Canadian teachers Heather Durnin and Clarence Fisher and their 7th and 8th grade students just finished up an entire school year collaborating online. That in itself would have served as a terrific example of meaningful work, especially since they are 2700 kms (1677.702 miles) apart. But the culmination of the year proved to be, well, the icing on the cake.
“It was such a big, big moment,” said Heather, remembering the interview with author Markus Zusak.
It all started when Heather from Wingham, Ontario saw a tweet from Clarence, who lives in Manitoba, asking for a teacher who might be interested in connecting for the whole year. That led to a conversation about schedules, curriculum, and tools.
“Once we figured out we had lots to work with and our classes were similar, we set up a wiki and dropped ideas into it all summer,” Heather said. The idea was to try to create one class out of two–in it for the “long haul.”
Thinwalls is about living openly and honestly with another teacher and another class, even though they may be far away. Heather and I have had to be open and honest with each other about ourselves, our styles and about the challenges we face.
And work together, they did. From the first Skype call to the last day and beyond (they’ve already created a new working space for next year), the classes worked, shared, and learned together. This model is important, said Clarence.
“I am much more interested in this model of long term, relationship and trust building collaboration than I am in the short term collaboration of a project or a unit. I call those types of collaborations “sprints” where we hope that everything holds together and works long enough for us to get done. A relationship like ours instead requires being a lot more thoughtful and aware of the people you are working with.”
The initial steps involved building community and trust by having the students do online projects to get to know one another. This flickr project exceeded their expectations and set the classes up for even more, Heather said.
Next, they decided to read and discuss a book together online. They chose The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. It’s a long book, over 500 pages. Each class period, one of the teachers read aloud while the other teacher monitored the back channel.
“It’s a difficult book,” Heather said. “The students were able to post questions as they read.” The longer they spent on the book, though, the less time they needed to spend in the chat room. At the end of every reading, the teachers asked the students to post their reflections on online sticky notes.
At the end of the unit, Clarence and Heather were ready to come up with a final project. “We didn’t want anything really big,” Heather said, laughing. “”But it turned out to be huge!”
The classes wrote a kind of tour book together, The Field Guide to Molching, the location of where the book took place. Students were assigned partners based on interest of topics, and together they researched and wrote up chapters. The groups changed partners for each chapter, so they were able to collaborate with a variety of students during the process. Finally, when the book was completed, it was published on LuLu.com, and the students presented about their process.
Although Heather had tried to find Zusak earlier online, he wasn’t anywhere to be found. But during the presentations, one of the studets mentioned again how cool it would be to chat with him. Heather went on another search, this time with her and Clarence’s own blog reflections of the process in hand. And this time she found him, sending him a link to her blog. And this time he responded, offering to Skype with the class.
Heather said Markus was inspirational, talking to the kids about writing and life.
“He said, “you know I love doing this because it’s not about the glamour or people I don’t know. It’s about writers connecting together. Your kids have honored my book.'”
Heather said it was like sitting in a coffee shop with Markus. “That’s how close it felt.”
An amazing culmination to the year, she said.
Although Skype connections meant Clarence’s class missed the interview, Heather’s students stood in for them, asking their questions. And because Heather had a student film the process, she was able to share that with his class later.
Clarence agrees the connections and collaborations were so important, they want to continue.
“We learned so much about teaching and learning this way. We learned about being open and honest with each other, even if it means we have to work through difficulties together. It was a great experience that we will be continuing in the next school year,” he said.
Heather likens this work to the year she spent in Powerful Learning Practice a few years ago.
Susan Carter Morgan
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