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Voice: May 2016
This story is part of a regular series, "Learning Lessons: Great ideas, Great schools,'' that features educators who are doing great things or conducting great programs in Pennsylvania's public schools. For other stories in the series go to www.psea.org/learninglessons.
Michael Soskil's fourth-grade students in Newfoundland, a rural town in northeastern Pennsylvania, are video chatting with students in Kenya.
They are comparing ways to get the weather forecast. The students in Kenya don't have access to the Internet at home. They can't Google the weather like their counterparts in America. So they pay attention to the clouds - the color and shape, and the direction of the wind.
Soskil's students in the Wallenpaupack Area School District have been learning about clouds, too - the different types and how to use them to predict the weather. They want to share their knowledge with their friends in Kenya.
They decide to make a short video. Using an iPad, a green screen, and assistance from their dedicated teacher, the students are able to help their African peers. They will in turn receive a video from the Kenyan students featuring gardening tips they have learned from expert farmers in their village.
This is the Distance Teaching Project in action - an innovative program developed by Soskil, who was recently a top 10 finalist for the Global Teacher Prize.
The Distance Teaching Project began a couple years ago through connections Soskil had made online.
"I'm a big believer in professional networking and professional collaboration," Soskil said. "We've made connections through the Skype in the Classroom website, developed by Microsoft, allowing teachers to connect to learn from each other, via the Skype call, and provide experts who are willing to talk to kids like scientists, park rangers, artists, and authors."
Through Skype in the Classroom, Soskil did a cultural exchange between a group of his students and kids in the Kibera slum of Nairobi.
"We sang for them; they sang for us," he said. "After that call, my students came up to me, and they had tears in their eyes. They said, 'Mr. Soskil, we see the conditions that those kids are learning in, we see their classroom, and it doesn't look like our classroom. We need to help in some way.'"
Soskil turned the observation into a learning experience for his students. Using their math materials, his students created three-to-four-minute videos to teach the kids in Kibera math concepts.
"And because, in exchange, we wanted them to feel empowered as well, and we wanted those kids to know how much we valued them, we asked them to teach us Swahili, since we are in a culturally isolated area where there isn't a lot of diversity and there aren't a lot of foreign languages," he said. "That led to an amazing collaboration that developed into the Distance Teaching Project."
Joy in service to others
By creating videos for others, Soskil's students are learning while teaching, which makes a lasting impact.
"We know that children learn 90 percent of what they teach and only 20 percent of what they consume," Soskil said. "So the fact they're teaching others allows them to learn more of the material that we want them to learn."
The content gained from the Distance Teaching Project is only part of the greater lesson, though. Soskil is instilling a passion for service in his students through the connections they make with kids across the world.
"We know that when children feel the intrinsic joy that comes from doing good deeds for others at a young age, they will want to do more of it, and they will keep doing it for the rest of their lives," he said. "That's what allows them to develop into the leaders and problem-solvers that we need in the future."
The problems that Soskil's students are working to solve are big. After learning water consumed by children they connected with in the Kibera slum was contaminated due to poor infrastructure - and kids were dying from water-borne illnesses - students at Wallenpaupack South Elementary, along with others in Kansas and Greece, raised money for water filters.
In 2015, Soskil was able to hand-deliver the filters to the students in Kenya and Skype with all the schools that helped raise money.
"It was the most powerful moment of my teaching career thus far," Soskil said.
The project rapidly expanded, as teachers around the world learned of the Distance Teaching Project and wanted to become a part of it.
"Within a couple of months, instead of just us and the kids in Kenya, we had a group of students in China who wanted to teach their Asian art techniques through video, we had a school in France that wanted to teach French, we had a school in Venezuela that wanted to teach Spanish, and we had a school in India where children wanted to share their favorite physical education activities," Soskil said. "And all of those videos were collected on one site, so they were available to all of the different participating students."
Easy to replicate
Soskil believes the Distance Teaching Project has been a powerful tool because it is so easy to replicate.
"We live in a time when all of the knowledge of human history is available in our pocket," he said. "We can connect with anyone around the world - all you need is a webcam and an Internet connection, and pretty much all of us have that in school here in the United States."
Soskil believes it is very simple to leverage that availability into a learning experience for students.
"If you build your professional network and you connect with other teachers, it becomes very easy,'' he said. "And recording a video is as simple as pulling out your cell phone. So if you record those videos of your students sharing their learning with others, in a place where others can access them, this is something that can be done by anybody."