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Video app connects Wrangell students to classrooms worldwide

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Screengrabs from Flipgrid videos made by Wrangell students and their peers in classrooms around the world. (Courtesy Laura Davies)

Living on an island can be isolating in a number of ways. But one Wrangell teacher has found ways to expand her classroom all over the world through video tech.

A fifth-grader with a swoop of dark hair over one eye stands on the pebbly beach at Wrangell’s City Park, looking into the camera.

“Hi,” she says, “My name is Madelyn, reporting from Wrangell, Alaska. In Wrangell, we have about 2,000 people. There’s two flights every day out of Wrangell. There’s one elementary school, one middle school and one high school. There’s only one fifth-grade teacher, and I’m stuck with her.”

Madelyn’s mom Laura Davies – the fifth-grade teacher in question, who’s standing behind the camera – laughs.

Davies now teaches sixth grade, but she’s still using technology to give her students public speaking experience, help them teach the world about Wrangell, and teach Wrangell students about the world.

Madelyn’s video was part of a project where students made videos about Wrangell culture that Laura Davies says she could then share with other teachers around the U.S. – or the globe – on a video-sharing app called Flipgrid. In another video, then-fifth-grader Jackson Carney sits in front of a green screen image of a cabin, talking about iconic ruby-red gemstones sold by Wrangell children to island visitors.

“In Wrangell, the kids have a very unique way of making money,” Carney says, “They sell garnets. These garnets are found up the Stikine River at Garnet Ledge, a cabin dedicated to the kids of Wrangell by the Boy Scouts. Up at Garnet Ledge, you mine the garnets out of the wall with a chisel and a hammer.”

Davies learned of Flipgrid about five years ago, but says it became a staple in her classroom during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In 2020, when COVID first hit and when I was teaching remotely, the students could do daily check-ins on Flipgrid,” Davies explains. She says she would respond with her own videos, where she would explain the plan for the day. “I kind of cringe looking back at those, but that’s how I kept in touch with those fifth graders through that whole thing.”

Even when Wrangell students went back to in-person classes, Davies says she kept using Flipgrid.

Then in the spring of last year, Davies says she saw on Twitter that an educator in South Korea was looking to connect with classes around the world: “So I got a hold of them and said, ‘Yeah, we’d be able to collaborate.’”

Davies says at first, she just expected that her class would watch the videos from South Korean students and give feedback – the students, who live in megacity Seoul, had written poems about their COVID experience and set them to music.

“We watched every single video,” Davies says, “And my students just lit up. Suddenly, they’re like, ‘Wow, someone on the other side of the world gets us. We also don’t like COVID. Can we make videos?’”

Wrangell students responded with their own poems, but Davies says the experience was more than just sharing words. She says the poems from the South Korean students had a recurring theme of feeling like they were in jail because of COVID restrictions:

“So we started talking to them: ‘What are our freedoms in Wrangell, we’re still able to do all of these things. We’re still at school, whereas in a lot of places around the rest of the world, what are they not able to do?’ And so we had these discussions, but then there was this commonality of like, nobody likes COVID,” Davies says.

Before discovering Flipgrid, Davies says she used to do what she called “Mystery Skype” with her classes, where the class would video call with another classroom around the world and try to guess where the other kids lived and learn about their lives. That process started with her sister, who was an au pair in Switzerland.

Davies says that interactive video tech like Skype or Flipgrid help make the globe accessible to kids from a little island.

“One of the ideas for me is to expand like, ‘Hey, Wrangell, you can go to school and do whatever you want, and have these cool careers. And you can maybe live outside of Wrangell, or you can get these skills and bring them back to Wrangell, and work from here,’” she explains. “So I’m trying to give them ideas on what’s outside of Wrangell. Not to say that they never come back, but what they what’s out there for them to learn.”

And it allows Wrangell students to share the unique aspects of Alaska island living.

“My students love to talk about hunting, and trapping, and all of these subsistence lifestyle things. And so I’ve talked to them like, ‘Yeah, be proud. That’s your culture. But how do we present that so people can take that information in? Do we make it sound gory about hunting? No, we talk about why we do this, and we don’t waste the meat and so on.’ And so I think it’s a great opportunity for my students to be able to share about their culture,” Davies says. Laughing, she adds: “We Skyped with a class in California and the teacher said ‘They’re all vegetarians,’ when my students were eager to talk about the subsistence lifestyle. But both classes were really respectful.”

In addition to video poems and presentations on Wrangell, students have shared Tlingit language, presentations on math concepts, or tutorials on how to make bracelets or do other tasks.

Davies taught 5th grade for most of her career, but transitioned over to 6th-grade technology and science classes about a year ago. She says she’d love to bring more tech into her middle-school science class as well.

“So if we’re talking in sixth grade about food webs, or Alaskan plants that we have, local plants, then maybe we can connect with schools in the interior or in the Arctic,” Davies says. “We just talked about ocean acidification. Well, wouldn’t it be great if we could talk to a class, maybe like where I grew up – on a farm that is nowhere near the ocean – and we can share what we know with that class?”

While tech is great, there’s a lot to be learned from the people and places on Wrangell Island too, Davies says, from Ph.D. students to wildlife techs or shop experts. The whole point is to expand the world for students, and bring the world back home.