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Making Long Distance Relationships Work

Amy J. Good, Katherine A. O’Connor, and Eric F. Luce

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Upon finding a partner, the second and third steps involve creating an electronic pal protocol and a schedule of hook-up dates and content. After obtaining parent or guardian permission to participate in e-paling and telecollaboration, begin by pairing one student from each class. Students may be required to write to their e-pal at least once a month prior to each telecollaborative meeting. Keep in mind, it is one thing to assign students to e-pal with other students and to set times for teleconferences to support distance learning, but it is another thing to get students to work together to pursue common ends. To be successful requires planning interesting and engaging learning assignments and also active, on-going decision-making to structure group activities and to motivate students to act together as teams (Luce, McKendry, Dool, Selim, Smith and Wolpert, 1992). Table 1.2, Sample Monthly Middle School E-Pal and Hook-up topics, offers monthly e-pal and telecollaboration topic suggestions.

Table 1.2
Sample Monthly Middle School E-pal and Hook-up Topics

Suggested Electronic Pal (E-pal) Topics
Suggested Telecollaborative
Hook-Up Topics
August: E-Pal topic: Introduction

Have students introduce themselves in a creative way. For example, they can create a song, a jingle, a poem, or a limerick. The focus of this activity is the creative aspect. We do not want the students to feel uncomfortable sharing personal information.

August: Hook-Up topic: Introduction

Brief Hook-Up (Optional)
Explain telecollaboration to your students. For your own background information visit Judi Harris’ “Virtual Architecture”:
http://virtual-architecture.wm.edu/
Research the history of computer communication.
Test videoconference equipment
Have students answer what they remember about social studies when they were in elementary school.

September: E-pal topic: Autobiography

Have the students discuss 3 major/important events in their lives. Include the respective dates.
Have students research and discuss 3 main events that occurred the year they were born. (Think on the following levels: local, state, national, and global.)

September: Hook-Up topic: Autobiography

Have the students bring in an item that represents a part of their lives. They should be prepared to describe, contextualize, and summarize their personal relics.

October: E-pal topic: Family History

Here are some possible topics for the students to discuss with their e-pals:
Family Traditions: Define what family means to you? Did your family have any special traditions, such as things that they did on holidays or birthdays? What about family heirlooms? Is there anything that has been handed down from generation to generation?
Hometown: What was the name of the town where you grew up? Was it a big city or a small town? Were there any special activities or festivals at different times of the year?
Previous Generations: Did you know your grandparents or great-grandparents? What stories can you tell about them and their lives?
(Teacher caution: Consider your students’ backgrounds if you choose these
topics.)

October: Hook-Up topic: Family History

Choose one of the following for your October hook-up:
Have each student bring a photo of a family member. Have students write a personal narrative from the perspective of the person in the photo.
OR
Design an extension lesson on the term “family.” Research the history of the word family. Have the students create a timeline of how families have changed. Consider using television situation comedy clips to introduce media influence.

November: E-pal topic: Local History

Have students discuss physical features/landmarks of their towns/cities. Students should share the absolute and relative location of their school.
Discuss favorite restaurants, places to hang out, entertainment venues, etc.

November: Hook-Up topic: Local History

Pair up the students in your own classroom. Give digital camera access to each set of partners. Have the pair go on a scavenger hunt for evidence of one of the core democratic values. Students can share their findings during the hook-up through Power Point, a Web Quest creation, or a document camera.
OR
Consider having an election discussion. Compare and contrast the candidates and their corresponding platforms as well as other related election issues.

December: E-pal topic: State History
(This month’s topic works well if e-pals are in two different states.)

Use MR.HELP (Movement, Region, Human Environment interaction, Location/Place) (Parker, 2001)
Have students discuss some of the following topics with their e-pals:
Why did people move to your state?
Why is your capital the capital?
What are the regions?
What is the climate?
What are the main industries and occupations?
What are some notable/historical sites?

December: Hook-Up topic: State History
(This month’s topic works well if e-pals are in two different states.)

Work in groups prior to the hook-up date.
Have each group work on one of the MR.HELP topics. Each letter represents one of the five themes of geography. Groups will present during the telecollaboration.

