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Outer Islands Teaching & Learning Collaborative

On Maine's islands, thoughtful integration of digital technologies into the traditional scheme of education is necessary to ensure students have the tools to thrive in a complex and rapidly changing technological society. And because island schools have very few students, using technology to encourage connections and shared learning between schools is vital.

The Outer Islands Teaching and Learning Collaborative (TLC) - an education program of the Island Institute - is a group of island educators who are committed to creating a virtual classroom community in grade K-8 schools where teachers and students will have access to a rich and supportive inter-island peer network. The mission of the TLC is to improve the quality and ensure the sustainability of one- and two-room island schools by creating collaborative educational and social opportunities for students across islands via technology and face-to-face learning opportunities.

The Outer Islands TLC


How It Works

Teachers collaborate through virtual bi-monthly meetings and regular mentorship programming. Academic curriculum is aligned in science and social studies which provides students with the chance to study the same units at the same time. Students also participate in inter-island book groups and unit-specific online presentations. Several times a year, there are opportunities for in-person interactions through off-island teacher retreats and inter-island field trips.     

The Outer Islands TLC includes the island schools of Cliff, Cranberry Isles, Frenchboro, Isle au Haut, Matinicus and Monhegan.

Implementation Steps

  • Gather key players to help build community and trust. These are primarily teachers, as well as dedicated parents and volunteers. 
  • Identify the common problem. The founders of the TLC identified the most immediate problems as a lack of colleagues for teachers, lack of peers for students, and isolation among parents in island communities.    
  • Develop group norms. For the TLC, working together successfully involves establishing a culture of professionalism, innovation, commitment, and engagement. 
  • Align curricula. TLC teachers co-create curriculum units, share the project leadership, and offer professional support to one another.
  • Encourage involvement. The TLC created opportunities for parents and other island community members to participate in their activities through an inter-island group.
  • Reevaluate. Each year, depending on the number of students and individual school needs, the TLC decide which are the key priorities for the academic year.    

Q & A with the Island Institute's Education Team

Q: How often are island students collaborating?
A: On average, kids are collaborating in their schools four times a week. They have weekly book groups in age specific groups, so all the third graders are reading a book, though their teacher might be on another island and the three kids in their group could be from three different islands. They also do science and social studies collaborations throughout the year and they might be working on a creative writing assignment for social studies. They work together throughout the trimester to share their stories and edit each other’s work. And there are other types of collaborations where they’re working together socially, like the TLC student council. Those kids are older students so they get more of a leadership opportunity to plan virtual events.

Q: How is the TLC beneficial for students?
A: When we started, we thought about it in terms of our middle school students because those are often our students who feel the most isolated. When you’re younger, there’s more of an adaptability in terms of being able to relate to any kid at any age. But the middle school age is when kids really start to feel like they want more peers and more peer interactions. Quickly we realized that all of our students really needed that. Our younger kids didn’t really know how to interact with kids their age. One of them learned how to raise his hand which he never had to learn before because he was the only kindergartner at the school! We didn’t plan for it to be this way, but it’s really the reason we do what we do. We want to have our kids have support and have a group of kids their own age who they can relate to.

Q: How is it beneficial for teachers?
A: If you’re a one room school house teacher, it’s really hard to relate to any other educator when it comes to someone else just understanding what you go through on a day-to-day basis and support you. These teachers gain a lot from the TLC interaction. Our island teachers meet online every other week throughout the whole year. And it’s completely voluntary—they don’t have to do it. But we always have almost 100% participation because it’s beneficial to them. But they also really value each other and they’re really committed to one another. I think there’s this feeling within the TLC that each teacher is committed to the other classrooms just as much as they’re committed to their own.

Q: How do you see the TLC serving as a model for other rural schools?
A: What works really well is that it’s teacher-driven. We spent a lot of time early on just figuring out what the needs were. We weren’t completely sure what we needed to collaborate on, we just knew we needed to be working together. So it took the first three years of the project just to figure out what our mission was and what our core purpose was. It’s super adaptable and flexible, so every year, depending on how many students you have or what their backgrounds are or what teacher’s backgrounds are, there’s a core thread of collaboration and a peer network. We’re not trying to do too much, we’re just trying to work together. 


  • Logistics. The biggest ongoing challenge is the logistics of planning around the school and boat schedules of six island schools, with very different budgets, administration, district requirements, and unique communities.

Outcomes / Results

  • Since it’s creation in 2009, there have been roughly 85 students involved in the TLC.
  • By strengthening the school program for the outer islands, the TLC also addressed the larger issue of declining enrollment and year-round sustainability.

Additional Resources

Virtual Meeting Facilitation

Living and working remotely, while collaborating with distant partners, can make meeting in-person difficult to near impossible. Ultimately, it can slow the progress of work or limit the opportunity for that work to happen in the first place. The possibility of meeting virtually, either for everyone or for some members of a group, can help remedy this challenge. By freeing meeting participants from the restriction of a set physical location, you can open up the possibility for collaborative work. It can also increase who is present at the table.

