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.

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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.

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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.

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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.