How a Mystery Skype helped me fight stereotypes

I like to think of myself as a fairly open minded-person. I have my share of prejudices, just like everyone else, but I do try to become aware of them and change them as much as I can.

I was surprised, though, when I encountered a completely unexpected reaction from my 6th graders while reading a book. Background: every year, in class we read four books, graded readers, actually, since they are EFL students) One of those books is a short story called “Meet me in Istanbul”, a sort of detective story/romance set, of course, in Turkey’s largest city. This was probably the 5th group of students I read the book with and it’s a story they usually like. It has mystery, a bit of action, some romantic scenes; pretty interesting for an 11-year-old.


This year, though, was different. When I presented the book I could already see some reluctant looks and even some requests for a different one. I was gobsmacked. Why? They didn’t even know what the story was about. I tried “selling” it the best way I could, but failed miserably. Still, I found it hard to understand why. And then it happened. One of them said, “I don’t want to read a book about terrorists”. My jaw dropped to the floor and it would have dropped to the basement too if we had one. I asked them to tell me a bit more about this and then it all made perfect sense: in their mind, anything related to the Middle East and Islam was equated with bombs, terrorism, and death. Inasmuch as I tried convincing them otherwise, it was just my word against, well, the world. And why would they believe a word I said? Every day for the past weeks, they have been bombarded with news about the Brussels bombings at the airport and metro.

I was faced with two choices: change the book and move on, or use this as a teaching experience. And you guessed it, I chose the latter. Fear is born out of ignorance and you fight ignorance with education. I figured if they had a hard time believing me, then I needed back up. I resorted to my PLN and managed to get the contact of a Turkish teacher who lived in Istanbul. For obvious reasons, we could not do the traditional Mystery Skype with our classes, one being in Turkey, the other in Buenos Aires, so she kindly accepted doing it after school, on her own. I got my students ready, they came up with questions they wanted to ask her and we set a date. The general feeling for the video call was positive, except for a few students, one in particular (the”I don’t want to read a book about terrorists” one)

I wish I could find the right words to express what it feels like to see the transition between very uptight and suspicious students into these open-minded and amazed. Their expressions and their posture changed. Arms uncrossed, eyes wide-open, hands flying into the air to ask more questions. Meryem had demolished all these prejudices in a 25-min conversation with patience, kindness and a bit of Meghan Trainor (isn’t she the best???)

You know an activity was successful when your students refuse to hang up and go to recess. And this was the case. Needless to say, the reading of the book was an absolute pleasure (and with interspersed comments like “This is the place Meryem told us about!”)

But by far the best comment came from that student that had inadvertently sparked this activity. As soon as we hung up, I asked them how they had felt and if they had learned anything from this experience. When she raised her hand, I have to admit I was slightly guarded. But then she said “I learned that Muslim people are good people” And my jaw dropped again, but this time, out of happiness.


Mystery Hangout: New Jersey

I’ve written before about connecting classes through activities like Mystery Skype or Mystery Hangouts, so I thought it was about time I shared one of my activities.

I posted in the Mystery Hangout Google+ community in desperation. I had a PD session where I wanted to introduce this activity and my mystery person fell through. A teacher from New Jersey kindly replied but a bit too late for my session, so we ended up organizing the activity for our two classes, her 5th graders, and my 6th graders. It was the first time I was going to do this activity with them, so I had to walk them through. As I explained in my post on connecting classes, you need to think this through for it to be a successful activity. To my mind, the most important aspect is the role assignment. Each student needs to have a ‘job’ to do, otherwise, they get distracted, they are unsure what to do or might even get in trouble. I have a fairly small class of 17 students, so this was easy. I had the ‘clue keepers’, the ‘Googlers’, the ‘mappers’ and so on.


This is a great idea from Heidi’s class that I’ll definitely borrow: thinking time signs.

I had originally planned for 4 students to ask questions but then everyone wanted to ask!

The great thing about assigning jobs is that once the activity gets started everyone knows what to do and you can take a step back and supervise.


Why, oh, why did Heidi show them their class pet, a chinchilla?!? They’ve been asking for one for days!

As you can see, this is a fairly simple activity to carry out. There’s no mystery to it (yes, the pun is intended) All you need is to start connecting with people. There are hundreds of teachers out there looking for a class to connect right now. So get started. Your students will have a blast – and so will you!

Connecting – Mystery Hangouts and Mystery Skype

The world has certainly shrunk with technology and it’s a true pity to miss the opportunity to allow our students to connect with it. Especially when learning a foreign language.

A Mystery Hangout or a Mystery Skype might be the solution to this. I gave it a go earlier this year and haven’t stopped ever since.

There are some things to bear in mind before you launch yourself on your first video chat.

