-by Dan Jones and Vincenza Leone-
Global collaboration is not only important to the growth of an educator, it is also essential to providing the best education that our students deserve. The concept of global collaboration is simple, but it can be easier said than done, especially when dealing with different time zones, cultures, and continents. Julene Reed wrote an article for Edtech titled, Global Collaboration and Learning. She writes, “Tomorrow’s citizens must be global communicators, must be able to participate successfully in project-based activities, and must have collaborative skills.” But what happens when we try to make that happen, and it just doesn’t work out?
Often, educators preach, “You must have a growth mindset!” to their students, but rarely do students get to see a growth mindset in their teachers. Education Week Research Center did a study titled, Mindsets in the Classroom. Their research suggests that only “20% of teachers strongly believe they are good at fostering a growth mindset in their own students,” and only “one in five say they have deeply integrated growth mindset into their teaching practice.” As teachers, we tend to hide our failures from our students and learn from our mistakes in private. Our students fail publicly in front of us and their peers, are provided with constructive negative feedback, and even get to see others succeed when they did not. But when do they see their teachers go through similar situations?
Dan: Recently, I had a chance to collaborate with fellow FLGI International Faculty member Vincenza Leone. Vincenza teaches English at an Italian State School. Because my students study the Italian Renaissance, I thought it would be an amazing opportunity for my students to work with Italian students. I reached out to Vincenza regarding this potential distance learning opportunity. She jumped at the idea, and we immediately started brainstorming what we wanted our students to gain from this experience as well as possible ways of connecting our students to each other.
Our collaboration was rooted in a growth mindset. We experienced a number of hurdles and setbacks, but we saw those as learning opportunities. My students got to see me use a growth mindset throughout my collaborative efforts with Vincenza. I told my students from the get-go that we would be working with a class from Italy and that we were trying to make something extraordinary happen for everyone involved. Immediately, my students became interested in this opportunity that lay before them. What they didn’t know was how much work would go into trying to make this a reality.
Even though I have collaborated globally before, it is very different collaborating with a teacher or classroom than with an agency. When collaborating with a teacher, there are some things that caught me off guard. There are stricter schedules, location-specific learning management systems, differing student ages, and more. My students watched me navigate each of these obstacles. Because my students were constantly asking me when they were going to be working with the students from Italy, I decided it would be good to keep them in the loop regarding my work with Vincenza. It put the growth mindset front and center.
The hurdles in my collaborative efforts became talking points and problem-solving activities during my morning meetings with my students. Recently, I read a quote from Kim Bearden, co-founder of the Ron Clark Academy. She said, “Obstacles are not there to make us quit; rather, they are there to direct us to another route- one that would not have been chosen otherwise.” This quote epitomizes global collaboration.
Vincenza: One of the first lessons I learned when I was young is that mistakes are necessary to grow and that there is no difference between young and adult people. All of us make mistakes, and we continue to do them during our life. What is important is to learn from our mistakes and to consider this process the most powerful tool to empower ourselves and to get ready for the next challenge.
With reference to the collaboration at a distance, I would say that I am confident enough with it, thanks to my vast experience in the field. I have developed different projects during my career, especially with European partners. It is part of my curricular teaching, and it is a great resource to sustain the learning of a foreign language, the building, and reinforcement of knowledge but also a medium to deal with the difficulties of sharing at a distance with people whom students don’t know and who act and study in a different framework.
What makes communication easier is the use of the European platform for twin projects. It is a sort of private space for each classroom, where the partners of a project can collaborate, and even the teachers are relieved from the burden of acting in the first person for each step of communication. The role of the teacher is more focalised to a general control of the interaction. Their continued presence in the dialogue amongst the students is no longer the focus.
When I create a new project, I usually have to plan first and agree on the next steps with the potential partners. Then we wait for the National Support Service’s approval, and if two of us receive the national recognition, we can apply for the European label. This process is part of the European Union policy to sustain the dialogue amongst member states and empower the circulation of people, especially young people.
When Dan reached out to me, I was excited by the idea of collaborating with him and his students for different reasons: first, it was an excellent opportunity for my students to communicate in English with mother tongue students; second, it was about a topic they had studied in the past, so they had knowledge in the “box,” and they would have a chance to go through things they did in the past. Last but not least, the USA students are younger than mine, so my students should have been their peer “teachers” at a distance, that was a great challenge.
I trusted my deep knowledge of European networking and my past experience as a visiting teacher in the USA when I was able to connect my American students with Italian students via video conference. I was wrong. As Dan specified before, the process was longer than we supposed and interaction between us was intermittent. No fault of any of us, but we placed too much trust in our competence with networking, forgetting the key rule: planning.
Here is a list of takeaways and suggestions that will help you to be more successful than we were during this collaborative exchange.
