They were seated in three different rows in the classroom filled with colorful posters and construction paper cut-outs that the students had put together of their own faces. The room was silent as the 16 anxious first graders waited while their teacher connected to Skype, software used to video-call people anywhere in the world via the internet.
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Leslie Panaro ‘12, a graduate student at William & Mary's School of Education who is currently getting her master's degree in Reading, Language and Literacy, and her first grade class at James River Elementary School took learning to a whole different level on June 3 by using the innovative technology to "meet" the author/illustrator that they have been learning about.
"The Skype experience was very rewarding for my students and myself," said Panaro. "Not only did the kids love learning about her work, but they were able to interact with her and watch her sketch right in front of them! Skype is an easy program to use and can provide endless learning opportunities in the classroom."
Panaro's children literature professor at W&M, Denise Johnson, came up with the idea.
Her proposal got off the ground when Johnson, an associate professor of education, presented the idea to bring Skype into the classroom at a conference. Her idea was applauded, so she approached Panaro and another one of her graduate students, Amy Moser ‘11, who teaches fourth grade at Matoaka Elementary about incorporating Skype in classroom lessons.
"Basically what I was asking them was whatever you have on your plate, deviate from that and do an author or illustrator study," said Johnson. "It went along beautifully with the type of teaching they already do in class."
The two graduate students took their professors advice and both of them studied a different author or illustrator.
Panaro learned about the author/ illustrator LeUyen Pham. With the help of Johnson, she was able to receive enough copies of Pham's books for each student in the class. They also set up a date and time when they would Skype with Pham, who lives in San Francisco, Calif, so she could virtually interact with the class who had been reading and studying her children books for weeks.
"The use of Skype in the classroom is better than having the author/illustrator come and talk to the class in person," said Johnson. "This way the kids were able to see her home studio where she does all of her work, and they were also able to watch her draw and see everything she was doing with her hands."
Little giggles filled the room when Pham showed the class some of her newest drawings, including a mouse she drew which she said was dressed like her brother. Pham continued to show them her drawings as well as her sketchbook. When she asked who liked to sketch, 16 little hands shot straight up in the air.
Pham then said she would transform three of them into any animal they wanted. The kids were jubilant at the thought of being drawn like their favorite creature. When it was Panaro's turn, the kids had to pick what she would be drawn as. Ideas were blurted out left and right. One boy shouted "Lion!" as another little girl followed with "Butterfly!" Five minutes later, Pham showed them a drawing of a butterfly with Panaro's face. "That's how I draw butterflies," uttered the voice of a young girl in the audience.
Like Panaro, Moser is another student of Johnson's who is also working towards a master's degree in Reading, Language and Literacy. Moser did something very similar with her fourth grade class at Matoaka Elementary School.
Moser studied author Ellen Potter who has written many children books including "Olivia Kidney" and "Spilling Ink".
When the day finally came on June 11 for the fourth graders to Skype with Potter, they acted as if they were about to meet a famous celebrity.
The kids had been following Potter's books, but the one they spent the most time on was "Spilling Ink", a writing guide for young children. As the children read the book, they kept a blog that Potter was able to read and comment on so she felt as if she knew the children before she met them through Skype.
Potter was able to talk to the kids from the comfort of her home in upstate New York, and she was able to entertain the kids with everything from a hard hat to her poodle, Charlie. The kids loved every minute and had ample questions for the author.
Both video-calls did not go without a few technical glitches, but when the screen would freeze for a few moments, or the sounds would go in and out, Panaro and Moser would assure the kids to just be patient and everything would be fine. The children faultlessly followed directions.
"Neither of the teachers had used Skype before this," said Johnson. "So if you have not used Skype before, you can do it too."