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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)

While we had only thought about using Skype or some other kind of face-to-face video for student interactions, we began searching for platforms. That’s when another colleague, Janet Allen, suggested Edmodo. She said it was a safe, secure internet learning platform and it was not only for establishing connections with other teachers, but also for having students work together online.

We enrolled both our classes into one digital classroom, and the students met each other for the first time by answering some fun questions and responding to each other online. The students then received some basic instructions about how to respond appropriately in an academic setting—and then the serious work began.

My students learned valuable lessons regarding internet communications. Just because they use social media regularly in their daily lives doesn’t mean they automatically know how to write in an academic setting online. They had to be taught that just because it looks like Facebook does not mean it is Facebook. They can’t “LOL” and “OMG” or use all lower-case letters and get credit in an online class. Academic situations require very different communication standards.

With most colleges and universities requiring assignments, discussions, and submissions to be at least partially online, the project became a critical component in preparing students for college success.

After the initial training, we both discovered something astounding: Without prompting from either of us, the level of student writing, quality of expression, and critical thinking improved dramatically as students pushed one another toward collegiate, academic discourse.

We even divided both full classes into small groups, and each group was intentionally as diverse as possible—a balanced mix of males, females, ethnicities, and ability levels. We wanted to examine how factors like race, gender, socio-economic mobility, and previous academic experiences affected the students’ interactions online.

What happened next was the most inspiring part of the whole project. The students worked together like mature, respectful adults. They organized their own groups, with each person almost miraculously taking an appropriate role in developing a final product, and they found their voices—some for the first time in their lives.

It became a sort of great equalizer. Since these students did not interact in person on a daily basis, nobody was concerned about superficial social things like what kind of clothes they wore, what kind of car their parents drove, or what street they lived on.

Probably the most incredible outcome of the project is the way it’s changed how students in the Decatur School District have access to technology.

After James’ administrators saw the project, it became the catalyst for real change in his district. In three years, they went from having some of the worst internet bandwidth in the county and some of the oldest desktops around, to having wireless internet throughout the school district, the fastest bandwidth in the area, and such a variety of desktop and mobile devices that they’re potentially going to be a one-to-one school in another year or two. It isn’t just our project anymore; it’s transforming lives all around us. For me, it was unbelievable to know I could impact the trajectory of the lives of students halfway across the country.

We’ve had people from all across the nation contacting us through Edmodo and by email to tell us how they’ve started their own projects because they saw the success we’ve had with our students. It’s phenomenal.

Rachel Stokes is an English teacher at Greenville Sr. High Academy in South Carolina and James Garner is a teacher at Decatur High School in Arkansas.

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