Today’s #FrontlineFriday post comes from Zak Ringelstein of United Classrooms, or “UClass”, a new online platform for international collaboration among K-12 students.
In mid-September Secretary of Education Arne Duncan tweeted, “As a nation we’re still spending $7-9B each year on textbooks that are obsolete the day we buy them. Why?”
While schools have been shopping for textbooks and teachers are transitioning to the Common Core, a growing need for collaboration and adaptable resources has surfaced. How can a single, static textbook remain relevant in diverse classrooms and a dynamic world? How can a teacher actually reduce the 2.5 hours they spend planning each day when they are cut off from a global wealth of knowledge and forced to anchor their lessons to outdated textbooks?
My name is Zak and I was a teacher in Phoenix, Arizona when I confronted these questions that hindered my ability to provide the best educational outcomes for my students. I was not the only one disadvantaged by this isolation; my students were also bereft of the opportunity to dream beyond the limits of their classroom walls. This is when I began reconstructing my approach to instruction. Tearing down the walls of the conventional classroom, I sought to unite the experience of teachers and students across the globe. This is how I, along with a few fellow teachers, came to found UClass in the fall of 2012.
By engaging students and teachers in a global lesson exchange, UClass has enabled teachers to share resources and students to collaborate across 86 countries in over 2,000 schools. Teachers can now access the experience of their colleagues around the world to bring high quality, teacher-created and -vetted content to their classrooms. Uniquely, students can connect with their global peers around these lessons, developing global and digital citizenship skills. Over the past year, UClass has hosted over 20,000 users, connecting classrooms in academic discussions and bridging cross-cultural relationships.
Through this process, students around the world become exposed to issues of the day, as well as opinions on those issue from a diverse host of peers. Imagine the possibility of Israeli and Palestinian students talking out the conflict with each other? Or students from Ethiopia and America discussing foreign aid? Or students from Syria sharing their perspective from the ground? Imagine the progress we could make in global understanding by using this platform to learn about culture from its source. UClass is working to give teachers a way to share their best ideas and students a place to be heard and to access the wide world.
Here’s how it works. Teachers are paid for the use of their original resources and all materials are vetted by educators. Teachers invite other classrooms to engage in projects alongside theirs, provide one another with professional development and share their best ideas on the site. Students share their views on current events, give feedback on each other’s schoolwork, develop lasting global relationships and practice the 21st century skills necessary to act as global citizens.
UClass is quickly becoming a precious space for sharing across all kinds of borders. We’ve seen classrooms unite on topics like “Children are humans too: the search for human rights”, and analyzing historic differences between U.S. democracy and the former Soviet Union’s communism. Students share simpler moments as well, like when we hosted a “Where We’re From” project, and students from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania found themselves having to explain a “cheesesteak” to their European peers!
Interactions like these allow teachers and students see how vast the world is beyond classroom walls. Too often consumed by what’s bogging us down, we humans forget that our neighbors have something valuable to teach. Now, these authentic relationships are right at your fingertips. @Arne, we no longer need to spend billions on dead content; we can spend our time and energy on the most valuable investment: teachers and students.
I invite you to link up YOUR classroom to UClass, and share this post with your friends and family members who work in education, or who are currently K-12 students. UClass is opening the door of collaboration in education the widest it’s ever been.
And we’ll be sharing UClass stories with Everyday Ambassador every month, so stay tuned for updates!