I’m grateful for so many things today: my husband and my children and our collective health. I’m grateful for our sunny little home and our friends, who fill our lives with laughter and a deep sense of belonging. I’m grateful for the work that I’ve been able to do this year and the teachers and administrators that I’ve come to know in the process. I’m also grateful for the friends and colleagues who make up my personal learning network and the one that my daughter is creating for herself as well.

Two weeks ago, Laura spent the day working with Stacy VanEtten’s seventh grade class at Depew Middle School. Stacy is launching a service-learning project, and her students have just begun to define deeply personal and meaningful ways in which they might make a difference for those they care about in their own communities. Laura was invited in to help lead a conversation around what citizenship entails and how this can be compared to what digital citizenship entails. She spoke about how she felt when her grandfather died, how she used her blog as a way to cope positively with that loss, and how none of us expected this work to turn into a year-long endeavor. But it has.

Laura receives a lot of positive attention for the work that she does, and we couldn’t be more proud of her, but we all agree that it hasn’t simply been Laura that has “made a difference” this year. Laura’s readers did, and her network continues to. The web did the greater work for her, and she knows this….but until last week, she didn’t clearly understand how. Laura visited Stacy’s class as a form of service, but in the end, it was really Stacy and her students who served Laura and I well, and the work that they are beginning is having an impact far beyond what they expected.

Stacy’s students were incredibly excited to meet Laura, and Laura was thrilled to meet them. She hasn’t had much opportunity to work with other kids her age in quite this way, and it was clear that all of them had read her blog, knew her story, and were eager to begin serving right beside her. Adults treat Laura’s blog as a novelty, and while that’s nice, it doesn’t really accomplish what she intended it to. Stacy’s kids are invested in that deeper purpose though, and as a result, Laura is beginning to understand what networking can really achieve. It’s one thing to receive pats on the back from the “grown-ups” for working hard. Finding a community of kids to join forces with her has provided a whole new level of motivation and purpose, though. It’s been an inspiring thing to witness. 

Since that visit, Stacy’s students have begun defining the dimensions of their own service learning tasks. They’ve begun blogging about their experiences, and each of them will be sharing how their research process has changed them and what they plan to do to serve others as a result. They’ll be acting on the findings from their research beginning next month, but some of them have already begun giving back in some very significant ways. Every time I walk into the building, another seventh grader stops me in the hall to tell me what they are doing to make a difference. A core group of them are running a clothing drive for Compass House, an organization I’ve written about before and one that Laura and I love to support. The incredible people there have helped some of the kids that attend this school, and they were very candid in expressing their gratitude for that. They are excited. Stacy and I are excited. I can’t wait to see what happens next, and there is no way to predict what that might be.

This project is magic, and that’s what the holidays are all about. It’s also what life is all about.

Okay, so it gets even better. Last weekend, Laura and I were invited to the first Youth Advisory Council meeting for Compass House. Michelle Moore and Shannon Callan invited young people from different schools to join them in generating new approaches for reaching the kids that they need to. What a powerhouse this group is! By day’s end, a lot of new ideas were on the table, including the notion of completely revamping the school-based program that Compass House typically offers to districts. The members of the Youth Advisory Council suggested using a center-based approach rather than a presentation, and when Michelle and Shannon began wondering aloud how they might best inspire schools to invite them in more often, it was recommended that they infuse their program with opportunities for students to practice key creative problem-solving and critical thinking skills.

Compass House may soon be offering teachers supplemental and free professional development that will not require the use of substitute teachers, because this work will begin while students are engaged in the experiences described above. Beyond simply speaking to students and teachers about their services and how to keep themselves safe, these certified teachers can now begin assisting schools in the important work of integrating standards-based service learning opportunities within their curricula. Additional support will provided through the use of social networking tools, and the members of the Youth Advisory Council have already begun creating Facebook and My Space pages to accomplish this. They’re also exploring virb and ning to determine which space might best suit their needs long-term. Our current economic climate and the resulting cuts in funding for staff development might further prompt other organizations like Compass House to begin thinking in equally innovative ways, and that is an exciting prospect, especially when one considers all of the ways in which kids might be called upon to contribute.

What Stacy and her students don’t know just yet is that the folks at Compass House are taking her project and her students’ efforts very seriously. In fact, they’ve invited us in to discuss how it might serve as a prototype for what they may be doing with schools in the near future.

That’s what networks accomplish.

That’s how networks make a difference.


1 Comment

  1. Angela, having had the chance of seeing your daughter at work with my students at DMS, I witnessed firsthand the connection they made.

    Like you I am impressed with the power, passion and commitment of Laura and her new friends. Having read about Compass House on your blog, I would be more than happy to welcome them into my building in any way we can.

    I am thankful for so many things, as you are, and I would be remiss not to be thankful for your commitment to myself, my teachers and most importantly my staff. I am also thankful to call you my colleague and friend.

    We are all truly lucky.

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