How online collaboration transformed instruction at two schools

High school teachers Rachel Stokes and James Garner explain how cross-state collaboration between students in their AP English classes has improved the quality of students’ work—and lives

collaboration-onlineWhile teachers know that collaborating with colleagues to develop multi-class or cross-curricular projects can be incredibly beneficial for students, most never get a collaborative project off the ground. It takes time, coordination, and will—and compatible teaching personalities also play a role in whether a project is successful.

Now, throw in distance. Say, 900 miles. That would keep most teachers from even trying, but not all. For some, it’s just another challenge in an already challenging profession.

For James Garner and myself as Advanced Placement English Literature teachers, it’s been a transformative experience, broadening our scope, raising our expectations, uplifting our schools, and enhancing our students’ lives.

Six years ago, James and I met while scoring AP English Literature exams for Educational Testing Service in Louisville, Ky. While James teaches at Decatur High School in Decatur, Ark. (rural, Title I, 600 students in grades K-12), I teach at Greenville Senior High Academy in Greenville, S.C. (inner-city, 1,400 students in grades 9-12). We shared classroom stories and lesson plans with other educators and began making connections throughout the entire country. As part of the group, James and I were learning things that other secondary teachers were doing throughout the nation and hearing what college and university faculty members were expecting secondary schools to produce. These conversations began to transform what we were trying to do in our own classes.

At the 2011 AP Reading, while everyone was talking about new things they were trying, I turned to James and said, “Wouldn’t it be interesting if we could get our students together somehow?” Of course, he agreed.

Having known each other professionally for several years, we knew we shared similar philosophies about education and expectations for our students. We had no practical experience in conducting long-distance learning projects or co-teaching for an extended time. We had no real plan that summer, either, but we left Louisville a little differently that year—we had a mission.

I returned to Greenville and spoke to my department chair about the possibility of the collaboration and found that another teacher in my district, Yvonne Mason, had conducted a long-distance project with a teacher in Canada. Yvonne provided me with some valuable resources, lots of advice, and another idea: using an internet learning platform so that students could read common texts, interact, and write about those texts—all under the supervision of the teachers.

(Next page: How the project took shape—and how it led to phenomenal results)

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