Tech Tools for Teachers: Mystery Hangout—An Engaging, Interactive Problem Solving Activity

Heather Garczynski, a seventh-grade teacher in the Portage, Wisconsin, Community School District, introduces an interactive exercise crossing classroom lines.

Are you an educator looking to bring something new and interactive to your students? Are you trying to bring critical thinking and problem-solving to your classroom in a way that is engaging for students and has a real-world application? For some, the concept of a mystery hangout is not new, but there are still many educators that I have talked to who have either never heard of it, or are apprehensive to try it because they have heard that it takes a lot of time and effort to set up. Last school year, I tried this with my own class of students and I found it to be much easier than I’d expected. As a bonus, my students loved it and begged me to try it again. I never imagined that I could get middle school students so interested in a geography activity.

This activity is certainly middle school age appropriate, but it could also be used in upper elementary and high school levels with some modifications. Although I used it in my geography class, you could weave this into any subject matter. Teachers could use it as an exercise in critical thinking and team work. Alternatively, they could use it to prepare for a research paper by emphasizing online tools for research. This is also a great way for foreign language teachers to have students interact with those who speak that language. In this article you will learn the basics of Mystery Hangouts along with tips and resources for how you can try this on.

What is a Mystery Hangout?
The basic concept of a Mystery Hangout is that two teachers from schools across the country (or even around the world if you want to be ambitious and can make the time zone change work) will pair up ahead of time to decide on a mutual date/time that will work for this activity. Using Google Hangouts (or a similar service like Skype), both classrooms connect to the live video chat service at that time. The two classes take turns asking yes/no questions in order to pinpoint where the other school is located. The basic goal is to see which group of students can guess the location of the other class first. The definition of “location” can depend on your students’ age group or how much time you have. How specific you want them to get to reach the goal can be decided by the teachers. In the Mystery Hangouts that I have tried, some have enough time to get as specific as the name of the school the other class is at, or as broad as which state they are in. If you run out of time, you can always reveal where the other school is or end the session and plan another time to continue the activity.

Tools Needed
At a minimum, you will need a computer with an internet connection. If you work for a Google school, you probably have access to Google Hangouts, but you will want to test it or check with your IT department since they have the ability to turn on/off certain services. Alternatively, you can use Skype or another service that allows phone calls or video chats over the internet. It is more interactive and the students like to be able to see the other class, but you could easily accomplish this with just an audio chat through a free internet phone call.

Another tool that is optional but will make the experience more interactive is a web camera or document camera. Most modern computers that districts provide will have a web camera built-in, but if not, most school libraries will have one you can check out. Alternatively, you can buy web cameras for relatively little money depending on the quality and specifications. I used my document camera, which I pointed at the class so the other group could see everyone at once. When the students wanted to ask a question, they came up to the camera so the class could see them up close.

Having a projector or interactive white board will also help the experience. You can project the chat for the whole class to see. Just be sure to warn your students not to wear school gear or have any school posters hanging in visible site!

Where Do I Find Other Teachers?
There are a number of resources to help you with this, but the main one is a Google Community group appropriately named Google Hangout for Schools. Here, you can post a request or directly contact other teachers looking for a class to pair up with. It works best to have similar grade levels pair up, but teachers can certainly work together across grade levels. There are many resources available by entering Mystery Hangout into a search engine, so feel free to do a little more research on your own. There are also a number of videos posted on YouTube that show clips from hangouts that teachers have conducted, such as this six-minute video that will give you a very good look at what this entails. As you can see here, 4th grade students are able to interact in the activity, and they even had some fun telling jokes to the other class.

How Should I Prepare?
Before your students participate in a Mystery Hangout, it is a good idea to check with your school district or principal to see what the rules are for parental consent. Most schools now have parents sign a consent form at the beginning of the year that allows students to use the internet and engage in activities that will include video or photos. Students that do not have consent can usually still participate; you will just need to make sure there are roles for them that do not require them to be in the view of the camera.

As mentioned before, you will want to make sure you have the right equipment. Once you have done that and found a partnering teacher, test the technology with that teacher before your class is set to do the hangout. You will also want to make some decisions about the tools you will have available besides those already mentioned. You can decide if you want students to work in groups during this activity or if you want them sitting with their own resources. In my experience, it worked nicely to have students in groups of 4-5. Each student had a laminated map of the US, a dry erase marker, and an eraser. Each student also had a Chrome Book so they could research online.

