-by Dan Jones-
My cell phone rang in the middle of class. Typically a telemarketer, but not this time. I told my students, I am sorry, but I HAVE TO TAKE THIS!
A week before my phone rang, I had been looking at my curriculum and planning an upcoming unit of study: The Declaration of Independence. How can I make this unit of study real for my students? I knew I couldn’t take my students to go see the actual document, and I wanted to do something that was going to have more of a lasting impact than just a guest speaker. It was then that an idea came into my head that, little did I know, would change the course of my history classroom forever. I decided that the best person to talk to my students about the Declaration of Independence would be someone from the National Archives in Washington D.C.
I searched for the education department at the National Archives and came up empty. I called them, and I was told, “I don’t have an extension to reach an education department, but let me take your name and phone number, and I will have someone get back to you.” I thought to myself, ‘Well, Dan…That was a good idea, but it is never going to happen.’
The next day, I didn’t hear anything from the National Archives. In fact, it wasn’t until the following week that I got “The Call.”
My phone rang, and it was a Washington D.C. phone number. After apologizing to my students, I calmly answered my phone.
“Hello, is Mr. Dan Jones available?”
“This is Dan.” My students were dead silent. Though they had no idea who I was talking to, they could tell it was an important call.
“This is Missy McNatt from the National Archives, what can we do for you?” I was so excited, but I had to remain calm. I explained to her that I was wondering if my students could Skype with her to learn more about the Declaration of Independence. Her response shocked and excited me.
She said, “We have never done anything like that before, but let me run this through our tech folks, and I will get back to you.”
After multiple calls and emails, our Skype session became a reality. My students sat riveted. They were talking to someone through video about the things we were studying in class. We may have been 480 miles away, but our guest was mere feet from this incredible document! Being able to ask questions of those closest to the document proved to be invaluable. One of my students asked Mrs. McNatt, “What happens to the Declaration of Independence at night?” She responded with a smile, “That is TOP SECRET. Even I do not have the security clearance to know the answer to that question.”
My students had been bitten by the distance learning bug, and that bite gave them the itch of collaboration.
I saw their enthusiasm grow, and they began to research history differently, especially when they knew that they were going to be working to impress someone who wasn’t their teacher.
This was the first taste my students had of a world outside of their own block.
Immediately upon completion of our Skype session with the National Archives, I began to think about how I could continue to bring experts into my classroom through distance learning opportunities. Looking ahead in my curriculum, I knew that we would be covering the U.S. Constitution. Who would be the best person or organization to talk to my students about this historic document? The U.S. Capitol. I went to their website and could not find any information regarding distance learning, but what I did find was an email address for contacting The U.S. Capitol. Not expecting a response, I sent an email explaining what my students had experienced with the National Archives, and I inquired if they would be able to provide a similar experience for my students regarding the U.S. Constitution. Within 48 hours, I received an email from Ellen Stanton, Public Programs Coordinator at The U.S. Capitol, stating that they had never done anything like this before, but that they would like to pilot a distance learning program with my students.
As I read the U.S. Capitol’s response on my phone, my eyes widened, and my smile stretched from ear to ear. “Mr. Jones, what is wrong with your face?” inquired a student. Should I tell them or not? I responded, “Something big is going to happen! We are going to have another distance learning opportunity, and I cannot tell you who it is with, but just know, it is a HUGE deal!” This is exactly what my students needed to hear. The motivation that is provided by experiences such as these moves students to invest more in their research and their mastery of the content. The students do not want to present themselves poorly in front of a distinguished guest.
We were going to be making national history with THE U.S. CAPITOL! I could not wrap my brain around this moment, and to think it all started because of a short and simple email.
Creating an epic and historic learning opportunity such as this required an intense amount of collaboration with Ellen Stanton. Her role at The U.S. Capitol was to develop resources and programs for teachers and students including teacher workshops, lesson plans, essays, student activities and booklets. In addition, she coordinated with the Library of Congress, the U.S. Botanic Gardens, and the National Gallery of Art in creating programs for students and for adults. Hindsight is always 20/20, so after our distance learning session, I asked Ellen what she had learned about planning for sessions like ours. She said,
“I had no firsthand experience with distance learning before our collaborative effort. I am very interested in and supportive of distance learning as all students, regardless of where they live and their ability to travel should have the opportunity to talk to an expert to further their understanding of our political institutions, historic sites and cultural treasures. I learned that it takes a lot of thought and preparation to make the most out of the opportunity. Dan’s idea of having his students submit questions before the session was key to our success! I put the questions together in weaving a story, and I believe that approach was a good one. I also learned that the experience taught me a lot. I appreciated knowing what subjects interested the students and what they are studying in school.”
Our emails back and forth were numerous, but they helped ensure that what my students experienced was not only unique but exceptional. Our collaboration not only set a standard for The U.S. Capitol’s distance learning programs, but it helped create a new standard for my engagement with other agencies. So, here are some tips for exploring and securing your own distance learning opportunities:
I have learned that if you want something, you need to ask for it. If there is a particular person or agency that you would like to talk to your students, you need to just ask. There is always a chance that they may say no, but, then again, they may say yes. If you don’t ask, it is a guaranteed no. Do not worry if they tell you, we will have to get back to you. Be kind and say, “I look forward to hearing from you.”
