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Author: Lee Orlando

Faculty are increasingly looking for ways for students to collaborate, not only to improve learning, but to teach collaboration skills. Teachers generally do this with in-class collaborations, but the Internet opens up a wider world of collaboration possibilities between classes. Kristin Novotny, a core division professor at Champlain College, and I recently used interclass collaboration online to explore “The Hero's Journey” monomyth. 

The hero's journey is a fundamental story form that appears in literature, movies, and elsewhere. It is taught in a sophomore-level course Heroines and Heroes. We wanted to get students to understand the genre on a deeper level by having them apply the journey's stages to stories of their own making. To help generate ideas and discussion of the stories, we connected students in the course with those from a middle school class. While using students of different grade levels is not necessary for the activity—it could just as well involve two college courses—using a middle school class provided the benefit of allowing the college students to become mentors and teachers to the middle schoolers, which heightened their motivation and learning.

 First, both groups of students read, discussed, and wrote about the book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, as this story illustrates the monomyth well. We then paired up each college student with a middle school student and asked them to discuss questions such as: What makes a hero? What are the elements of the monomyth? What do ordinary people have in common with literary heroes? 

We decided to use TodaysMeet to facilitate the real-time, twice-weekly discussion. We set up a dedicated chat room for each pair, and because the two classes' schedules overlapped by 20 minutes, we were able to use this time for the students to chat about their projects. This app also maintained a transcript of conversations, allowing for student accountability and teacher monitoring and evaluation. 

We then created a Google Site for each pair to facilitate asynchronous planning and discussion. Google Sites was ideal for the purpose because the free tool allows for shared editing in which students could make additions to the content on their own time. Here is a link to a brief tutorial for teachers on how to set up a Google Sites page: http://youtu.be/wpw_F33BEt0.

The Sites page was used by students to create a digital log of their thoughts as they read through Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. This log was scaffolded with teacher-generated prompts. We also had them record answers to questions that emerged during their chats. 

In order to differentiate between a college and middle school student's entry, we had students write in a different-colored font. Not only could we determine who made each entry for assessment purposes, but we found that the college students' entries served as models for the younger students, and thus we could see how they were reacting to one another. 

Finally, we had students create their own hero's journey using software of their choosing. Because the classes were only a few miles from one another, we decided to have them present their stories to each other in a live meeting. But there are a variety of good options for making online presentations to classes in different cities or countries. Digital storytelling apps such as Storybird and VoiceThread are excellent for combining images with narration to tell a story. Animation and cartoon apps such as Sock Puppet, PixiClip, Storyboard That, and PowToons make it easy to tell a story in creative formats. We found that students pick up these systems very quickly, and use them in imaginative ways.

Ultimately, both older and younger students demonstrated a solid understanding of the monomyth and were able to grow their understanding of both literary and real-life heroes. Both groups developed their written and oral communication skills, and benefited from each other's thinking. Engagement grew as student partners got to know one another and developed their collaborative relationships. An added, and not insignificant, benefit for the middle schoolers, many of whom are new Americans or are from families in poverty, was getting to know a college student personally and visiting a campus for the first time. When asked in a post-activity survey if the experience helped them envision themselves as college students, 97% of the middle schoolers answered “yes.”

TodaysMeet proves an easy-to-set-up and easy-to-use application for facilitating collaboration between classes. It is especially helpful when the students are not in the same school, and so not on the same LMS, although it can be embedded in an LMS as well as in websites. We also had students embed another Padlet into their Google Sites to allow for video sharing. Students used Padlet to put up a short video introducing themselves to their partner.

Google Sites worked well for collaborative editing and hosting, but we learned an important lesson when setting up the sites. To save students time and ensure that we could monitor their work, we set up the Google Sites ourselves for each student pair, and then gave them editing access. This is easily done using their emails, but we discovered that the emails needed to be for Google accounts (Gmail accounts). When we tried using school email accounts, many students found themselves without the necessary editing access. Thus, we would recommend first setting up, or having the students set up, Google accounts, and then collecting their Gmail addresses so that you can associate that account with their Sites page. 

While we used students from different courses and different grade levels, the same collaboration could be done within a course, or between two sections of the same course. Schools are starting to run institution-wide seminars to provide for common experiences, which presents ample opportunities for collaboration on projects. 

Consider how you presently engage your students in partnerships, then take that one step further to imagine how technology such as TodaysMeet and Google Sites can be used to expand those partnerships beyond the four walls of your classroom.

Lee Orlando. MEd, is a teacher at Hunt Middle School in Vermont.