Connections Matter

Quality teaching and learning is about creating meaningful connections. In a peak learning experience, students connect to themselves, their peers, teachers, experts, and artifacts. Those connections can lead to impressive results and immeasurable ripples of student learning.  A single connection, made possible by combining free technology with the work of one remarkable student, completely changed the culture of my classroom and saved a high school newspaper.

Photo courtesy of Patti Digh at

At the beginning of the school year, Kala, a student in my journalism class at Buffalo High School, was inspired by the work of best-selling author Patti Digh. Kala reached out to Ms. Digh and asked her if she would be in Minnesota in the near future, because she would love to meet her. When Ms. Digh let Kala know that she wouldn’t be visiting, Kala suggested a Skype visit with the staff of the newspaper. Kala put in the work to make the visit happen before she even let me know what she had planned. Kala showed up to school one day and told me we’d be Skyping an author during our next newspaper work night. It was impossible to say no.


During the Skype interview, Ms. Digh shared the joys and struggles that accompany writing and publishing. She gave students advice on finding inspiration, getting started, shipping on time, dealing with criticism, and connecting to people. She shared how she handles putting her work out to thousands of readers and handles both the praise and criticism that comes with it. The visit, scheduled for 20 minutes, continued for over an hour.

After the visit, the kids were both awestruck and energized. They immediately discussed how powerful it would be if we could continue to meet the people that inspired them. The visit with Patti transformed the culture of the newspaper group. Over the next few months, they set up visits with their favorite YouTube celebrities, the best journalists and journalism instructors from around the country, the author of our journalism textbook, professional photographers, CEOs from a variety of companies, nationally syndicated radio hosts, and more. The students set each of these visits up themselves, practicing professional communication, thinking of engaging questions, and learning to take risks. Every time a member of the group saw something inspiring, the immediate response became, “We should Skype them.” After a couple of Skype visits, we had to start signing out the school’s Media Center to accommodate 60 or more students who stayed after school to attend. Other departments started bringing in speakers, as well. Art classes collaborated with students in China and Africa and members of a “Staff Book Read” met the author of the book during their final discussion.

Amid this excitement and in the middle of the school year, our school’s newspaper budget was cut in half.   Left with no money to continue to print the paper, the students scrambled to sell ads and find other sources of funding. Patti Digh, who had continued to connect with many of my students over Twitter and Facebook, saw their posts looking for leads for advertisements. Soon after, she posted a message to her thousands of followers on Facebook and Twitter, asking them to help save a newspaper. She shared our story and collected donations A week later, we had enough money to print for the rest of the year and into next. The students got incredible messages of support from people around the world, saw Ms. Digh’s post get shared dozens of times, and felt the pride, ownership, and responsibility that came with being at the receiving end of such an incredible outpouring of support.


Adapted from the work of Dr. Bernie Dodge. Click for a larger image.

Not only did the connection forged through Skype allow our paper to continue printing, it allowed us to create a product worth saving. The writers, editors, and photographers began producing a deeper, richer, and more important publication and had the confidence to tackle important issues.  Students now demonstrate the bravery to take risks and occasionally fail, and a mindset that allowed them to look at issues in entirely new ways. We increased our multimedia coverage to our website, covered stories in new ways, gave voice to the voiceless in our community, and found a renewed sense of purpose in sharing their work with the world.

On Friday, Ms. Digh surprised Kala by showing up at her high school graduation. I’ve never seen a student look as happy as the moment Kala received the surprise message from Ms. Digh, letting her know that she would be there to watch Kala walk across the stage. The connection between them mattered and continued to matter far beyond our initial Skype call. These are the types of connections that should be the foundation of 21st Century Education and the connections that will continue to make schools worthwhile places. Connections are the foundation of learning and the catalyst of stories that last and knowledge that sticks for a lifetime.



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  • xtaforster

    This is an awesome story, one you’ve told well. Thank you.