They play Fortnite too!” exclaimed my fifth graders in unison.
We were huddled in front of the projection screen in our classroom in Reno, NV, in the midst of meeting our partner class from Lafayette, Indiana via live video, when one of my students asked the children in Mrs. Bredar’s 4th-grade class about their after-school activities. A student from her room moved in front of the camera and described things like softball, doing homework, fishing, hiking and playing baseball. Then the student sheepishly added, “We all like to play Fornite.”
That was the moment.
That’s when my students erupted in applause. That’s when all the students realized that despite geographical and economic differences, there were experiences they all shared.
This was our first experience with Empatico, a free online space for classrooms across the globe to connect. I had signed up and completed a short profile including school demographics, geographic location, best times to work with a partner classroom, and preferred lesson activities. It took minutes to complete the entire registration.
I cannot overstate how pleased I am that I took the proverbial leap of faith to try Empatico. As a 5th grade teacher, I had noticed on blogs and social media that educators were connecting through different video software. Although appealing, I knew I needed more structure than simply to meet another classroom. Moreover, I needed an assurance that my student’s privacy would be protected.
Empatico provided all of this. Specifically, it created the match to a classroom at least three hundred miles away, provided eight activities to choose from, and allowed access to an intuitive and smart platform to communicate with our partner class. In fact, not only was there video communication for the students, but also a chat field for the teacher and me to communicate with.
Since my first experience with Empatico with the students in Indiana, my kids and I have completed two more activities. Each activity was better than the next, as we shared more about our school, community, geography and local landmarks. The weeks we implemented an Empatico activity with our partner class in Indiana, the students brimmed with excitement as they anticipated a unique audience to prepare for.
As we moved through connections with our partner class, something important emerged. Students would reflect on a lesson and volunteer small things they noticed. “I like how they use the ‘me too’ gesture when they have something common with us,” one student noted. Another student volunteered, “They seem so interested in us and I am so interested in them. I love talking to another class like this.” Following our last Empatico exchange, one student shared with me: “I hate that it’s over. I loved every session and I’ll miss my new friends.” Then she smiled and added, “At least I know what landmarks to visit when I talk my parents into taking me to Indiana this summer!”
As teachers, we are always looking for opportunities to help students understand that their world is much larger than their classroom, neighborhood, or city. Empatico has created a space to connect children in an authentic way that builds perspective, understanding, and empathy. It is a space in which students can discover that they have a lot in common with children different than them and hundreds of miles away; an outcome that is important as children navigate an ever-changing world.
The school year ended a couple of weeks ago, and I was surprised when I got an email from a parent titled “Empatico.” It read: “Thanks for having the kids visit with students outside of Reno. I see a change in my child who is asking more questions about different regions of the U.S. and the world and asking what is different and the same about the people who live there. I love this and I am thankful you found a safe way for him to interact with other children.”
Aaron Grossman is a 3rd-grade teacher in Reno, Nevada. He was a Nevada Teacher of the Year finalist in 2018 and his district’s Teach of the Year in 2017. You can learn more about Aaron and his students at www.Room360.org
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