After working with The U.S. Capitol, I thought to myself, ‘Go big or go home.’ I contacted The White House to see if the President of the United States would talk to my students. To my surprise, I got a similar response as I had from The National Archives and The U.S. Capitol, “We have never received this type of request before.” They put me through to the President’s scheduling department. They took my request and said that they would need to get back to me. I will never forget walking through Target with my family, and I got a call from The White House. I looked at my wife and said, I HAVE TO TAKE THIS! Unfortunately, the President was not able to speak with my students, but they encouraged me to continue to ask because they never know when the President’s schedule may open up.
Some agencies already have distance learning services in place: GoToMeeting, Skype, Google Hangouts, etc. Ask them what they use for this type of event. Because we seemed to be breaking new ground with many agencies, Skype was my go-to means of connecting my students to the agency. The other thing to keep in mind is that agencies are always looking to improve the product that they are providing; they may not use the same service from year to year, so always ask.
When working with Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home, Dr. Bradburn, President and CEO at George Washington’s Mount Vernon, used Skype on his phone. He was able to walk around the George Washington Library and show us different areas of the library. When we worked with The National Archives last year, they used GoToMeeting instead of Skype because someone new had stepped into the distance learning role, and this new individual felt more comfortable using GoToMeeting. She was able to pull different documents up while still having her live video feed on display.
As Ellen Stanton said above, it is beneficial to the presenter to have questions before the event. This will also help you when preparing your students for the event. The presenters want to be able to tailor the distance learning session to meet the needs of your students. Because many folks are not used to doing distance learning, making the suggestion of “Would you like my students to send you a set of questions before we meet on (insert date)?” brings a sense of relief to the presenter. This helps to give them direction.
When working with Mount Vernon, Dr. Bradburn was able to engage my students with comments such as, “I know you have been studying…” or “You read Washington’s speech about…”, and it is a great way to deepen the engagement of the students.
There are times when things come up, and schedules need to be altered. Be extremely flexible, and try to accommodate any changes that arise. Even though it is essential to be flexible, it also necessary to be very specific. If you can only do the event from 10:30-11:15 because your school schedule dictates that is when it has to be done, then let the presenter know that. There is nothing as frustrating as a teacher who says, “Let me know when you are available,” only to have the presenter give an option and the teacher responds with “Well, we can only do 10:30-11:15 because of our school schedule.” Just be upfront about the limitations of your schedule. As long as you plan far enough in advance, the presenters can adjust and make things work.
The most challenging scheduling situation I dealt with was with The U.S. Capitol. I told them that I had my 8th-grade class from 10:00-11:00 am. The problem was that the general public was going to be in the area our presenters wanted to broadcast from. They had to make sure that was not going to be an issue. Being flexible enough to change dates is huge, especially if the agency is closed for staff development or some other emergency.
The White House Historical Association had internet connectivity issues because their server was being upgraded during our event. Anytime we lost connection, we would just hit redial and reconnect. And, that was OK.
Before each distance learning event, I had my students write three questions on note cards. There is nothing worse for a presenter than asking a group if they have any questions, and the audience just stares back with an accompaniment of crickets. I use this as a way to teach students good listening skills as well. I explain that they do not want to ask a question that has already been answered in the presentation. The students know their questions and need to actively listen. When the presenter does answer one of those questions, the students only need to remove that note card from their pile. Having questions written down also gives students a sense of confidence when engaging an expert. This also speaks volumes to your presenter. The presenter will recognize this and be more likely to work with you again.
When it came time for questions during our event with Dr. Bradburn, he fueled the ego of my students. When a student stood to ask their question, my student would say, “Hello, Dr. Bradburn. My name is (fill in the blank). [Insert question]” Dr. Bradburn would respond with, “That is an excellent question, (student name). I am so glad that you asked that question.” The positive affirmation that he provided to my students during this portion of the event made my students feel like they were not just kids asking adult questions. They felt the pride of a colleague who had asked an excellent question.
Reach out to the presenter after the distance learning event and thank them for talking with your students. Let them know how it went. Give them specific comments from students. If an agency or individual is new to distance learning, they may even ask you for opportunities for improvement (but only offer this if it is requested). This feedback will help them to improve their program. I also use this as an opportunity to inquire about future collaboration on distance learning sessions.
My students had Skyped with the National Archives earlier in the year, and Missy McNatt, who had given the presentation, had said that if there was anything that the Archives could do for our school just to let her know. I took her up on that. Towards the end of the year, my students were researching historical mysteries. There were artifacts that they were having a hard time locating online, so I sent McNatt an email inquiring if the Archives had any information about what the students were looking for, and she responded within 20 minutes with answers to their questions. She went above and beyond for my students because she had a personal relationship with them.
The benefits of collaborating with individual experts or agencies are that relationships can be built that will enable you to bring these types of experiences to your students year after year. Students remember distance learning sessions for years to come. Some of the experts may even take your students to places that the general public does not have access to. An example of this would be when Dr. Bradburn took my students to the private library at Mount Vernon. It contained George Washington’s personal collection of books, including his copy of the U.S. Constitution. My students were able to see George Washington’s handwritten annotations as to what he felt the role of the President was according to what was written in Article Two. How amazing is that?! Experiences like these make the content jump off of the pages of a textbook.
Have you collaborated with an expert in your content area? What are some of the lessons that you learned from your experience? How do these six points resonate with you? I would love to hear from you and create our own distance learning opportunity together.