Talk about generational envy: When I learned about Maine history at State Street in Brewer way too many decades ago, we read a book.
Today, when Caleb and Emma and Micah and Cole learn about Maine history in the third-grade class taught by Cheryl MacInnes at Brewer Community School, they talk “live” with other third-graders living far, far away.
On a sunny mid-December afternoon, MacInnes watches as her excited students twist and squirm in their chairs, aligned in three rows facing a wall-mounted projector screen. Open on a utility cart next to MacInnes is a Dell laptop with a built-in camera.
In a few minutes — MacInnes counts them down, “three” and “two” and “one” — these Brewer students will “travel” to a third-grade classroom in Lake Ariel, Penn., not far from Scranton. So far this academic year MacInnes’s students have “traveled” to Alabama, Arizona, New Jersey, and South Dakota. A “trip” to Hawaii will soon occur.
“In the third grade we learn about the State of Maine,” MacInnes says. “A good way for the students to put that learning to use is to share it with students in other states.” Along the way, the Brewer students “meet people of different cultures around the United States.”
A color image sudden appears on the laptop and projector screen, and a young teacher standing in a classroom an eight-hour drive from Bangor greets MacInnes. The Pennsylvania third-graders sit at desks formed in a square; they attentively watch the Brewer students watching them.
For the next few minutes, each Brewer third-grader stands in front of the laptop, holds up a picture, and explains to the Lake Ariel students what the picture depicts and its importance to Maine. One photo depicts a Maine coon cat, Maine’s official feline. Another photo depicts a chickadee, Maine’s official bird. One girl points a photo of Joshua Chamberlain at the camera and explains his role in the Civil War.
After listening attentively to their Brewer counterparts, each Pennsylvania third-grader holds up a picture or photo to the Lake Ariel camera and explains what the image depicts. There is the Liberty Bell. Here is Harrisburg, the state capital. The firefly is the official Pennsylvania bug, and milk is the official state drink.
One student details a long list of fun things to do when vacationing in the Keystone State. Another student reveals that the Great Dane is the official state dog (Maine has no such critter).
Then one Lake Ariel girl talks about visiting Hersheypark, located in Hershey and home to all things chocolate. The interstate conversation goes slightly off track as several Brewer third-graders talk about how much they love chocolate.
As each Pennsylvania student discusses a particular fact, MacInnes writes the information on a whiteboard. This information will become “key words” for the Brewer students, as Emma will later explain to me.
A question-and-answer session follows the last Pennsylvania report. MacInnes asks if Hurricane Sandy impacted the school. Her Lake Ariel counterpart responds that power was out for a week — and so was school.
Students ask questions about favorite sports teams. Not all Lake Ariel third-graders are automatic Eagles’ fans, but when MacInnes asks her students about their favorite football team, several boys shout, “Patriots!”
Less luck for a favorite baseball team: MacInnes almost has to drag “Red Sox” from her students, all except for Mason, who sports a Boston Red Sox shirt definitely seen by the Lake Ariel third-graders.
Then the students wish each other a “Merry Christmas,” and the video chat ends.
This is at least the third year that MacInnes and her students have video-chatted with third-graders across the United States. Bangor Savings Bank and the Perloff Foundation provided grants to her and other “teachers across the state” to purchase the necessary equipment to make video chats possible.
“My first year, we did all 50 states,” MacInnes says. Last year, her students “spoke to 28 states.” This year, she is not sure how many states her current third-graders will visit, but Florida and Hawaii are definitely on the list.
Because of the time-zone difference, video-chatting requires perfect timing; to speak with Hawaiian third-graders at the beginning of their school day, for example, the Brewer students must contact them late in the Brewer school day.
When MacInnes smiles and says that her interstate chatterers love learning about other places, she is correct. “It’s been fun because instead of reading a book about the state, you get to talk to them in person,” Cole explains.
“You get to see what it’s like where they live,” Mason says.
“Sometimes it’s cool. We get to share the same facts as them,” says Micah. She explains that the Brewer students had recently learned from Garden State third-graders that New Jersey and Maine share the same state insect: the honeybee.
“What’s really cool is that we get to learn all these facts,” says Mackenzie, who’s wearing a Santa-style hat.
“We share Maine facts with other states,” Caleb says.
After the chat ends, the BCS third-graders write their experiences in their “Chatting Across the USA” journals. “It’s really fun because when Mrs. MacInnes has written down all the key words, a reporter puts them and a story on our blog,” Emma reports.
The class has a blog? “Yes,” MacInnes replies.
We read books circa 1962; these students travel the country by Internet in 2012. We wrote Maine facts on lined white book; they write those same facts in journals and post information on the Web.
Talk about generational envy!