Wednesday, February 15, 2017


Sssssalutations Ssssstudents and educator friendsssss. It’s been awhile since I’ve blogged but I’m back today with an exciting collaboration between Darlene Senick, a High School English teacher and Hobbyist Herpetologist at North Tonawanda High School in Western New York and students in Michael Thornton’s multi-age class at Agnor Hurt Elementary in Albemarle County, Virginia.

A couple of weeks ago, Mr. Thornton was asking another colleague on Twitter about her pet snake and I tweeted back to him that I knew a snake enthusiast...Ms. Senick. She agreed to share her knowledge and pets via Skype, so we set a date and started planning.

Ms. Senick is snake hobbyist and shared a lot of information about her snakes with Mr. Thornton’s Multi-Age group. The students in Mr. Thornton’s class collaboratively contributed to a Google Doc where they each asked a question that they wanted to know about snakes. These questions are the heart of the learning here. Some of the questions are what I would call DRIVING questions: questions developed by the student that may potentially grow with new content and experience. (Alcock, Fisher, Zmuda, in press) The students shared these potential driving questions:  

  • What is the most poisonous snake in Virginia?
  • How far can a snake strike?
  • What is the most venomous snake in the world?

These questions had very specific answers, though they might inspire additional similar questions to help focus the learning around content and concepts.

The students also shared what I would call PROBING questions: questions developed by students (or by teachers) to deepen understanding and make the thinking visible. (Alcock, Fisher, Zmuda, in press) Examples of these questions included:

  • Do snakes change their attitude throughout their life?
  • What inspired you to be a Herpetologist?
  • Did snakes evolve from other animals?

These questions require more than just a simple answer and would prompt additional questions and conversations.

Because the students created a collaborative Google Doc, Ms. Senick was able to both answer some of the questions during the Skype video call and answer individual student questions directly in the document after the video call was over.

The reason I’m excited about this entire scenario is that it incorporates the best of what we know about instructional practice with the contemporary capabilities we now have at our disposal. Let me break it down.

These students in Albemarle County, Virginia were being taught by a teacher more than 500 miles away. They were experiencing snakes in a way that a book could never offer and they were able to virtually interact with someone via social media who had knowledge and experience to share. This person had information that the students needed and they leveraged contemporary means to get to her. The teachers were dependent on the students for the creation of questions, which were used to guide the video chat and the students were able to experience the language of the discipline, the content and concepts associated with snakes and their adaptations, and have a memorable experience that they are likely to remember for a very long time. Hashtag #MentalVelcro

They learned about coloration, habitat, how and why snakes shed their skin, the difference between venomous and non-venomous snakes, how they use their tongues, how they drink water, and what they eat. Check out the intact snake skin that Ms. Senick shared, complete with eyes and mouth! How cool is that?

This type of learning opportunity is one that I hope to get to participate in more and more. It was easy to setup, in fact, all of this resulted from two tweets, six or seven emails, and sharing Skype usernames. Social Media brought us together, the questions helped guide our instruction, and then the magic happened: real learning. Real, excited, engaged, enthusiastic, and passionate learning happened. And the teachers were as engaged and enthusiastic as the adults!

With opportunities like this, learning can (and should!) happen anywhere. We’re not bound by geographic barriers. We’re not bound by traditional school structures. We’re not limited to what is within the four walls of the classroom.

What this is, is amplified learning. It is learning that is inclusive of all learners wherever they may be. It is learning that happens when we push beyond traditional barriers and mindsets and seek to do extraordinary things.

Many, many thanks to Darlene Senick and Michael Thornton as well as their students for an awesome collaborative learning session. If you’d like more information about creating Skyportunities or connecting and collaborating with other classrooms around the world, check out these resources:

Read more about Contemporary Learning Opportunities here:

Follow Mike on Twitter: @fisher1000

Alcock, M., Fisher, M., & Zmuda, A. (2017). Designing the Quest. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.
In Press