I was summoned to the office 10 minutes before the morning bell, which often signals a teacher is getting a new student. Teachers in rooms next to mine even predicted that as the reason for the summons as I headed out of my room.

Sure enough, I was. Not to worry, though, I was told, because I would probably never see Celest, our new student. The reason? She had leukemia, was undergoing chemotherapy, and was unable to attend school because of her weakened immune system.

I learned that a home studies teacher would instruct her, but by law she had to be registered in a class. Coincidentally, just a few months before I had been part of several online group discussions using Skype audio conferencing software. Skype also allows users to conference with one other person–and it’s free.

As I stood in the office, it immediately occurred to me that we could include this homebound student in our class, at least part of the time, if she had a computer. Later that morning our school counselor, Ann Marlow, stopped by my room and handed me my new student’s file. I explained to her the possibility of video conferencing. She nodded her head, asked a few questions about several requirements, and left.

I had recess duty that morning and when I returned to the classroom, I found a file on my chair. Ann had already obtained a commitment from a local agency to pay the monthly DSL internet fee, and possibly to have a phone line and DSL installed. It hadn’t been an hour since I discussed this with Ann, and she was making it happen.

It took nearly three months for the pieces to come together, but come together they did. A local hospital came through with a brand new computer and a telecom company agreed to install a phone line and the DSL for free. Our local “Children In Transition” agency used a grant to foot the monthly DSL charge. We were set.

Now that it seemed that we would be using video conferencing with the new homebound student, it was time to tell my class. I started by having my students write journal entries about what it would be like if they couldn’t leave their house except to go to the doctor, and if no friends could come visit. I reminded them how bored they tell me they are during summer, even though they can go out and see friends and do other activities if they choose. After we discussed their responses, I told them we had a student in our class that fit that description. Of course they looked around the room, wondering which one of them I was talking about.

That’s when I explained about their classmate–a student who had officially been a member of our class for two months. The next day I did a lesson on leukemia, aided by a web site that used Flash videos to show how leukemia worked, its treatment, and its effect on the body. We talked about the plan to use free Skype video conferencing to include our classmate and how it would work. They were thrilled to be active participants in this experiment.

A few days later we had our first chance we had to try making the connection. I tested the system during lunch and found a few technical problems. Celest could hear me but not see me, and I could not see her. Fortunately it was a simple fix, requiring an easy restart, and after lunch she attended our classroom over the web for the first time.

It worked better than I had even imagined. I used our classroom’s interactive whiteboard to project our first meeting so everyone could see. After saying our hellos around the room we did our first lesson together, which was to brainstorm and write a blog post about our experience.

We edited and then posted our pieces to our class blog. That first blog post has been read more than 1,000 times by people from all over the world, and many have left comments.

I have tables in my room so that students sit in groups of three or four. Our online classmate sat in a group with three other students at the table right in front of me. When I was teaching a lesson, the laptop screen and web cam were pointed at me so we could see each other. Her face showed up on the computer just about the same size as everyone else in class–and this had an unexpected benefit.

I had not fully appreciated how much you read the faces of your students during a lesson. I could read her face and tell when she understood me and when she didn’t. When we worked in cooperative groups to problem-solve, discuss, or work on a project, we turned the laptop and web cam towards the group and Celest joined in on whatever her group was doing.

Our class is piloting a 1:1 laptop program with 7-year-old laptops and we often use our class wiki page to access math, reading, science, or other web sites we are referencing. Celest was able to follow along easily by going online at home. She read with a partner, had peers proofread her work, asked questions, and was really a fairly regular member of class. Recess was a rest period for her, and sometimes she needed to take breaks or have a short medical procedure performed, and that would interrupt the flow, but overall things worked well.

After the first week of video conferencing, the class decided we should make a video telling our unique inclusion story. We used our Promethean ActivBoard to storyboard the different scenes and arrange their sequence. This led to some powerful class discussions about storytelling and what was truly important to the message we wanted to share.

Students used our school video camera to shoot the scenes, and we used iMovie video editing software to add the voiceovers that narrate the video. Most of my students are second language learners, so the voiceovers were another compelling way for students to practice pronouncing words and using correct English. Students would practice their dialog with partners and then try it out in front of our ESL teacher or me. We would critique and consult with them, and send them off for more practice if necessary. Students took this work very seriously, because they knew people all over the world would see and hear it.

The published video, “Inclusion,” does an excellent job of telling the story and has been downloaded more than 80,000 times from the web. We have received comments about it from almost every continent in the world. Many tell us how it brought them to tears and that they share it with everyone they know. The video also won an award from The Lumière All-School Film Festival in the spring.

We shared our inclusion story in other ways, too. YouthBridges, a group of tech-savvy middle school students in Virginia under the direction of teacher Lee Baber, used Skype to interview us. They recorded the interview and made it available online as a podcast. Reporters from a local TV station and our local newspaper also produced stories about us.

Then, in early spring, we experienced a five-week period of time when we made no connection with Celest. A possibly deadly infection had sent her to a hospital 250 miles away. Thankfully, she recovered and came back online with us for about two weeks. Then one Friday, her mother told me she would not be online because of a doctor’s appointment.

The next Monday we found out why, when a student we had only known over our video-conferencing connection walked into our classroom and became a fully attending member of our class.

We all were flabbergasted! Most interesting was how seamlessly she transitioned into actually being in our room. She knew our routines, her classmate’s names, but what she didn’t know was recess, lunch, and the library, and we all reveled in bringing her along to those places. I issued her a laptop–her biggest struggle was getting used to a touchpad instead of a mouse.

One of the very gratifying by-products of our “Inclusion” video story has been that others have seen the power of using video conferencing to include others. Locally, The Raphael Keaton Memorial organization, through Lizzie Dalton, a “Family Navigator” that helps families deal with their child’s cancer (they give support to our classmate), has begun using Skype to connect families with children that are receiving treatment out-of-town. They also plan to provide computers and web cams to local “At Risk” students that are homebound by their cancer treatments so they can attend school via the web.

From our use of video conferencing and other free Web 2.0 applications like wikis and blogs, my students have begun to learn how these tools can enhance learning and bring experts, places, and experiences into our classroom from far away.

Brian Crosby is in his 27th year of teaching elementary school. He currently teaches 5th grade for the Agnes Risley School in the Washoe County School District in Reno, Nevada.

Links:

Skype

Promethean

Brian Crosby’s classroom blog

Brian Crosby’s class wiki page

“Inclusion” video

News segment about the inclusion project

YouthBridges

The Raphael Keaton Memorial