Me, a Camera, and 42 Kids

I sat down in my chair, turned on the TV, flipped the camera switch and made the call. Up on to the screen popped 42 Taiwanese kids, who jumped back a bit when they saw me.   The year was 2007, so video teleconferencing hadn’t gotten off the ground yet. The idea of actually teaching via live teleconferencing is still uncommon, but at the time it was totally and completely foreign to all of us.

“Good morning!” I said. It was evening in NY.

“Good morning, Teacher Seth,” they replied, somewhat robotically. We’d have to change that.

A year earlier I had taught some of those same kids on site at the school, Tsai Hsing, in Taipei. I loved everything about the school – the kids, teachers, and administration, the beautiful campus, the esteemed history – and simply adored the hidden gem that is the island of Taiwan. But I didn’t like what I was teaching – boring, form-based English lessons out of a workbook.

But what I was doing now was different. Content-based language instruction meant that I taught the kids academic content, actual ideas that they could engage with rather than focusing on the form of the language while teaching them how to order a Coke and other mundane things. Now my students learn how to express their ideas in English, how to use the language, not just learn it. It’s the way we teach ESL here in the states, but at the time it was a new idea for Asia. There were few qualified teachers in Asia to deliver this type of learning, and I, like most certified teachers in the US, didn’t want to just pack up and go there.  So, I did the next best thing.

Our first distance learning class, from 2007.

That’s how it ended up being me, a camera, and 42 kids. From an office on Long Island I made that first video call to Taipei on August 30, 2007. I had worked all summer adapting an existing curriculum to the distance learning format, but when it was go time I realized that none of us were fully prepared for what this would be like.  I fell back on my old standard – make ’em laugh. Knowing that I was a 2-dimensional image on a five foot square screen in their classroom, I had to be especially animated.  It worked, they laughed, and we all loved it. As a class, we built on those first good days all year.

Thinking back to where we were then – me and a whiteboard on one side, and on the other a classroom full of motivated and excited kids whose work I couldn’t see and whose faces were barely distinguishable – it’s amazing that we did something that can be called a success that first year. We’ve added so much to what we do – more students, classes, and teachers across 4 grades, 1:1 iPads, individual student/teacher teleconferencing, a fully developed Moodle course, collaborations with elite schools in the US, and our own original ebooks and curriculum to name a few – but at it’s core we are still just good teachers and some bright kids, brought together by the magic of the Internet.

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