The Power of Connecting Teacher Networks

Many of us have learned the power of being connected to other educators via networks. How can that power develop exponentially if networks connected? What does it take to make those connections?

Paul Barnwell: Renee, you have far more experience than I do in education, but we both share experiences collaborating and working extensively with both CTQ and Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf Teacher Network (BLTN). For me, BLTN helped launch me into more collaborative, innovative classroom practice, with a focus on teachers connecting students across states and even the globe. Through BLTN, I was able to connect with teachers and civic leaders on the Navajo Nation in Arizona. These types of dynamic experiences, for both me and the students, would not be possible without the intensive summer study and networking with Bread Loaf colleagues. What was your experience like at Bread Loaf, and what have you gained from being a member of the community?

Renee Moore: By the mid-1990s when I arrived at Bread Loaf, BLTN had already broken ground in the strange new world called the Internet. I was immediately drawn to the amazing potential of online exchanges among students across all sorts of boundaries as a way to develop reading and writing skills in ways we had not seen before. Critical to the success of this new work, however, were the relationships among the teachers involved. We were our students’ trusted guides into this new world and genre. I understand it better now than I did when I started, that it is the teacher-to-teacher relationships that anchor the network and the learning experiences it generates for students and teachers alike.

Since then, I’ve tried other online exchanges with teachers I’ve met over the web, but none of them worked as well or had as much impact on student learning as the ones I’ve done via BLTN, or the ones in which I’ve conscientiously used what I learned in BLTN about teacher connection. I’ve tried to put my finger on what makes that difference. Do you think it’s that we share the summer study experience (although some of us were not on campuses with each other at the same time)? Or is it the content of those studies, particularly the writing program, led by Dixie Goswami?

Paul: The power and effectiveness of many BLTN exchanges is rooted in both the teacher connection and content. Because the Bread Loaf graduate school is a residential program (essentially summer camp for English teachers!), building relationships in person in such an immersive, intellectual, and positive environment is a unique opportunity that not enough educators have outside their immediate school environments. Imagine if CTQ had a summer institute on Bread Loaf Mountain in Vermont? So many of us who only know each other virtually would be able to meet, spawn new projects and ideas, and strengthen future connections. I don’t know about you, but I’ve found that even a few days talking pedagogy in person, with like-minded and passionate folks, can be enough to forge lasting collaboration.

Content-wise, the Bread Loaf writing program draws many teachers into BLTN–including myself–because there are opportunities for such dynamic instruction and action research regarding literacy practice. Dixie’s course Emerging New Literacies launched my own exploration and practice of integrating traditional English instruction with constantly-evolving technologies; my own thinking regarding what it means to be a literate person in the 21st Century grew by leaps and bounds during that summer in 2009.

What seems to be a great challenge for BLTN is maintaining summer momentum once the school year begins. Part of the issue is having a viable digital space for plans to be drawn up, discussions held, etc. What do you think BLTN could learn from CTQ, and vice-versa?

Renee: I think the BLTN could benefit from CTQ’s concept of Virtual Community Organizers (VCOs), people trained to help facilitate the work of the online community. That would go a long way toward helping to maintain the momentum from summer planning and meetings as teachers move into our busy school lives.

You’re also right about the amazingly advanced push into teaching and learning about new literacies, especially digital and cultural. BLTN was one of the pioneering forces in classroom research. CTQ could benefit greatly from that aspect of BLTN’s practice, perhaps combining it with the CTQ TeacherSolutions approach to addressing edpolicy issues. BLTN’s work has not had the impact it should have in part because BLTN members have not been able to tell the stories of our work in ways that work with non-teacher audiences, say policymakers or funders. CTQ, on the other hand, seems to have figured that out in very practical ways.

Paul: Moving forward, it’d be great to see groups like BLTN and CTQ continue evaluate their own strengths and weaknesses, finding ways to work together to strengthen the ever-expanding connectedness of teacher leadership and advocacy groups. Renee, thanks for engaging in this discussion!

Readers: We’re curious to know what other organizations teachers are a part of. Besides CTQ, who do you work with?  Do you see benefits to more cross-group collaboration?