Cheryl Arnett, 57, was sitting Friday morning at Sunset Elementary School in a chair meant for a child.
From her hunkered vantage point, the same many of her students have during school, she looked at a computer screen and opened an award-winning work she accomplished with her Craig students.
Up on the screen came a wiki site, or “a website that all members can access and update.”
“We have an obligation to make these kids 21st century learners,” Arnett said. “We have an obligation to make sure they’re comfortable with computers (so) that they’re aware of people around the world, and that their world becomes smaller.”
It was having a technological sensibility that helped Arnett, who teaches first and second grade at Sunset, win honors Aug. 2 during Microsoft’s 2010 U.S. Innovative Education Forum in Washington, D.C.
The event, in its sixth year, recognizes “innovative teachers who creatively and effectively use technology in their curriculum to help improve the way students learn,” according to a Microsoft news release.
Arnett and Rawya Shatila, of the Maskassed Khalil Shehab School in Beirut, Lebanon, won first place for their international collaboration.
Their project, titled “Digital Stories: A Celebration of Learning and Culture,” connected Arnett’s first and second graders to Shatila’s second graders in Beirut.
The teachers, who had never met before the forum, used technologies like wikis, blogs and online mapping tools to “share stories and activities to help students increase global awareness of similarities and differences between children from different countries,” according to the release.
“Technology adds a dynamic dimension to teaching, helping teachers engage their students in a new way,” Arnett said in the release.
“We were able to make our classes virtual neighbors instead of strangers on the other side of the world,” Shatila said in the release. “Using technology, we are developing our students into global citizens — it broadens their perspective.”
The teachers’ collaboration began a year ago, when Arnett was looking for ways to adapt the concept of pen pals into the technological age.
She submitted a profile to ePals.com, a website designed to connect pen pals, and was contacted by Shatila, a teacher who wanted to connect her students with native English speakers.
Shatila had already been communicating with 30 other classrooms around the globe when she contacted Arnett. However, Arnett said something clicked between the two educators and their students, and long-distance friendships formed.
The two teachers eventually submitted their project to Microsoft’s Innovative Education Forum. Microsoft reported in the news release that the project aligned with this year’s theme, “Inspire More.”
In July, Microsoft informed Arnett that she and Shatila were forum finalists. They were chosen from a field of 17 other finalists as winners of two top honors.
“We won Educators’ Choice and the overall contest,” Arnett said. “I think Educators’ Choice meant more than anything to me because the other finalists liked our project best.”
Although the project began with the idea of pen pals, it became far more involved. A wiki portal allowed for group sharing and teaching.
“We used the site for literacy and math, but we also used it to compare climates and cultures,” Arnett said. “The kids learned global awareness and they learned to be friends.”
Students in Craig and Beirut also shared videos and digital stories.
“Digital stories aren’t new, but they’re fairly new in education,” said Arnett, describing digital stories as 21st century upgrades over pencil and paper assignments. “Instead of just writing a story, drawing a picture, then sending it home with the student to hang on a wall or refrigerator, a digital story incorporates a series of pictures or photographs, plus a voice recording. Then, we mix all the pieces into a slideshow.”
Arnett and Shatila’s accomplishment means they will go on to represent the U.S. at the Worldwide Innovative Education Forum in South Africa in October. They will compete against 500 others teachers from 60 countries who won similar events in their regions.
Arnett’s accomplishment drew the praise of Joe Petrone, Moffat County School District superintendent.
Petrone said Arnett’s project aligns with the district’s mission to prepare students and teachers to be lifelong learners and technologically literate with skills needed in the 21st century.
“Being on the cutting edge is a reward unto itself, but this recognition from Microsoft is even sweeter,” Petrone said.
Arnett said she isn’t going to South Africa with a mindset of trying to win the international contest.
“I’m going with no expectation of receiving anything,” she said. “The contest is an idea forum. It’s more about sharing educational tools and approaches that work for our kids.”
“The 6-year-old in me can’t wait to stand in Cape Town, South Africa and find the Southern Cross in the sky,” she said. “When I get back, I’m going to show my students where I was. And I’ll tell them, ‘Other countries aren’t faraway places. We all share this planet.’”