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Some experts have found that eighth-grade classes spend just about 20 minutes a week on geography, and that's reflected in standardized tests. Just over a quarter of all eighth-graders score proficient or higher in the subject, which is a problem because knowing geography is key to understanding world events, politics and business. NPR's Amanda Morris reports on a game that some teachers are using to engage students in the world around them.
(SOUNDBITE OF SKYPE RINGER)
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: Are you one of the original 13 colonies?
AMANDA MORRIS, BYLINE: A dozen eighth-graders in Alexandria, Va., are huddled around table with maps. In front of them is a huge screen. The students in this class are Skyping with another class, but they don't know where. That's what they're trying to figure out. Whoever guesses the other class's location first wins the mystery Skype game.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: Are you guys north of Virginia?
MORRIS: Students are only allowed to ask yes-or-no questions. After every answer, they work together to brainstorm the next question.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #3: We should ask if it's north of Buffalo.
MORRIS: The game takes about 45 minutes. It's not your typical geography lesson, and that's a good thing, says Audrey Mohan, the former president of the National Council for Geographic Education.
AUDREY MOHAN: If you just memorize all the capitals of the United States, you're just, like, skimming the surface.
MORRIS: She says geography is about learning to put places in context. As students make guesses, they connect rivers, roads and mountain ranges to places.
MOHAN: My analogy for this is, like, consider your chemistry class. If you had just memorized the periodic table and then thought you knew chemistry, like, you don't know chemistry.
MORRIS: Mohan thinks the game could help students build critical thinking skills.
GINA RUFFCORN: Location mappers, do we have our first question ready?
MORRIS: A thousand miles away, Gina Ruffcorn has been mystery Skyping with her fifth-graders for years. They live in Mondamin, Iowa, smack dab in the middle of rural farmland.
RUFFCORN: It's teeny tiny. There's only maybe 300 people that live in the town where I live on a good day.
MORRIS: In her school, there's very little ethnic diversity. The game allows her students to learn about other ways of life.
RUFFCORN: We were in Russia twice. We've been on the island of Cyprus. We've been...
MORRIS: With each game, her kids are realizing what makes their hometown unique. For example, in order to get groceries, most people Mondamin need to drive for about an hour.
RUFFCORN: To Skype with a class in New York City, where the parents of those kids didn't own cars, for my kids, that was really astonishing.
MORRIS: Of course, these interactions are limited to classrooms that can afford a computer and Internet connection. And how much students learn from the game depends on how much independence teachers give them, Ruffcorn says.
RUFFCORN: I remember getting off the session and thinking, this is one of the most uncomfortable teaching moments of my entire career. And the kids are like, we love this. When can we do this again?
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #4: Are you guys east of Syracuse?
MORRIS: Back at Glasgow Middle School in Alexandria, the students are drilling down. They're ready to make a guess.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #4: Are you guys in Hilton, N.Y.?
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #5: (Laughter) They found us.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #6: Yes, we are.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #5: Yes, we are.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #7: Yay. We won.
MORRIS: Student Allison Adye is all smiles.
ALLISON ADYE: So I really like competition. I feel like it makes working more fun.
MORRIS: Iowa teacher Gina Ruffcorn says engaging students with their world is the point, preparing them to enter today's globalized workforce.
Amanda Morris, NPR News, Washington, D.C.