Since my first year of teaching, I have taken the initiative to invite guests into my classroom. I always believed that relating class readings to the real-world would engage the students and give them a purpose/motive for studying the literature. At first, the idea of Skype never crossed my mind, so I had the guests physically come to my class, but with the use of Skype, I was able to have FOUR guest speakers this year!
When I was teaching A Raisin in the Sun to my very first class of freshman students, I asked my friend from college if she would be willing to speak to my classes about her experiences with working toward the American Dream while living in an impoverished area. Contrary to A Raisin in the Sun, my friend is not African-American (she is Bengali) nor did she grow up in the 1950s or during a time of racial hatred and segregation. However, the context of the play is very real to her. Because I was teaching in an affluent area, my students were not fully aware of others’ issues with poverty. They did not think that families today would be forced to live in tiny apartments with community bathrooms and couches as beds, but my friend was able to give them a new insight, and, in a way, she brought the play to life.
When my friend entered the classroom, she informed my students that she was a first-year college student on a government scholarship. Her hometown is only twenty minutes from my students’ towns, but it is a completely different environment. She was fortunate to arrive in America with her family at the age of five. Her parents were in their early twenties and her brother was only a few months old. Because her family had to sacrifice their riches to begin a new life, they were forced to settle in the projects and live in someone’s attic. She and her brother slept on a couch while her parents covered themselves in blankets on the floor. Her father was able to secure a job at a nearby McDonald’s, but this was not enough to support the family. Growing up, my friend had only one pair of shoes and one outfit to wear to school. Her family could not afford a car, and had to risk walking through their dangerous neighborhood every day.
While this sounds like a sob story, there is a happy ending. Though my friend still lives with her family in that town (they have upgraded from an attic to an actual house), she has made it her mission to succeed and escape her impoverished lifestyle. She is working several jobs to pay for her education and, similar to Beneatha in the play, she intends to become a doctor someday. Her family is today’s representation of the Younger family and her story is very real. Most of my students never thought that people living within a fifteen-mile radius would be struggling with poverty, so this experience provided them with a new perspective. The day after my friend’s visit, my students were more engaged in the play and began to empathize with each of the characters. It was truly a life-changing experience, and all it took was one small phone call to my friend!
During my second year of teaching, I was assigned to a journalism course without having any knowledge in the field. Rather than panicking, I used my network connections and reached out to the newspaper staff members at my college. To my surprise, the senior editor offered to bring her editorial staff to my classroom to hold workshops with my students throughout the year. My students and the college staff members formed an amazing relationship, and it even resulted in my students taking a field trip to my alma mater to experience working in a college newsroom for a day! Everyone benefited from this, and it was just a matter of using my personal network to enhance the learning experience of my students.
As for my Skype experiences, aside from some small technical difficulties, all sessions were extremely successful. This year, I had a college professor/research psychologist Skype with my Psych/Lit classes to discuss psychology and the legal system in relation to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and just recently, I had two poets (a professor from my college and a colleague currently on sabbatical) Skype with my Senior English classes, as we are completing our unit on poetry.
Also recently, I invited a military sergeant into my classroom to answer the many questions my students have had during our war and literature unit. There were so many questions that we unfortunately had to cut off some students, but they all left with the sergeant’s contact information, and with encouragement to stay in touch via email.
In all these cases, I was fortunate to have these personal connections, but if you don’t have a large network, there is nothing wrong with reaching out to strangers. After attending a technology conference, I was so inspired by the keynote speaker, Shannon Miller, that I decided to get out of my comfort zone and email the author of the novel, The Yellow Birds, requesting a Skype session with my students. To my surprise, one of his agents responded within a few hours, agreeing to a Skype session. I honestly did not think that I would receive a response, but people are more willing to volunteer their time than you might think, especially for educational purposes.
If there is one thing I learned, it is to never fear reaching out. The worst that could happen is a person rejecting your request or ignoring your email. There is no reason to be shy. That one email could lead to an unforgettable and life-changing experience for your students!