradise! 

Second, I would suggest you consider what kind of classroom you want to start with. This will likely depend on how you plan to use the virtual classroom. Some ideas you may consider:

  • an "about the teacher" classroom where you can share about yourself in an interesting way [here's an example of mine below]

  • a regular classroom-looking space, where you post messages or directions to students on the whiteboard (you could even make it reflective of your actual classroom space - this can be especially nice if you've been forced to go digital due to COVID)
  • an interactive classroom space, where you link to assignments and websites that students will use in your classroom
  • a themed classroom space, where you use the virtual classroom to teach about a specific topic and design the classroom and resources to fit the content of the theme (i.e. interactive libraries, research rooms, etc.)

[Related: Access my Virtual Classroom Library HERE]

If you've already been experimenting with virtual classrooms or you are toying with some innovative ideas to try out with your students, I would love to hear all about it! Send me a message and share!

Happy teaching!

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