Friday, November 14, 2014

Collaboration Beyond Borders

On November 10th 2014, #mexedchat had a special guest Mtra. Giselle Barrett  to moderate our bimonthly chat. The topic was collaboration. We discussed about the different ways we use digital tools to collaborate beyond borders with other teachers to make learning a meaningful experience. I was so excited with the great discussions and resources that I decided to write this post!

Borders or financial issues no longer limit collaboration in the 21st century. The change in professional education has been quick, enabled by the many tools that we now use for collaboration. Technology has provided us with the ability to communicate, curate, collaborate, and create with any number of educators, globally in a 24/7 environment. The co-founders of #mexedchat (Dominique DynesIsaac Pineda and I) truly believe that we are smarter collectively than individually.

If we are willing to collaborate with other classes around the world and raise awareness of global issues, we need to think of the following characteristics of a truly educator.

An educator must:
believe in sharing, communication and collaboration.
Ø  flatten classrooms and engage minds.
Ø  practice and model lifelong learning.
Ø  use the tools of technology to personalize his or her professional development.
Ø be a relevant educator, willing to explore, question, elaborate, and advance ideas through connections with other educators.
Ø  view failure as part of the process of learning.

In order to prepare citizens for a world of continuous technological evolution, we, as educators, need to understand that dynamic and evolve at a pace that keeps us from falling behind. The tools of communication, collaboration, and creation have radically changed and will continue to transform.

A Wonderful Learning Project

Last November 1st and 2nd, my 3rd grade students prepared their offerings to celebrate "The Day of the Death" in Mexico. So I contacted another teacher from Milwaukee, Will Piper. His 5th grade students were also doing a special project with this Mexican tradition in the USA. After exchanging a couple of emails we decided to connect via skype (Another great way is Google HangOuts). During the skype session our students exchanged different material we previously prepared in our lessons. After that, we decided to create a site called Día de Muertos to make learning more relevant and have an authentic audience to assess this collaborative project. 

A Great Experience of Global Collaboration

This fall, the fifth grade students at University School of Milwaukee, in Wisconsin participated in an integrated study of Mexican cultural and traditions engaging in what we called, “The Ofrenda Project.”  This was a joint collaboration between students and teachers in art, music, World Cultural Geography, and Spanish classes.  The seeds for this powerful project-based learning experience were sewn over a year ago.

After visiting the Latino Arts, Inc. Gallery for a field trip last year, students and teachers were quite touched by the exhibits displayed, and the curator of the gallery, Zulay Febes-Cordero, extended an invitation to our school and fifth graders to be presenting artists a the gallery for their 2014 exhibit.  Being invited to present at a gallery is a very special and unique experience, and this particular exhibition was a very distinguished honor as students would be displaying their art alongside the art of other local and regional artists in a display which averages over 5,000 or more viewers each year.

In the summer of 2014, Miriam Altman (Middle School chorus teacher/Fine Arts Co-Chair), Sarah Markwald (Middle School Art Teacher), Todd Schlenker (Middle School Spanish teacher) and I (Will Piper- 5th grade World Cultural Geography teacher) met and brainstormed ideas for the art installation.  Under the creative direction of Sarah Markwald, the concept was created to make a large structure of houses out of lightweight foam board in the style of those seen in Mexico, and create windows within those houses for students to display, “ofrenditas,” small displays honoring a person whom the students admired and had passed away.  To create the large structure to hold the "ofrenditas", we called upon Jeremy Woods, who teaches a stagecraft class in the Upper School at University School of Milwauke, and he had his students work to engineer the design of the project and make the house-like structures complete with windows for viewers to peer into to see the "ofrenditas".

My colleagues and I introduced the project to the students as a whole group in early September, as the art portion of the project had an early deadline so that we could make sure it was displayed in the gallery.  Students created their "ofrenditas" in art class.  In Spanish and music, students learned songs about the Day of the Dead including, “The Skelleton Song.” Students also learned about the symbolism of marigolds and made paper marigolds in their Spanish classes.  In Word Cultural Geography class, students learned about the culture of Mexico and how religion plays a crucial role in the holidays and celebrations people in Mexico participate in.  Students learned about the paper craft known as “papel picado” and created paper designs to drape across the top of the houses in the display.

Moreover, students had the chance to learn about some of the history and traditions of "el Día de los Muertos", not from a text book or website, but rather from like-minded peers from the Cerdos Norte School in Mexico City. Via a Skype call, students in Milwaukee and Mexico City were able to view each others' ofrenda projects.  The Milwaukee students were in awe of the Mexican students' detail in their ofrendas.  The students were able to identify and discuss symbols of the holiday together including marigolds, calaveras,  skeletons and even "La Catrina".  The Mexican students in Pedro Aparicio’s class did a fantastic job explaining and showing “El Día de los Muertos,” to their fifth grade friends.

While this would be great learning to stop there, students in both Sr. Aparicio’s class and my classes wanted to go further with the collaboration, so a Google Site was born!   Using Google For Education, my fifth grade students were able to view a section on the history and cultural significance of "El Día de los Muertos", prepared by Pedro Aparicio and his students from Mexico City.  Students also enjoyed looking at the Altar page and comparing the Mexican ofrendas to the ones we made.  Seeing the collaboration already in place, my students wanted to share with the students from Mexico about our pan de muerto contest.  We took pictures of the pan de muerto, wrote a description of the special treat collaboratively, and the posted it along with other links to the mutual site.  We also created a page that documented our presentation of our “Ofrenda Project” and our experience at the Latino Arts, Inc. Gallery for the Mexican students and even created videos in Animoto to show our new friends highlights of the project.  As a homework assignment, I asked my students to share the joint website with their parents and discuss what they learned from it.  After soliciting responses in class and from recent parent teacher conferences, here are some of the outcomes of this globally and locally collaborative endeavor.

•         Students learned the significance of "el Día de los Muertos" both in Mexico as well as in our local Milwaukee community.

•         Students analyzed symbolism associated with the holiday from talking to students in Mexico and sharing with other artists at the Latino Arts, Inc. Gallery.

•         Students presented their art to both their families and community members at the gallery opening, explaining their artist statements.

•         Students understood that el Día de los Muertos is a key holiday in Mexico and also plays an important role in our own local community.

Engaging in this multi-faceted lesson, collaborating with different disciplines and with Sr. Aparicio’s class in Mexico City gave my students a much deeper learning experience to understand the importance of learning about other cultures.  Most importantly, we, as students, teachers and families had the wonderful opportunity to learn about and reflect on how we all are both similar and uniquely different as people, learning about a significant holiday from those who celebrate it the most.


  1. Thanks for sharing this great experience Pedro! When teachers share their experiences all students benefit. SM like Twitter continues to shrink time zones. Isolation is the enemy of improvement. David @maestroDgarcia

    1. I totally agree with you, David. We all benefit when working collaboratively.

  2. Muchísimas felicidades. Es un proyecto excelente no sólo por usar la tecnología sino por la oportunidad para los alumnos y maestros de aprender de otras culturas.