“Mr. Cook, I am so excited for class tomorrow,” was shared with me by one of my students this past month. A bright young lady, she has always excelled in the classroom, but there was something different going on in the classroom, literally.
Her natural competitive nature was often subdued by her topnotch ability, which out shined many of her classmates daily. It’s not that she doesn’t want to excel everyday, but she needed a new challenge.
She needed to be placed with someone of higher or equal ability.
But I, the teacher, had exhausted the options in her grade-level.
I needed someone different to pair her with in the classroom.
Without going out of my grade-level sampling of student-scholars, I was unsure of how to challenge the student beyond offering harder texts or alternative assessments to illustrate her mastery. However, those persons came to me from 200-miles away as I teamed up with a rock-star class over 200-miles away.
Teaming with another teacher, the two of us collaborated to have students create two-voice poems about a particular theme from the perspective or point of view of two particular characters. In the past, my classes have done a similar activity, but never with a cross-state partner.
Utilizing a connected colleague via Ed Camp Maryland and pervious College and Career Readiness Conferences held throughout Maryland, we met using Google Hangouts and a Google Doc. We determined our standards, developed our two-voice poem criteria, finalized what we were looking for in an assessment, and backmapped our process to get our students to the assessment.
Which students to use?
Middle school students are, well, middle school students. Therefore, in round one (because we plan on doing a similar project after state testing, which will be round two) both teachers chose high achieving students who displayed high levels of participation and work ethic over the course of the school year. The total sample included males and females as well as multiple ethnicities.
Each school being in very different socio-economic environments, it was obvious our students had a lot of different experiences and backgrounds, which was used to our advantage. Each teacher started in their homeschool building the foundation of two-voice poems with simple examples about themselves. We looked at the structure of two-voice poems and unpacked the point of view standard thoroughly.
Finally, it was the meeting day.
The day when students got to meet their cross-state partner via one large class Google Hangout. Palms were sweaty and students were on edge, but it was a good type of nervousness. It was stated to students, at least from my side, no students in our school had ever participated in this type of project before.
Prior to the big meet, the early part of the session was focused on digital citizenship and the importance of leaving a digital footprint, which they would be proud to show their parents. Understanding the expectations, it was time to meet.
Both teachers introduced one another to the other class while students listened intently. Everyone got to do a general wave and meet the other class. However, we wanted student-scholars to know they were working with a person. Hence, the reason we placed every student one at a time in front of the Google Hangout to meet student-to-student.
The rest of the day students were hyped about the opportunity. Students were talking in the lunch room, asking me questions in class, and other non-project students were asking when they were going to get the chance to work with a partner from another school.
Students were talking.
Then came the real change, teachers were now talking because student-scholars were talking to them about their new project. When can we do something like this in math? or When can try the video chat in social studies?
Homework … Sort Of
Often homework is seen as drudgery, but this time was different. I had students working on an attribute chart, first modeled by the teacher, about themselves to share with their partner. Remember, it was not like they ever interacted with their partner before; therefore, an ice breaker was necessary to build a comfort level with one another.
By working at home on attributes of the chart, it allowed for students to feel comfortable the next day when communicating with their partner and filling in the attributes chart via Google Docs. Also, it allowed them to learn about one another and get a chance to create a two-voice poem from two different perspectives (their own) about one of the topics in the attribute chart.
Home Teacher Instruction
Over the following two days, each teacher read and discussed a story — The Ravine by Graham Salisbury — in a limited fashion. Leaving the majority of the work to left for the next day when students were connected with their cross state counterpart. At the time scholars connected again one-on-one, each pair of students focused on a list of teacher written discussion questions where they would post their responses to a Google Doc (one shared Doc was used for each pair of scholars).
At the conclusion of the session, scholars were asked to indicate which two voices/perspectives they would be using and the topic/theme. For those interested in mimicking the project, I suggest offering your scholars choice in the voices and topic being used for the two-voice poem.
Over the next two days scholars created their two-voice poem and practiced for the grand finale. As each group presented their final rendition of their poem (one person on each side of the state), scholars were given a rubric that was put in Google Forms to complete at the completion of each presentation.
With each presentation, scholars learned how technology adds and takes away from a presentation. Some lags in audio came out seconds after hand gestures which students improved in their final presentation, which were not practiced in their one-on-one session. Sometimes nerves got to students as well as fear of presenting for such a large audience.
However, the struggles and perseverance each scholar worked through was amazing. Many of these struggles and strengths of their project came out in a simple reflection implemented by the teachers at the end.
Without a doubt, this collaborative project was one of the greatest moments for me as a teacher as learning was transformed for all students by harnessing the technology already available in our school. I send a special thank you to my school’s technology coach and principal for allowing me to take this risk to enhance my classroom instruction in a nontraditional manner, a modified version of distance learning, for middle school students.
I have been reading great books over the past few years — Digital Leadership, Uncommon Learning, School Culture Rewired — and always come away with the conclusion, teachers must do things differently to reach our population. My students are very well connected when they enter school, but we force them to put away devices they normally use at home. Today, I felt I was able to use a similar tool — FaceTime, which students already use at home — and bring it into the classroom.
It skyrocketed engagement.
Scholars and teachers were talking because they wanted to be apart of something that got students this engaged. I hope this set a precedent in my school on taking risks and how harnessing #edtech can change the culture of learning in our school as well as our students expectations of their teachers.
Here is a more formal press release regarding the project of two Maryland schools, Pocomoke MS or Worcester County and Middletown MS of Frederick County, connecting via #edtech.