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Albert Harris Elementary class uses Skype to visit UK

Monday, October 22, 2012

By KIM BARTO - Special to the Bulletin

Monica Mitchell, a fifth-grade teacher at Albert Harris Elementary School, couldn’t take her class to England, so she brought England into her classroom.

Mitchell recently used Skype to give her students an interactive tour of the Royal Navy Museum in Portsmouth, England, as they learned about the slave trade. The week before, she took her students on a Skype trip to Yellowstone National Park.

Skype is a free software that allows users to video chat over the Internet. Royal Naval Museum employee Claire Hargreaves used an iPad to show museum artifacts and exhibits to the students, her image projected on the classroom’s SmartBoard. Meanwhile, Hargreaves could see the class and hear their questions using a webcam.

“If our students can’t go there, we need to find a way to take them there,” Mitchell said. “I was so excited. The kids were excited, they were engaged, and they asked really good questions.”

She said she found the resources by signing up for Skype for educators, which has “a plethora of resources.”

The first-grade teaching team at Albert Harris Elementary first used Skype last year to have their students communicate with classes in China and Mexico, among other places. Teachers Kathryn Rowe, Amanda Chaney, Elizabeth Jent, Patricia Comire and Laurie Witt applied for a grant from the Martinsville City Public Schools Endowment fund to buy the webcams and then used the Skype in the Classroom program to match up with schools around the world.

Mitchell chose the Royal Naval Museum because she wanted her students to have a solid foundation of knowledge about slavery before they start studying the Civil War. Hargreaves started the lesson by holding up artifacts, such as a metal slave bracelet that was found in a shipwreck and was used as currency to buy slaves from the West African tribes.

“You needed to have 15 of these to buy a human,” Hargreaves told students. Students also saw a neck iron used to chain people to a wall, a model of a slave ship, and pictures of the “Gates of No Return” in Ghana, through which slaves were taken to be exported to America. She explained that hundreds of people were kept below deck in the slave ships, lying down on top of each other during the six-week journey.

“Can you imagine having to be crouching like that, unable to move for six weeks, as long as you’ve been at Albert Harris this year?” Mitchell asked students. They gasped when she explained that the captives had to sleep in their own waste products.

“Disease was terrible on the slave ships. We think that 11 million were transported, and one-third (almost 4 million) died on the journey,” Hargreaves said. “It’s a big shame for Britain that we were involved in it,” she said. However, “we did try to stop it.”

Great Britain outlawed the slave trade in 1807. After that, the Royal Navy’s West African Squadron was sent to the coast to try and intercept slave ships. Hargreaves told them about an officer aboard one of the ships, Midshipman Binstead, who kept a diary about his experiences in 1823-24 that “shows what it was like not only for the slaves, but for the sailors who tried to rescue them,” Hargreaves said.

Mitchell said it was an eye-opening experience for both the students and adults in the room. “To see these primary sources and actually see a model of the ship, it was almost like being there. That makes Skype an outstanding resource,” she said.

Principal Felicia Preston and Assistant Principal Bobby Dalton sat in on the Skype sessions and found them very informative.

“It was very interesting and very enlightening to me to know the full story,” Preston said. The history of the slave trade “is not just for African-Americans. It’s for all of us as Americans to understand where our country has been and where we are now. We have to be very cognizant of where we’ve come from.”

Seeing actual artifacts from the museum “helped the students to open up and ask questions. Seeing that has really piqued their interest,” she said. “I think they’re getting a huge amount of information, and it’s much more interactive.”

The earlier Skype session put Mitchell’s class in touch with a park ranger at Yellowstone National Park, who talked about the wildlife, native peoples of the area, and taking care of natural resources.

“He called it ‘their’ park – they were intrigued by that. Hopefully they’ll be able to go and visit there someday,” Mitchell said.

Dalton said he once spent a week at Yellowstone, “and I think I found out more from the ranger through the Skype program than I did on the trip.”

The children were excited to ask questions about the animals in the park. When the ranger showed a picture of a bison, one child exclaimed that it looked like a dog. The ranger said, yes, in fact, baby bison do look like red dogs.

“It was exciting. It was as if he was in the room with everyone,” Dalton said. “I thought it took the learning process up to another level, to reach out and touch someone who was thousands of miles away.”


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