The basics
  • Before you start, you’ll need a Gmail account for the Hangout or a Skype account. Log in and make sure your microphone and camera are working properly. You don’t want technical issues to ruin your experience.
  • Find a teacher or class willing to have a Hangout/Skype session with you. You can find some teachers in these Google+ Communities: Mystery Hangout for schools, Connected Classrooms Workshop, or Mystery Location Calls.  The Skype in the Classroom website also features teachers looking for Skyping buddies.  If you use Twitter, you can use the #mysterylocation or #mysterySkype.
  • Make sure your schedules coincide. Check time zones and locations. World Time Buddy is really handy for this, but you can use any online time converter. Remember that Argentina is GMT -3:00.
Prepare your students
  • You can brainstorm questions beforehand and write them down if possible. This will give them enough confidence when the videoconference starts.
  • Remind them they need to speak clearly and politely. There might be some delay, so this is key.
  • Assign roles. When kids know what is expected of them, the chances of them acting out decrease greatly. This will help you have a smooth call. There should at least be  a ‘greeter’ and a ‘closer’ to start and finish the conversation, some ‘question makers’ who ask the preassigned questions, a ‘locator’ that keeps track of the clues on the map, a/some ‘Googler’ who looks up key information that may lead to discovering the mystery location, and some ‘sharers’ who will continue the conversation after the guessing is done by telling their buddies fun facts about their city/country.
The Follow-up

The follow-up activities will depend on what kind of Hangout/Skype you had. Activities can range from very simple ones, like writing an account of the conversation or listing fun facts about the other country/school, to more complex ones, such as presentations or essays. It will all depend on the age and level of your students.



Developing Speaking Skills

Speaking is one of the most difficult skills to teach. There are many objective factors involved: individual sounds, fluency, rhythm, vocabulary, grammar, sentence structure, etc. But there’s also the more subjective factors, such as shyness, numerous classes or, well, plain adolescence. All these, individually or combined hinder the development of fluency. These are two of the tech tools I find useful when trying to get my students to practice.

Speech Recognition

The idea of turning speech to text is not new. Apple’s Siri and “OK Google” have been out for a while now. Speech Recognition jumped into this wave. It is an interesting add-on for Chrome. Once installed, whatever you dictate to your computer will automatically turn into text in your Google Doc.

How can I use this in the EFL classroom? you may ask. Well, I found that some of my students have a hard time listening to themselves and cannot tell the difference between the sound they should be making and the one they really are producing. Here’s where this add-on came in handy. By giving them a text that would force them to produce certain sounds (eg the difference between ‘three’ vs ‘free’, which is so difficult for Spanish speakers) I make them see their pronunciation needs to be spot on; otherwise, the computer won’t recognize it.

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Fluency Tutor

This free Chrome app takes it a step forward. Fluency Tutor has a wide range of texts to choose from (you can even filter them according to age or lexile level) You can send them to your students directly or you can share a link with them (in the class blog or virtual class, eg) They have useful tools to help them through the task: a dictionary, a translator and a picture dictionary. Once they listened to the text and feel ready to start, they just click record and start reading. They can record as many times as they need and play their recording back to make sure they are happy with the result. Then, all there’s left for them to do is send you the recording. You’ll get it straight on your Drive in a folder conveniently called “Fluency Tutor”

If you look closer in your FT Dashboard, you’ll see how many times your student listened to the text, which words they looked up and how many times they recorded. A true gem.


There are some tools that make you feel like a kid when you use them and Blabberize is one of them.

To make a ‘blabber’, that is, a talking picture all you have to do is follow three simple steps.

Pick an Image

Choose an image you like and upload it to the site. You can crop the image if necessary.

Place Mouths

You get a predesigned shape that you have to place on top of your image. Notice you’ll see some red dots. Those are the margins of your mouth. Make sure they match the lips of the face you uploaded. The big green circle will control the flap of the mouth. The farther away you drag, the more open the mouth will be.

Pick a sound

This is where you get creative. You can upload a track you previously recorded, or you can record on the spot (for this option, you’ll have to grant Blabberize permission to access your microphone) Once you are done, you preview your masterpiece and save it.

I find this tool incredibly useful for EFL classes, particularly for those shy students who have a hard time speaking in front of the whole class. The first time I used it was a few years ago when I was teaching Literature. My class was reading The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips, by Michael Morpurgo. In it, Lilly, the main character, loses her cat, Tips, and sets off to find it. After reading the book, I asked my students to rethink the story from Tips’ point of view and retell it. We could have done the good ol’ composition, but I wanted something different, something engaging. And this was when Blabberize came to the rescue. They uploaded pictures of a black and white cat like the one in the story and made it talk. The ‘blabbers’ were then uploaded to the class site so everyone could hear Tips talk.

Granted, there are other useful and user-friendly tools for talking avatars, like Voki, but what I especially like about Blabberize is that it is the most customizable of all. You can use any picture you want, even a selfie! Give it a try. I guarantee you’ll love it. And that talking llama on their site is just hilarious!

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