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Building Bridges Across the Vastness: Michael O’Connor’s Investigation into Literacy Collaborations

Kati Macaluso, Ph.D. on Tuesday, 13 September 2016.

Michael O'Connor Boston College  Research Literacy Collaborations Alliance for Catholic Education

The van wound up and down over mountain passes, but no mountains could be seen in the dark. National Forest and “chain-up” signs signaled that this route was rugged and remote, as Michael and his colleagues traversed from Boise to northern Idaho. “Maybe it was a good thing you were driving in the dark,” he remembers a principal telling him the next day. “It’s a long way down off of some of those roads.” Over the 1,000-plus mile road trip, Michael O’Connor couldn’t help but notice a landscape quite different from the one he had left in Boston.

Michael O'Connor Research Literacy Collaborations From the majestic Columbia River to the wilderness of Idaho forests, the Pacific Northwest gave testimony to the reality that Michael and his team were there to observe and address: that sixty-six percent of school districts in the Northwest Region of the United States were situated in rural areas where community and collaboration—two staples of Michael’s work as an ACE teacher and now as a doctoral student at Boston College—were harder to come by.

In many of the school districts throughout the Pacific Northwest, a superintendent might also serve as principal, librarian, bus driver, and custodian. Hundreds of miles might separate a fourth grade teacher from another fourth grade teacher, and in elementary schools, a single classroom might contain students across three to four different grade levels. Thus, opportunities for professional development or collaboration with teachers in like-roles are minimal to non-existent.

Michael’s road trip to rural schools and communities in Idaho, Oregon, and Washington served as one phase of his involvement with the Northwest Rural Innovation and Student Engagement network (NW RISE). This network, which Michael has participated in and supported along with his advisors at Boston College, brings together educators from isolated, rural school districts in the Pacific Northwest—currently from the states of Alaska, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington—to provide new opportunities for collaboration to support teachers’ professional development and students’ engagement and learning. Despite the undeniable vastness of the Northwest, Michael was amazed at the effort and time expended by teachers and students in the NW RISE network to overcome their rural isolation to create new and engaging learning opportunities.

"sixty-six percent of school districts in the Northwest Region of the United States were situated in rural areas where community and collaboration were harder to come by."

Over the past two years, Michael has worked with three high school English Language Arts (ELA) teachers and classrooms in Idaho and Washington. Through the NW RISE network and digital technology opportunities, students across the three communities collaborated to design arguments for or against the potential adoption of 1:1 technology in their schools. They cited New York Times articles and other research, considering what would be most convincing to their own school and community members weighing the decision. They calculated the financial cost and benefit of 1:1, carefully considering the potential distractions devices would tempt, while also imagining how technology could enhance the traditional classroom and connect students beyond their rural communities.

Students across school and state lines offered one another feedback as they revised and honed their essays—building relationships along the way. Two of the schools met virtually after the project to discuss the writing experience, which laid the groundwork for future collaboration across schools. As a former AmeriCorps member and middle school ELA teacher at Holy Family Elementary School in Birmingham, AL, and now a developing literacy scholar, Michael was attuned to what these teachers and students were experiencing: the powerful effects of grounding argumentative writing activities in a community context that affords authentic audience interaction.

As Michael continues to investigate how community might be utilized to support teachers’ ongoing professional development and students’ engagement and learning, his views of the rural vastness from the van window have continued to evolve. Though rivers and mountain chains divide and demarcate regions and localities, they also connect. The Columbia River feeds into the Snake River. Hells Canyon joins the borders of northeastern Oregon and western Idaho. Having long been animated by the charism of community so palpable in Catholic education, Michael’s work in language and literacy education is dedicated to building intentional relationships between and among teachers, students, and community members to enhance learning and bring people together. 

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