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 I only had one outdated computer in my classroom; we didn’t have a lab; and the school was not yet wired for internet.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.

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