By Mary Worrell

A lot of news has been coming out of Australia recently – not all of it good. Last month a brushfire ravaged the province of Victoria killing nearly 200 people.

For Powerful Learning Practice’s International Cohort, the pain of the event hit close to home with team members having family and students affected by the fires. But it didn’t take long for the PLP community to spring into action and try to find some silver lining in the tragic news coming from down under.

Two members of the PLP International Cohort from opposite sides of the world decided to team up and give their students lessons in caring for the global community. Hiram Cuevas, Director of Academic Technology for St. Christopher’s School in Richmond, Va., connected with Jenny Luca, Head of Information Services at Toorak College in Australia, to meet with their students in a video Skype session. The students at St. Christopher’s made a commitment to help those affected by the devastating brushfires in Victoria, Cuevas said, and what better way to connect them to the event than through first-hand accounts.

Luca’s students and fellow faculty members were impressed that people from so far away could take an interest in their lives, she said. The students at St. Christophers were able to speak with the a receptionist from Toorak College who lost a house in the fires, giving them a first-hand account of the devastation. Without PLP, these two educators may not have met one another.

“PLP enabled Hiram and I to connect and this has led to our schools becoming connected. This International Cohort has been the launch pad for many connections that are proving to be rich and meaningful for our staff and students. This reaching out from Hiram’s school has been a very positive experience that has had an impact on our school community. We are very touched by the care and compassion extended to the Australian people from our American counterparts.”

Cuevas said his school’s involvement with PLP has allowed it to reach out to others far beyond its school walls.

“PLP has armed our school with the potential to develop relationships with other schools from around the globe. The world has become our classroom and the access to information and experiences from resident experts, individuals who were personally affected by a tragedy, or an opportunity to collaborate and share with other students is a powerful model. I look forward to growing my relationship with Toorak to expand and develop additional opportunities for our students to grow.”

While plenty of virtual community service has been going on surrounding the Victoria brushfires, PLP members are still in the midst of working on their projects. Many, like Adrian Camm, dove into utilizing their personal learning networks in their practice.

Camm, a mathematics and physics teacher from Mooroopna Secondary College in Australia, created a virtual learning community (VLC) for his physics students. He explained the community last month on the School Library Association of Victoria blog “Bright Ideas”:

“I have created a virtual learning community for Unit 3 & 4 Physics that will link all students across Victoria to experienced educators, members of the Australian Institute of Physics and textbook authors from both Nelson and Heinemann publishers. It will provide students with tremendous learning opportunities anytime, anywhere. Students (and educators if they wish to be a part) will have access to a password-protected learning environment, where they can ask for help with questions, chat about careers in physics and have concepts explained to them in great detail. The best part is it’s free!”

Time is always a factor for educators and a frequent discussion among PLP team members, but Adrian shared with the cohort his philosophy in trying to find time to post in the VLC:

“I say, make time. If we want to make substantial changes so that our teaching and learning practices are more relevent with our students world, then we need to make it a priority.”

There have been a few lighthearted threads around the PLP cohorts lately dealing with the challenges team members have faced during their year-long PLP experience, from unforgiving network filters to misunderstanding colleagues to time management.

Amanda Ritter, Head of Business Studies at Toorak College in Australia, has been busy in the VLC explaining her team’s process in developing their projects. But she took a moment to share a “swampy” metaphor in response to a post titled “What has been the ‘muddiest’ point so far?”

“The quagmire of internal, bureaucratic, dirty, red tape that one must continually wade against when implementing something new: all the website blocks and firewalls, internet downtime, computer crashes and when I just don’t have the technical skills to make my clear vision a reality. The mosquitoes buzzing by my ear -“you can’t do that”, “that won’t work”, “what about the content?” – they annoy me but I ignore or swat them and continue on my progress. The negativity of others bogging me down but I push ahead and draw inspiration from others who swim freely in clear waters. Currently striding more and more strongly, making a passage for others who begin to follow in my wake now that the path has been cut. I can now, just in the distance, see the edge of the swamp.”

This is the sort of determination needed to enact change in education and Ritter’s metaphor captured the many challenges educators are up against in these efforts. Ritter’s team is in the midst of developing its project. Transparency is key in the PLP process and Ritter has been very open about her team’s project development.

The project, titled “Building Our Digital Footprint Together,” involves teachers and students developing their online presence in “positive and professional ways.” A digital footprint isn’t the only goal, though. Ritter’s team is aiming to make teachers and students “clickable” while improving digital literacies and competencies with various technologies. Ritter’s team’s project involves many different content areas at her school as well as technologies, from wikis and blogs to virtual learning communities. This team’s project is really a project of many projects, one of which includes creating a closed virtual learning community for year nine English students to collaborate and share their learning with one another.

PLP teams are winding down their year-long experience and many are looking forward to face-to-face culminating celebrations. We can’t wait to see what they’ve learned.

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Mary Worrell

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