08/23/2012 03:38 pm ET Updated Oct 23, 2012

Beyond School Walls: Connecting Students and Teachers Around the World

Eleven years ago, at the beginning of my career as a teacher, my students and I were isolated, you could even say trapped, in my classroom. My kids and I were limited to whatever I could physically bring in to the room.

But video networking technologies such as Skype and social networking platforms such as ePals have transformed the educational experience, literally connecting my classroom to the entire world. My students in Bakersfield, California, have looked into a webcam and interacted with museum curators in London and researchers in Antarctica, studied architecture with students in Russia, learned from representatives from the Youth Olympics in Singapore and were taught a lesson in Spanish by a teacher in Argentina. While the ability to have these successful and experienced professionals connect with my kids has been extraordinary, it's the connections that my kids make with other students that are transformative.

For my students, technology is not entertainment nor is it a distraction. It is a critical and sometimes life-changing part of their education.

Two years ago, my sixth graders were building a relationship with a classroom in Hafnarfjörður, Iceland. Together with my collaborator Jenny Berglind Rúnarsdóttir in her Icelandic classroom, our kids worked on a variety of cultural exchanges that included poetry, folktales and candy -- of course. Through their work and art, our far away friends shared their beautiful and haunting landscape.

One cold morning, my class gathered with their parents at 6 a.m. so we could have a video conference with the Icelandic kids and their parents. The Skype exchange began as they usually do with laughter and a few presentations. After about 20 minutes, I asked Jenny if her students would share their experiences with a recent volcanic eruption near their town.
A young man stepped up to the webcam and told my class that the eruption had caused a massive glacier melt. His family worked in the fishing industry and the melting Hafnarfjörður glacier caused his family to flee for their lives in order to save themselves from horrible drowning. His village, which depended on the fishing industry, saw its livelihood wash away with the run-off from the glacier.

The laughter turned to shock, empathy, sadness and tears. One of my kids stepped forward, looked in to the camera and said, "We are with you." Suddenly two communities, thousands of miles apart, were strongly connected. To this day, students still come by and want to talk about the Icelanders and their volcano.

The ability to connect to other classrooms around the world is not just about the human connection. I invited parents to my classroom that morning because of something I had learned from an exchange with a teacher from Singapore named Rose Manuel. She taught me to create lessons that allowed students to share about themselves and that also include their parents and even their communities. Rose helped me learn how to create a classroom culture and give it a name. The importance of naming a class is something I passed along to Jenny Rúnarsdóttir -- who named her class "Odin's World," while my class was the "Titans." So, thanks to technology, a teaching concept migrated from Singapore to Bakersfield, California, and on to Hafnarfjörður, Iceland.

The ability for teachers to collaborate has never been more important. Social networking sites like ePals allow innovative ideas to spread virally, from teacher to teacher, classroom to classroom. Professional Learning Communities are now a global phenomenon and next year, as school districts around the nation begin making the transition to Common Core standards, you can expect an unprecedented exchange between classroom educators as we look for the best, most effective ways to teach. We are just a few years into a technology-driven education paradigm but one thing is already clear: connectivity and social media have forever changed the classroom experience.