January: E-pal topic: Local or State Article Discussion

Help your students locate two articles from a local or state newspaper. Students should read the articles independently and discuss one of the articles with their e-pals. Have the students write a short reflective summary to their e-pals. Some possible guiding questions can include: Why is the topic important? How will it affect you as a student and/or citizen?

January: Hook-Up topic: Local or State Article Discussion

Have your students create a television network with classmates. Create a station name. Divide the students into anchor groups--for example, the Social Studies Network, or SSN, could include Economic Experts, a History Hotline, and Geography Gurus. Share prepared news stories of local/state interest with your telecollaborative partner class.

February: E-pal topic: GRIPE session

Have your students brainstorm a local, state, or national problem that concerns them. Provide the following prompts: Tell your e-pal about the concern. Why does it bother you? How can you change it or make a difference? Discuss some suggestions or solutions.

February: Hook-Up topic: GRIPE session

Have your students pick a controversial issue (i.e., school uniforms, year-round school, school violence, dress code). Have a philosopher’s chair or debate.

March: E-pal topic: National History Day

If your classes are participating in National History Day, have your students share their projects with their e-pals. Peruse the following website for information on National History Day: http://www.nationalhistoryday.org/
If your class is not participating in National History Day, have your students research an obscure facts website related to your current curriculum topic and have them try to stump their e-pals.

March: Hook-Up topic: National History Day

If you are participating in National History Day, use this hook-up as practice/feedback for the school/regional/state/national competition.

If you are not participating in National History Day, play a “Did you know?” game show with obscure history facts.

April: E-pal topic: Global Issues Day

Give all of your students the same article about a global issue (e.g., terrorism, arms race, poverty, global warming, pollution, etc.) After reading the article, have the students discuss the issue with their e-pals. Brainstorm suggestions and solutions to the issue.

April: Hook-Up topic: Global Issues Day

Take your students through a global connections virtual fieldtrip. (Teachers may have prepared a TRACK-STAR in advance related to how their hometown is connected to the world. Use http://trackstar.4teachers.org/trackstar/index.jsp)

May: E-pal topic: Heroes

Have students choose someone in history whom they view as their heroes. Ask the following guiding questions: Why did you choose that person? How has that person affected your life? How has that person affected history? Is this person famous or infamous? Write/E-mail a dialogue back and forth between your famous person and your e-pal’s famous person.

May: Hook-Up topic: Heroes in Costume

Allow the students to come to the hook-up dressed as their heroes. Require them to bring a card with 4-5 facts on it about their heroes. Have students read their facts aloud and play “Who Am I?” with your partner class.

June: E-pal topic: Final Meeting

Try to arrange for your students to meet face-to-face.

June: Hook-Up topic: Final Meeting

If a face-to-face meeting is not possible, consider conducting a student-led telecollaborative meeting.

Following each telecollaborative class, it is important to receive feedback. Reflect with the partner teacher and with the students. The results of the reflective questions serve as a guide for improvement and serve as one of the tools to analyze critically the benefits and/or pitfalls of telecollaboration in student progress and professional development. Table 1.3 , Teacher and Student Reflection Questions, contains some examples of questions from higher education classes that would be appropriate for a middle school teacher and students as well.

Table 1.3
Teacher and Student Telecollaborative Reflection Questions

Teacher Reflection Questions*
Student Reflection Questions
Is the telecollaborative experience active? What did you learn about social studies?
Is the telecollaborative experience relevant and meaningful? In what manner can technology enhance the social studies course? Why?
Is the telecollaborative experience challenging? In what ways is the long distance relationship with the other middle school a success? And not a success?
Is the telecollaborative experience value-based? How would you define telecollaboration?
Is the telecollaborative experience integrative? Would you recommend this technology-infused section of social studies to a friend? Why or why not?

*Teacher Reflection Questions derived from NCSS definition of powerful teaching.

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Meridian: A Middle School Computer Technologies Journal
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Volume 8, Issue 1, Winter 2005
ISSN 1097 9778
URL: http://www.ncsu.edu/meridian/sum2004/relationships/3.html
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