This blog posting, by MNOHS ED Elissa Raffa, won runner-up in the Blackboard K-12 #BragAboutYourClassroom blog contest.

Screenshots from the second annual MNOHS talent show

Playwright and critic Eric Bentley said that a playwright is “a perverse traffic cop, beckoning characters into collision with one another.”  I think an educator is one too.  At Minnesota Online High School (MNOHS), we beckon students into collision—with themselves and with one another; with ideas and perspectives they might not consider on their own; with the natural and physical world; with accumulated bodies of cultural knowledge, and with software like spreadsheets and other modeling tools that students learn with, not from.  As educators, we also expose ourselves to collisions—with students’ individual and cultural perspectives, and with their current understanding of a given topic in order to help them extend that understanding.

When I first started teaching online in 1997, it was a wholly asynchronous affair.  I can count on one hand the number of times I phoned a student, usually to sort out a misunderstanding that would have taken too long by email.  But times and tools change, and by 2006 MNOHS was ready to add web conferencing.  Many webinar systems were originally designed for business and mainly support lecture-presentations.  We wanted a system that could support active learning.  We chose Elluminate, now Blackboard Collaborate, for the collision potential—especially the interactive whiteboard and breakout rooms.  We planned to use it for online office hours, counseling and tutoring sessions, class meetings, open houses, back-to-school nights, and student council (StuCo) meetings.  We never imagined how creative collisions like party games and talent shows could also knit together an online learning community.

The party games started with a culturally responsive teaching exercise brought back from an in-person workshop by MNOHS social studies teacher Anastasia Martin.  The exercise involved throwing a ball of yarn from person to person to make a cultural web.  “Why not make a web on the interactive whiteboard,” Anastasia asked?  Soon faculty, staff and students were bringing forward their favorite getting-to-know-you games and getting involved in the serious business of creative transformation.

The talent show was the brain child of the MNOHS StuCo and their advisor, MNOHS art and special education teacher Stephanie Snidarich, who lowers and raises the red velvet curtain between acts.  In the past two years we have been treated to a live aria, a ukulele performance, stand-up comedy, a recorded rap remix with original poetry, a demonstration of how to make a duct tape bracelet, dog tricks, galleries of both social-interest and model horse photography, and much, much more.  We have been treated to students taking risks, and thanking each other for taking risks, and changing how they see each other from that day forward.  MNOHS teachers have gotten in on the act too and have shared their hobbies with all.

I am a member of several state-wide and national organizations that support online learning.  I also do some consulting work with two consortia of higher education institutions that are starting to connect their members through web conferencing.  Among other things, I have learned from these professional experiences that MNOHS students are heroes.  They are heroes for all the generous creativity they bring to events like our annual talent show and they are heroes because the persistently overcome problems with browser add-ons, Internet service providers, and who knows what else in order to make the webinar collisions happen. Most seventeen-year-olds I know will claim that they are digital immigrants but their younger siblings are digital natives.  Technology changes that quickly, even for them.  They make the collisions happen because they realize that the type of online education they are getting at MNOHS isn’t just a choice.  It’s not a click on a radio button.  Like all good teaching and learning, we all call it into existence every day.

The adults I professionally consult with can walk across campus, drive across town, or fly to meet up in cities with warm winters.  They find the webinar awkward and I find myself badgering them about my high school students’ heroism.  But recently I realized that I had left something out.  I had gone too directly from how to adjust one’s audio in the webinar to using breakout rooms for peer review of student essays.

“We often start student meetings with party games,” I recently told a college leader responsible for faculty development.  I respect her very much and felt a bit sheepish to even mention it.

“Great,” she said, “Fantastic.  That will help.”

It was five minutes before our scheduled faculty training and I ended up pulling some games out of thin air and onto the whiteboard.  Although they were a bit rough around the edges, ‘creative transformation’ became more than a theory.

Next up: a webinar talent show for the adults and consulting opportunities for the students.  Anything is possible once you start colliding!

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