In one Sunset Hill classroom, kindergartners are using technology to connect with kids across the globe

Sunset Hill kindergartners Coby Robben, left, Mila Sims, Manny Ellis and Ambra Atakere, right, react to a video clip sent to them by a kindergartner in Shanghai, China, while crowded around an iPad on Tuesday, April 25, 2017 at the school. Through a pen-pal correspondence with the Chinese students, teacher Nicole Corn's kindergartners have been learning about the many cultural similarities and differences through posts about their lives at school and home, their favorite foods and also favorite activities.

It’s Tuesday afternoon in Nicole Corn’s bright and cheery kindergarten classroom at Sunset Hill Elementary School, where tables of excited students clamor around iPads to check in with their virtual pen pals more than 7,000 miles away in Shanghai, China.

The kids easily access a collaborative learning journal app from their district-issued iPads. A moment later, photos and videos from kindergartners at a Shanghai elementary school flood the screen, much to the delight of Sunset Hill kindergartner Sophia Talley.

“I like the one where he rides his bike, because I know how to ride my bike too, with two wheels,” Sophia says of her correspondence with a Chinese student. “He does, and I do.”

She’s five years old, and she’s proud of that two-wheels bit. She’s also developing an understanding, at a young age, that not all kids around the world live, play and learn as she does. And that’s OK, her teacher regularly points out.

“Sometimes, they don’t even see the difference,” Corn says of her 22 kindergartners, who are the first in the Lawrence district to participate in a cultural exchange with Copernic Kindergarten Elementary in Shanghai.

The pilot program, which launched in January, connects kindergartners across the globe via Seesaw, a digital portfolio tool that’s become increasingly popular with educators both here and abroad in recent years. Corn was already a fan of the app — her students sometimes use it to share classroom projects with parents — when Tara Martin, a curriculum facilitator at the Lawrence district offices, first approached her about participating in a new pen-pal program earlier this year.

Jerri Kemble, the district’s assistant superintendent of innovation and technology, had asked Martin in January about launching such a project in Lawrence schools. Kemble soon connected Martin with Josh Bobley, an old family friend who had relocated to China and accepted a job as vice principal of Shanghai’s Copernic Kindergarten Elementary.

After meeting online with Bobley and two administrators from Lawrence Virtual School, Martin and her colleagues began to establish the key components of the new program. And soon, things were up and running, though not without a few technical challenges (internet connectivity in Chinese classrooms is surprisingly slow and difficult to access, Martin says) and time-zone hangups.

Educators in charge of facilitating the program, now dubbed the U.S.-China Kindergarten Exchange, also weren’t sure what, exactly, they hoped to accomplish with the correspondence, Martin recalls.

“They started just sharing anything they wanted to share. We were just learning from them,” Martin says of the photos and videos swapped between kindergartners, which have covered topics like favorite foods, books, activities and how teachers cover subjects like science and physical education here and in China.

A Sunset Hill kindergartner watches a correspondence video of a Shanghai kindergartner playing a xylophone.

But then, in need of a translator, Martin and her colleagues contacted Yong Zhao, a Foundation Distinguished Professor at the University of Kansas Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies. Zhao, whose research includes Chinese language learning and technology in education, began asking some deeper questions about the project, Martin says. Specifically, what kinds of problems can we solve by connecting students and educators around the globe?

The goal, inspired by Zhao’s educational philosophies, is to first get students to learn from each other, then learn with each other, and finally, learn for each other, Martin says.

“We haven’t gotten all those pieces yet, but we’ve started learning from them, and now we’re moving on to learning with them,” she says of the Chinese students, who will soon be matched with their own individual pen pals in Corn’s class.

“It’s a trial-and-error, fun thing we’ve started, and we’re tweaking it as we go,” she adds. “I think in the future we’d like to move to where we really have a purpose for all this learning.”

For example, Martin suggests, maybe teachers could become facilitators for helping students identify potential problems in their communities or world, and then devising potential solutions. At the very least, she says, the program could become an exchange of ideas worth sharing.

Right now, though, she’s heartened to see Sunset Hill kindergartners engaged in the program. Just about every day, the kids share new photos and videos — themes change every few weeks, guided by students’ suggestions. Because of the time difference between Kansas and China, sometimes there’s a bit of a lag with responses, but students on both sides of the exchange seem excited to share with each other, Corn says.

“It’s just more of an updated pen pals (correspondence), but it’s virtual,” she says. “I think it’s neat for them to see what other kids do at school in different parts of the world, what they do at recess and what they eat … They’re really engaged whenever we do this, and they’re always thinking about, ‘Oh, I want to know about this, and I want to know about that.'”

They’re just five years old, she says, but they’re curious. And Martin sees potential in that curiosity. Eventually, she’d like to see the program expand to other schools in the district, if enough teachers express interest. The idea of connecting to students across the globe intrigues her, but she also sees promise in more localized versions of the program.

“Technology allows us to bust the boundaries of districts and states, even, and for this purpose, countries,” Martin says. “We could collaborate with other students, and learn from and with, and solve problems to learn for. I don’t think this has to be global, and I totally think that any class could do this.”

And the kids at Sunset Hill?

“I don’t put anything past 5-year-olds,” she adds. “They could do anything, honestly.”