For teachers on the outer islands, where one teacher can account for the entire teaching staff, this collaborative opportunity is especially important for enriching the learning experiences for students of our one-room island schools. Teachers of the Island Institute’s Outer Islands Teaching & Learning Collaborative (TLC) use distance learning technology (DLT) regularly to create connections and broaden their teaching and learning experiences.  

Outer Islands TLC teachers and staff at the Island Institute office in Rockland for the annual TLC Teacher Retreat in 2016


Teachers of the six Outer Islands TLC schools meet every other week to collaborate on academic and social projects for students. They also meet monthly as part of a Professional Learning Community (also called a Critical Friends Group) to further their teaching practices. Students meet virtually for book groups, Student Council, academic share outs and social parties and celebrations. All meetings are conducted and facilitated virtually using the online video conferencing platform Zoom (See Additional Resources list for a Zoom Cheat Sheet). 

Outer Island TLC teachers and Island Institute staff during a bi-weekly meeting on Zoom


  • Gauge participants. Always begin by communicating with your participants or community to understand their technology comfort and capacity. This will ensure members are comfortable enough to participate fully without feeling intimidated by the technology. If you see that some members are less comfortable, offer a practice session or the chance to begin a meeting early to allow extra time for getting set up.

  • Have backup communication. Have a second (and third) means of communication established with at least one other participant in case video conferencing platforms are malfunctioning (i.e. cell phone call/text, landline, email, or chat program).

  • Strive for one in-person meeting. Whenever possible, have members meet in person at the start of a group. This will strengthen relationships and reinforce individuals’ comfort when meeting virtually. It can also provide time for in-person tech training. Although more work on the front end, it can pay off in the long term.

  • Set standards for virtual participation. At the first meeting it is important to set standards for how to engage virtually. Going over functions, like how to mute oneself to eliminate background noise when not contributing, can be beneficial for the whole group. You can also explain that as the facilitator, you may mute others if background sound is distracting (just be sure to unmute and check-in with that person before moving forward in the discussion!).

See more helpful hints in Tips for the Facilitator in the Additional Resources section.

A glimpse at the virtual book groups the TLC organizes each week


Before a meeting:

  • Awkward technology set up time. Using an interactive agenda & note taking document (like Google Docs) can allow for staggered start times while maintaining focus on the purpose of the meeting. Having a “Do Now” activity or question to answer in a sharable document at the start of the meeting levels the playing field of participation if your group is a blend of in-person and virtual.

  • Discomfort with technology. Offer practice and tutorial sessions with any members who voice or exhibit discomfort with the technology platforms. A more subtle approach, as the facilitator, can be signing on to the video conference ahead of the meeting time and welcoming others to do the same, ensuring ample time to sort out technology.  

During a meeting:

  • Forgetting virtual participants. If your meeting has a blend of in-person and virtual participants, it can be easy to forget your on-screen members. Setting up name cards of those participating virtually at empty seats in the room can provide a visual placeholder for your discussion. Building check-ins into the agenda or structuring discussions to start or end with virtual participants can help achieve full participation as well. Discussion protocols and structured rounds can help ensure equitable speaking time. (See "School Reform Initiative" under Additional Resources for some of our favorites)

  • No platform for virtual participants to share/interact. Participating virtually while many are in-person can make inserting your voice into a discussion difficult. Using different platforms for idea sharing, besides open discussion, can ensure full engagement and participation by all members. Google Docs can allow all participants to contribute to an online document at once. Board Thing acts as a virtual whiteboard, where you can make and move sticky notes, draw and connect ideas. (See Additional Resources below for more interactive platforms)


Benefits of meeting virtually

  • Bridges geography. Meetings don’t need to be at a specific location, so participants can work from home and don’t need to spend time/money/gas on travelling. This makes it a cheaper and greener alternative to commuting.

  • Increases participation. Without the hassle of traveling, it is easier to get people all together at one time. This allows greater likelihood that all involved in a group or project can participate. Virtual meetings also encourage unlikely collaboration between partners and sharing of ideas and best practices. It can make the impossible possible.

  • Allows flexibility. Participating remotely decreases the impact of last-minute hiccups in personal and/or professional schedules to meeting attendance and efficiency. Many video conferencing platforms allow meetings to be recorded, so members unable to participate can get caught up.

  • Increases sharing. Virtual platforms allow participants to share and collaborate on documents in real time. This level of interaction and engagement with the work can move it forward in different ways than in-person participation.

  • Feels more personal. Compared with conference calls, video conferencing can provide a greater feeling of connection because of its “face-to-face” capabilities. The ability to read emotions and body language are instrumental in effective facilitation.

  • Decreases housekeeping. Without having to set up a physical space for meeting participants with food, beverage and printed agendas and documents, virtual meetings can require less preparation of physical stuff than in-person meetings.

  • Provides facilitation structure. With virtual meetings often having more structure to discussions, it can be easier as the facilitator to hold group members to time restrictions and ensure voices get heard equitably.

TLC schools opening and revealing Secret Valentines at a holiday party planned by the TLC Student Council


Video conferencing platforms

Discussion protocols & facilitation

Interactive platforms

  • Board Thing (a virtual whiteboard, with sticky note and drawing capabilities)
  • Flockdraw (great for drawing)