A spirited exchange of learning between fourth graders at the Taylor Elementary School in Foxborough, MA, and seventh graders at Christ the King Catholic School in Oklahoma City, OK, came alive recently thanks to digital technology—Skype for connecting, an iPad for viewing, and Facebook networking between two friends who hatched the plan.
But this event also was powered by a more traditional set of connections—the ability of the Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) to form friendships and shape career paths that transcend not only distance, but also time. The event symbolized enduring ties between Erin Bergin Earnst, who graduated from ACE teaching in 1998, and Brittany Riesenberg, who drew inspiration from ACE teachers like Erin as a grade-school student. Brittany graduated last year from ACE's Mary Ann Remick Leadership Program (RLP).
"I'm a second-generation ACEr," says Brittany, who now teaches middle school religion at Christ the King. That's the Oklahoma school where Erin taught as part of the ACE 3 cohort of volunteers, about 15 years ago.
Erin stayed in teaching for a time after her ACE formation and then became a professional development consultant, working closely with teachers in areas like educational technology and social media. Now she works for an education non-profit in Massachusetts. Erin and her husband, Collin, have a son in second grade and a daughter in fourth grade—the grade she used to teach when she was an ACE teacher in Oklahoma City.
A few years ago, recalling her Oklahoma City days fondly, Erin started communicating with the ACE teachers—and some former ACE students—in that town. Brittany became one of her contacts through ACE's Facebook network because she came to teach at Christ the King and enrolled in the Remick Leadership Program. She had been feeling a gravitational pull toward the field of education and toward Notre Dame since childhood.
"I was in middle school at Christ the King when Erin was teaching fourth grade. I got to know her, and I had other ACErs as teachers in grade school and high school," explains Brittany. "I saw their love for learning and the evidence that their faith was important to them. They inspired me to be a teacher."
Brittany aspires to leadership roles in Catholic education, but right now she's enjoying teaching religion and anticipates using her leadership skills in school athletics programs within the Oklahoma City Archdiocese. During her M.A. studies in the RLP 9 cohort, her action research project focused on grade-school coaching, and she earned certification to conduct workshops as part of ACE's Play Like a Champion Today program.
For her part, Erin was happy to be back in contact with Brittany. "I remembered her as an amazing student with a great volunteer spirit," she says. When school resumed in January this year, Erin's daughter's class was studying U.S. geography and was about to study the Southwest.
Erin immediately thought of Oklahoma City—how good it would be for her daughter (and the whole class) to connect to the place where she had taught, and how a partnership with Brittany's class might allow students in the two cities to see and hear each other via Skype.
When Brittany agreed on Facebook, Erin approached her daughter's teacher with the idea. That teacher also embraced the attempt to link up Foxborough and Oklahoma City. Erin came to class on Jan. 10 with her iPad, ready to use Skype. Brittany had worked with her technology-coordinator colleague to enable Skyping at her school.
The students in both schools enjoyed a lively conversation, with the fourth graders asking the older kids questions like, "Do you have tornados?" and "Do you have Pizza Huts in Oklahoma?" Erin says of her daughter's class, "It made what they were studying come alive."
Students of today benefited from student-teacher relationships, commitments to education, and varied expressions of those commitments that had been forged years ago in ACE—still evolving, still innovating. Students in Oklahoma and Foxborough may continue to benefit as both schools consider possible Skype connections in the future.
For Brittany, the connection to ND that she made early on as a student will continue to have a variety of positive effects. "I got engaged at the Notre Dame-Oklahoma football game this season," she points out.
Erin and Brittany's connection is a great example of how technology has helped to strengthen the power of the ACE network and support the unique calling to serve through education, says Erin. "It's a credit to the lasting relationships that have been built through the ACE programs. There's an enduring legacy from the ACE experience."
Photo: Erin Bergin Earnst and her iPad, tapping into technology and enduring ACE connections, helped students in Erin's daughter's fourth grade class learn along with a far-away RLP grad's seventh graders.