The magic was simple but convincing in the old episodes of “Romper Room,” from about 40 years ago.
At the end of each episode of the children’s television show, the host would look through her “magic mirror” to examine whether the children in Televisionland were having fun.
“Magic Mirror, tell me today, did all my friends have fun at play?” she would ask, before listing names of the boys and girls she said she could see.
Okay, it was convincing when we were in the target pre-school demographic.
Today’s pre-schoolers and kindergarteners are probably more sophisticated.
Then again, thanks to the magic of Skype computer video conferencing, they have real magic mirrors.
Earlier this year, the early childhood division of the Yavneh Academy in Paramus used video conferencing technology to connect their preschool, kindergarten, and first-grade classes with schools across Western hemisphere. The school took part in the Global Read Aloud program, which for six weeks in the fall connected early childhood classrooms worldwide around the work of children’s author and illustrator Lauren Castillo.
“It’s like opening the walls of our classroom,” said Laya Levine, a Yavneh first grade teacher. “Children feel excited about meeting new people all over this country.”
Each week of the six-week program, her class connected with a different classroom, including ones in Canada, Wisconsin and Illinois. (One of the ten participating Yavneh classes got to talk to students in Panama, which is far to our south but in our time zone. Schools in countries as far afield as China and Kazakhstan took part in the program, which is a volunteer effort started by one teacher and is coordinated online.)
“One of the most wonderful parts of this is they’re being exposed to people in all different places,” Ms. Levine said. “It’s wonderful, teaching our children diversity and opening up our classroom to the world.”
Despite the program’s name, the participating Yavneh classes tended not to read the books aloud over Skype. Instead, they discussed the books, their reactions to them, and the work they had made in response to the books.
For example, the first book the children read was “Nana in the City.” In it, an apartment-dwelling Manhattan grandmother knits a red cape for her grandson, who is scared by the city’s bustle and noise.
“We made capes and wrote ‘I am brave in my cape’ about something we are brave about,” said Ms. Levine. The children took photos of their capes on the iPads, recorded themselves reading their writing, and shared it on a blog with the other class.
“The other classes did the same thing and shared it with us. We all wrote comments on the blog about each other’s work,” she said.
With another school, after reading another of Ms. Castillo’s books, the first graders brought in a stuffed animal and recorded themselves telling when they feel calm. Through the magic of technology, this was turned into a video in which the stuffed animals appear to move their lips to the sound of their owners’ voices.
Another way to connect the classes was with a “mystery Skype, where you guess where the other class is,” Ms. Levine said, asking questions about the weather and geography and working with a map.
“Real life geography was so exciting for them. Suddenly they’re learning about the states in a real-life way.”
Another project was a postcard exchange.
“We made a postcard of our class. It had different things that make Paramus special — a mall, the George Washington Bridge — and our class in the middle. We sent it out and got a few postcards from different places,” she said.
Lauren Greene teaches kindergarten. Her class also made capes when reading “Nana in the City.”
“When we shared the experience, the kids on the other side said, ‘Oh, I get frightened when I go to the dentist too.’ It was neat,” she said.
She’s still in touch with the teachers in the other schools, and hopes to reconnect the classes after the holiday break.
Global Read Aloud was scheduled for October, which made scheduling tricky for Yavneh, because this year the Jewish holidays fell that month. But it proved an opportunity for the far-flung partner classrooms to learn a bit about Judaism.
“When we were Skyping around Rosh Hashanah time, they were wishing us a happy Rosh Hashanah because their teacher had explained to them that we were a Jewish school and could not be meeting later in the week,” Ms. Greene said.
Similarly, “When we were talking with a school in Canada, they had their October Thanksgiving holiday coming up,” she said. “It was a neat way to introduce that concept of another country. It was cool for our kids to have that exposure.”