Veteran teacher Rene Moore was not convinced how teacher colloration — real or virtual — could actually help students learn, but the Mississippi/South Africa Freedom Project changed her mind.

This is the latest installment in a series on The Answer Sheet called “Faces of Learning,” a national campaign designed to explore what powerful learning environments and highly effective teachers really look like.

The campaign is designed to answer the following questions: How do people learn? How do I learn? What does the ideal learning environment look like? And how can we create more of them?

.Everybody, regardless of age or occupation, is encouraged to go to the campaign’s website and share their story, said the creator, educator and author Sam Chaltain, who wrote a book entitled “Faces of Learning” that tells 50 stories of defining moments in education.

You can share your own story here, and also find a free tool that helps assess individual learning strengths and weaknesses and also provides research about how different people best learn.

Earlier stories in this series on this blog can be found here, here, here. here, here, here, here and here. And you can follow the Lifelong Learning series on WAMU radio with these and other Faces of Learning stories.

Here’s Renee Moore’s learning story:

One of the most powerful learning experiences I’ve had in 20 years of teaching was also one of the most serendipitous. It began in 1994 after a chance meeting that summer of a few Mississippi teachers at Bread Loaf School of English campus in Vermont and a young teacher from Soweto, South Africa. That all of us found ourselves in the same small, but wonderful graduate program in rural Vermont was amazing enough.

However, Bread Loaf teachers are encouraged to connect their classes during the school year. We decided we wanted our students to use literature to make the historical connections between the 30th anniversary of the Freedom summer civil rights activities in Mississippi and the first democratic elections taking place that year in South Africa. Thus, the Mississippi/South Africa Freedom Project was born.

Ultimately, the project included nine different teachers and their classrooms across Mississippi, with students ranging from grades 6 to 12, and an all girls’ school in Soweto. We read two novels: Mildred Taylor’s “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, and “Waiting for the Rain” by Sheila Gordon. Students in all 10 locations read both novels and engaged in many classroom activities appropriate for their grade level and interests.

While the students corresponded with each other throughout the study about the novels and issues related to the themes; the teachers maintained a parallel discussion of teaching strategies and observations.

One of the most satisfying things about using the teleconference approach to literature study was that it provided a natural way to integrate the language arts, which all our research has long shown helps students, especially struggling students, to remember what they’ve learned.

The students even developed (without prodding from the teachers) glossaries for each other. The Mississippians offered definitions of the Southern colloquialisms in the Taylor novel, while the Soweto students interpreted the Afrikaans and Zulu terms in the Gordon story. Among other things, these exchanges became the best possible resource for grammar instruction.

Because I only had one computer in my room at that time, students had to work together in small groups and agree on the messages that would be sent. Some of the editing went on spontaneously, but just as often, I would use the content of their email messages or those they had received as a text for small group or whole class lessons. Suddenly, subject-verb agreement mattered to even my most reluctant students, and just as suddenly, it made sense because those were their sentences in their message that was going to be read halfway around the world. What weeks and months of grammar drills, quizzes, and tests could not do, this student-centered, cooperative learning project accomplished almost as a by-product.

For me it was an incredibly rich experience both as a teacher and as a learner. Using technology in the classroom was still a relatively new concept, yet here we were in rural Mississippi conducting an extended online conference. My colleagues on the project and I worked with each other on various aspects of the pedagogy behind the project: How to assess student writing in this new genre–online communications; how to integrate social studies themes with literary ones; how to facilitate meaningful and respectful student discussions.

We all came to a much richer understanding of the humanity behind what for many had been only dates, events, or labels. I became convinced of the potential of teacher collaboration, whether virtual or physical, to advance student learning and my own professional development exponentially.


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