You could decide ahead of time whether you want all students to have the same resources or if you want each group to have one set of resources. For example, in a group of four, perhaps two students use maps and dry erase markers and two students use a computer to research.

Another important role is somebody to record the questions that your class has already asked. Write the answer to each question as well to save time by avoiding repeat questions. If you want to take it a step further with technology, you could have a student take on the role of typing the questions into a document or spreadsheet that each group has collaborative access to. This can be done through a shared Google Document or Spreadsheet.

You will also want to decide your procedure for asking questions. In the video, you can see that there were two students in charge of taking the questions from their class and presenting those to the other class. In my experience, students with questions would raise their hands and I would select them. They then went to the camera and asked the question by themselves. This allowed more students the opportunity to be the ones asking the questions. Other ideas could be to have the students write questions on a post-it note and place it on the board for you to select. Just be sure that you don’t repeat questions or ask a question that has already been answered through another question. For example, if one student had asked if they were west of the Mississippi River and the answer was no, you would not want to later ask if they are east of the Mississippi River, since that question was technically already answered through the first question. For this reason, I find it easier to have the questions being asked live versus having a set of already determined questions. Again, recording the questions that have been asked also helps avoid this problem.

How do I Prepare my Students?
If your students have never done this before, you will want to take discuss rules and expectations ahead of time and experiment with your chosen method of questioning. You could have the class play 20 questions as a practice activity. It is also important to emphasize good listening skills. Even though we had the questions written on the board, there were still a few times when students asked questions that we already knew the answer to. The class would get upset because they wasted a question, so we had to discuss respect and understanding that mistakes will be made. One way to avoid this would be to have the students write their individual question on a small white board like the class in the video. This way, the students in charge of selecting the questions (or the teacher if that is how you set it up) can pre-screen questions. If you prefer to have roles assigned ahead of time, you can click here for a list of possibilities.

Next, I suggest preparing your students by having them think of a few questions that they can ask. The first time I tried this, my students had not brainstormed questions ahead of time and as a result, they started the session by asking very specific questions. Upon reflection, I realized that I should have guided them into asking broad questions first, then narrowing it down. If the students ask “Are you in Alaska?” as their first question, that only rules out a small portion of the geographic area we are working with. If they proceeded to ask names of specific states, it could potentially take 49 questions just to get to the right state! That would obviously take way too long and we would never get even close. Helping them understand that asking broad questions and narrowing it down from there is much more effective. Again, have them practice using the game 20 questions. If you introduce the activity a few days in advance, they have plenty of time to come up with a list of questions. Then you can work as a class to list them in order of most broad to most specific. The only caution is that students need to realize that the questions they ask the day of the activity will need to change based on the answers given. This is an easy concept for middle school and high school students, but with elementary students, they may need some practice with the critical thinking portion so they can better understand that simply going down the list of prepared questions may not be the best method.

Finally, as mentioned before, I ask my students to avoid wearing team clothing or logos that can give away the location. We discussed how wearing a Packer jersey might give them subtle hints as to where we are. I actually had students come to class wearing jerseys from other states as an attempt to throw the other class off. Their strategy skills were pretty impressive. We also looked around the room to make sure we did not have any school logos or identifying posters on display. I also noticed that by having this discussion, my students were trying to observe these kinds of hints when video chatting with the other class. They used better observation skills to try to help them guess the location. For example, the students tried to listen for accents in their voices to determine what region of the country they were in. My students were surprised to find that although the class we paired with was in the southern portion of the USA, they did not have the stereotypical southern accent. This created a teachable moment about stereotypes and judgments, which was a powerful lesson in itself.

What If We End Early or Late?
Depending on how well the questioning portion goes, this activity can be as short as a few minutes or as long as a couple hours. If you end early, you can use the extra time to have the students ask each other about life in their city. When I tried this, we had 45 minute classes. One team usually figures out where the other team is, so then the other class gets to keep asking until they narrow it down more. If we are just about out of time, we reveal where each class is, but this is optional. If your class does not finish on time, there is always a chance to continue later.

Mystery Hangouts can be used for a variety of age levels and subject matters. Students have a chance to interact with students from other cities, states, and even countries. Although preparation is involved, having a few good resources makes it manageable and easy to set up. If you are looking for something new and engaging for your students, give Mystery Hangouts a try. You will not be disappointed!

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