One of the biggest hurdles when collaborating globally is the difference in time zones. Vincenza was six hours ahead of Dan. When American students were arriving at school, Italian students were finishing up their school day. We would love to have been able to connect our students to a live video feed, but it became apparent rather quickly that this would be almost impossible. We explored the possibility of our students sending videos back and forth, but we ran into the issue of student privacy and monitoring the communication that would occur. We wanted to make sure that our students were not only safe online but that we were teaching them responsible online communication and good digital citizenship. The next simplest means of connecting our students was through email. Even this became an issue because her students were on a European LMS that only allowed communication within Europe. Vincenza tried to jump through a lot of hoops to get my students imported to the European system as USA guests, but by the time we were able to work that out, it was too late in the school year to make good use of it.
Solution: When beginning any collaborative efforts, start with “how.” How will you collaborate? There is no sense in having your students do a lot of work if it can’t be shared. Vincenza and I landed on Google Drive. It transcended LMS systems and continent boundaries. Our students were able to upload presentations to our folder in Google drive and we could then share them with our students.
Another hurdle that we had to navigate was scheduling. Dan’s students are 12-13-year-olds and Vincenza’s students are 18-19-year-olds. Her students had covered the Renaissance two years prior, so they were going to need to create a special project specifically for American students and from a higher perspective. They would have been the peer teachers of my students. She was able to coordinate with multiple teachers so that she could work things into their curriculum. Because she teaches English, she saw this as a great opportunity for her students to work on English language fluency. During this time, her students were also working on preparing for a very important final exam to earn their diploma. Finding the time to dedicate to this project was a challenge. Much of our collaborative efforts took place in January and February. In Ohio, the weather is terrible during these months and my students were way behind schedule in content due to missed school days. We tried desperately to realign our schedules, but we simply ran out of time.
Solution: Planning a collaborative project requires a timetable. There should be goals set so that each participant knows exactly what needs to be done and when. When you build it on such a wide dimension, unpredictable issues are part of the project and for each phase, considering an option “B” in case something would not work properly as you supposed. “Option B” is where the flexibility comes into play. Because working at a distance is not easy, it is important to understand that everyone has a lot of other obligations and responsibilities. This is one of the reasons why goals and timetables are essential. Being flexible and working around those obligations and responsibilities will provide much more successful results.
It is easy to get caught up in the moment and the “wow factor” of the collaborative opportunity that you are bringing to your students. I was so excited to collaborate with Vincenza, but I had not really thought through what I wanted from her students nor what I wanted my students to share with hers. I was more focused on the “opportunity.” This led to some ambiguous emails and conversations regarding what we wanted our students to do during this collaborative effort. As I told Vincenza, I wanted her students to share with my students about the Renaissance. We learned that there are endless possible types of projects, and we have to plan exactly what we want to achieve as a final product before starting. Eventually, we agreed to have our students create products that were shared with us, their teacher, and then Vincenza and I shared them with each other through our own Gmail accounts. This allowed us more control over what was being sent, and we could monitor the quality of the product that was being sent.
Solution: Start with the end in mind. This starts with the question, “What do you want your students to gain from this experience?” Or, an even better question would be to ask your students, “What do you want to gain from this experience?” There should be an equal exchange of educational knowledge. You don’t want one group working diligently while the other is just sitting around waiting. Both groups need to support one another. Determine the product that your students will produce. This will give the collaborative efforts focus. The complexity of the products will help to determine the timetable mentioned in step two.
There were times when Vincenza and I were emailing back and forth, and then one of us would fall silent for a time. Without a timetable, it became easy to let something go for a couple of days. The problem arose when a couple of days turned into a couple of weeks. For me, if I don’t respond to something right away, I am less likely to re-engage with the task. Vincenza sent me a follow-up email to nudge me. I was not offended in the least, and it was a great way of getting me back on track.
Solution: It is important to understand that everyone is busy, and sometimes their vision can get taken away from the project at hand. A gentle nudge can be exactly what is needed to reconnect and move the collaborative efforts forward. An easy way to do this is with the words, “I just wanted to make sure you got my last message about…” If someone has agreed to collaborate with you, they see value in the collaboration, so don’t assume the worst. Always approach the situation positively, and the nudge will be received well.
Though this collaborative effort was not as successful as we would have liked, Vincenza and I agree that it was successful when viewed from a growth mindset. When you work on a wide perspective you have to consider the issues as part of the growth. They have a positive value. Understanding that when things do not go as planned, we must learn from those experiences to guide our future endeavors. We learn about the details that we need to give more attention to, and we learn that there are things beyond our control.
Collaboration, especially on a global scale has life-changing value for students and teachers. As you can see from Vincenza and I’s experience, there can be challenges that cause your efforts to not go as planned, but I encourage you to take a leap of faith. The important step in all of this is that you just start. Start by reaching across the hall, or to another district (someone in your same time zone). Another great place to begin collaborating is in the FLGI community. Build relationships, share experiences, and learn from one another. Our challenge? Try again and be successful, keeping in mind our past experience.
We would love to hear about how a growth mindset has impacted your collaborative efforts.