Even with the huge variety of options that one has as an English teacher, it can still be hard to come up with ways of teaching that can shake adolescents out of their “I don’t care” coma. I mean, let’s be honest: most high school students are far more concerned with showing off and meeting new people than they are concerned about discussing literature. But wait! What if those two were one and the same? Now we’re getting somewhere.
This past October, at the WCTE State Convention, I attended a session that was given by two of my colleagues: “City Mouse Meets Country Mouse, or How Technology Brought our Classrooms Together.” The presentation gave highlights from a really unique collaboration between an urban teacher and a rural teacher in the same state. Both teachers had the same grade level, and one of the same texts. So, they decided to teach it together. They met ahead of time and “synched” their unit so that the same lessons would be taught on the same day to their respective classes. But the most important part of the unit was online book discussion, facilitated by the teachers through Goodreads.com, a social networking site built around books. With a private “room” just for these two schools, students from the city were able to offer their insights on the book, and the rural students could then respond, eventually branching out into full-blown, academic discussion between kids from totally different walks of life. I loved this idea for several reasons: (1) It was just plain cool, (2) It involved teacher collaboration, which I’ve wanted to learn more about, and (3) It gave the students exposure to some new faces, expanding not only their literary horizons, but their social ones as well. We all need to understand each other better, and it starts with common ground. When that common ground is a book, it breathes new life into the idea of “required reading.”
I was dying to try this in my own classroom, but I wasn’t sure who to collaborate with. I really wanted to expose my students to another class outside of Milwaukee, somewhere that would expand their understanding of the world beyond their own backyard. Most of my friends teach in the city, so I tried to open my brain. Who did I know that taught somewhere… else? Then, it hit me. Of course! My cousin, about 7 years older than I, teaches English at a high school in rural Oregon. Now that’s far away. I shot off an email, and, lo and behold, she teaches seniors, too. And she liked the collaboration idea.
Over winter break, after Grandma’s delicious Christmas dinner, Ms. W. and I were able to sit down on the couch together, face to face, and create an initial to-do list for a collaborative unit on Zora Neal-Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. While we still have a couple months of preparation ahead, the cogs are turning and it’s looking like we’re going to be connecting kids not just between a rural setting and an urban one, but over whole regions of the country. I am so excited to give my students the opportunity to discuss a text with some new faces–ones that will seem different at first, but that will inevitably become familiar as they explore the text with other kids all the way across the nation. Wish us luck!