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A Digital Learning Story

In honor of Digital Learning Day, I'm sharing the story of my "AHA!" moment about digital learning.

Near the end of my third year teaching high school English, as I was explaining sentence fragments to the 9th graders for the 100th time, a boy named R.P. looked up at me, shook his head, and whined, “Ms. Mo’, why do we even have to learn this stuff?”  I could always count on RP to say out loud what the rest of them were thinking. I was trying to teach them grammar the way it had been taught to me, but whenever I tried, I hit a real wall of resistance.

That summer (1994), I started my graduate program at Bread Loaf School of English in Vermont.  One day, a group of us from Mississippi, found a skillet, some grease, and fried some chicken.  As we were sitting around a picnic table---in those wonderful straight back Adirondack chairs—a black woman I didn’t recognize walked over and introduced herself. She had the most beautiful accent.  She was a teacher from Soweto, South Africa. We talked on about the parallels between Mississippi and South Africa.  We mused: “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our students could have this discussion.”  By the end of the summer, we had planned the MS/SA Freedom Project, an online literature exchange.  I went back home thinking, “This will be great and give us something interesting to balance off the grammar.”

When school started that August, I realized how hard the project was going be, and started to have second thoughts. I only had one outdated computer in my classroom; we didn’t have a lab; and the school was not yet wired for internet. My principal thought I was crazy to try it, but gave me the go ahead. I had the same students as the previous year, now sophomores. They had to compose their messages to the South African students on paper in small groups; then take turns putting them into the word processor and saving them to a floppy disk.  I would take the disk home and post their messages using my dial-up connection. A few days later, their responses would come from Soweto.  I’d print those out; then take the messages to school and tape them up on the wall.

The students soon took the project far beyond my carefully designed lesson plans. They wrote about plot, characterization, and irony—and these topics were coming up before I had scheduled them.  Better still, they were discussing things I hadn’t planned to cover at all. Students, especially boys, who said little or nothing in class, blossomed online.  Kids were coming to class early and staying through lunch to read and respond to their online classmates. 

One day, as I entered the room where they had already started writing, I heard R.P. arguing with his partner, Kendra over their next response message.  “Girl, we can’t send this like this! That’s a fragment. Ms Mo’, tell her that’s not a sentence!”  I almost cried.

Those kids were some of the best teachers I ever had.

Since then, I’ve done many digital learning projects with students, high school through adult learners. Each time, I’ve learned more about the power of such learning and about how my role as a teacher and co-learner shifts. As new platforms and mediums emerge, I can’t wait to see what my students will teach me next.

1 Comment

Anne Jolly commented on February 6, 2014 at 7:50pm:

Students who teach

I really like your digital learning moment, Renee . . . I remember my "computer" learning moment clearly.  It was the mid-90s and before GUIs were in wide use.  You had to communicate with the computer using those codes that started with C:/.  Remember those days? Well, I put my kids' grades on my laptop computer and took them to school to impress my students with instant access to their grades.  My 8th graders watched me struggle for a few minutes trying to locate the folder (What kind of code should I put in to locate the folder?  I forgot to find that out.).  Then one of them calmly asked, "What's the name of the folder, Mrs. J?" and reached for the computer. I gave it to him, and five or so keystrokes later he handed the computer back to me with the grades pulled up.  After that I let my kids teach me computer stuff, and they loved to come to class, teach me what they'd learned, and be my teachers. 

A few years later - early 2000s - we did a lab on the circulatory system that got a lot of student engagement.  The next day a student who was flunking nearly every class bounced in and said, "I know where you got that lesson, Mrs. J!"  Sure enough, he took me straight to the Internet site I'd used.  After that I told him what topics would be coming up and let him find lessons for me to consider using.  He was one of my most engaged students after that.  And he became my technology manager and handled all of my digital programs.  He patiently tried to teach me what he was doing and I grasped most of it. 

Thanks, Students, for making school a good learning experience for me.

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