Reflections by Susan Carter Morgan and Heather Durnin
Learning is about conversation. Over the past year, I have had the opportunity to participate in the Ontario cohort of the Professional Learning Practices (PLP) project. This project brings educators together to participate in self-directed professional development involving 21st century learning environments. By helping to create “communities of learning”, educators connect through a Ning for the opportunity to have important online conversations about the changing learning environment.
As part of the “Avon-Maitland After School Special” group cohort, I had many conversations with Susan Carter Morgan. Susan is a grade eight teacher at the Fredericksburg Academy in Virginia, and was one of the resource people brought into the project to initiate and help develop discussions. As a result of our shared interest in a classroom where learning was more inquiry-based, we decided to develop a collaborative project.
Students from our two schools were grouped together to study an issue of social justice using web 2.0 tools. These tools help students put the best practice of collaborative learning into play by working with others to problem solve. Tools such as VoiceThread allow teachers to practice differentiated assessment. Being socially connected, students believe their contributions matter and they feel a stronger degree of responsibility to support their new partners. Students want an authentic audience to express themselves to.
Over a period of a few months, Susan and I developed the project, setting deadlines for each step and creating checklists and rubrics. Research would be collected and organized using Google Docs and Skype, projects would be presented using VoiceThread, and students would post comments on other groups’ projects in the final step.
During the month leading up to the project introduction, my students were involved in several activities focused on the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Throughout the year, they had been immersed in questioning structure to develop critical thinking through board directed PD. Students in Virginia read To Kill a Mockinbird and studied social injustices. As a result, students came into the project from different perspectives, providing a rich mosaic of background knowledge.
To begin, my students set up a shared Google Docs research templates with their partners in Virginia. Respectful discussions began, including topic choice and the development of their essential research questions. The students’ process mirrored the steps Susan and I had practiced a month earlier.
Using Skype in the classroom, students introduced themselves and developed relationships in and outside of school hours. Many days, rather than go outside for break, groups of students from both schools would stay in and Skype with each other. The chatting and laughter in the room was beautiful as students from both countries formed friendships not only from within their own groups, but others in the class as well. Meanwhile, Susan and I provided feedback as the students’ shared documents grew.
Yes, there were glitches along the way. Some students from both schools were away for extended periods, others struggled with the idea of having to develop their own research questions. They wanted to be told. But as the weeks moved on, the students pulled together and our classrooms became one. Their ability to develop and work collaboratively moved the project along, even if one of us couldn’t physically be in the classroom with them on a daily basis.
As the research was completed, students in Virginia set up the shared VoiceThread for the final presentation. Each group member posted a Creative Commons image and added commentary based on the research. Once the completed VoiceThreads were posted on the project wiki, students posted comments on other groups’ projects. In celebration, our classes came together once again via Skype for an ice-cream sundae party. Afterwards, students posted their reflections about the project on a VoiceThread.
Every time we have a conversation with someone else, we open new opportunities to grow and to learn. So what did they learn? Our students started to think more about the meaning of community and the world than just themselves. They developed a global conscience and relationships with each other that continue on, even though the project is complete. The students however expressed it best.
“To me this project was a lot more than just trying to get a good grade. It was so much more. Because our social issues project was successful, despite some minor setbacks along the way, I think our class, and Mrs. Carter Morgan’s class in Virginia, have paved the way for a new generation of learning. No longer will students have to choose groups from their own classroom. Teachers now have the opportunity to assign group members from thousands of miles away, and that to me is extraordinary.” Shawn K., Grade 8, Turnberry Central Public School
Thanks to the connection made through a PLP project, students and teachers from different countries have indeed experienced something very extraordinary.
Susan Carter Morgan (@scmorgan)
Though I have been involved in several collaborative, online projects with teachers, I had never tried one that involved so many levels of thinking, so many tools, nor to be distributed over such a long time period (more than we initially envisioned). However, by the end, I must say this social justice unit with the Turnberry School was the most satisfying for both my students and me.
My students had only recently begun bringing their laptops to schools, so their experience with online tools had been limited to Google Docs. Though in hindsight, I wish we had helped the students organize their thoughts a little more on their documents, most figured out ways to communicate using color codes and bullets. I loved watching their thinking develop as they found resources and had to determine what information to use and in what order. Learning Skype and using it to connect with students from Heather’s class was fascinating. Some immediately jumped in knowing how to use the tool to gather information. Others seemed shy and reluctant to share.
The project lent itself to conversations about time management, online digital “footprints”, critical thinking, and presentation skills. Yet, each topic fit easily and seamlessly into the day to day learning.
On a personal note, I found the tools extremely helpful when– mid-project –my father died. From another city, I was able to check my students’ progress online and use Skype to connect with them. Heather even Skyped into my class, teaching my students the next step. It was all pretty amazing, now that I think back. Our project embodied the true use of online tools–the ability to connect and communicate wherever and whenever. Though Heather and I often “chatted” in the evenings to check in on the project, we soon found the students doing the same–and learning about each other in the process.
By the end of the project, even the students who had expressed frustration initially were sharing what they had learned. One student wrote in her final portfolio that the project had been the most meaningful “in all her years at FA.” She said the learning to collaborate with students from another country on a topic that she wanted to learn about made it powerful. The project for her didn’t seem like school, and yet she said, she learned more about thinking, organizing, and presenting than she ever had on anything else. Her sense of pride was palpable as she talked to other teachers in our school, expressing her joy of learning.
Working in ways that empowers students brings new issues/concerns to the classroom, such as digital literacy and safety. However, what better way to “teach” these than through a project that adds meaning to the students’ lives. This was such an authentic way to learn.
Thanks Susan for your comments, friendship and great conversations. H. D.