"This is a typical day in the TLC," joked teacher Donna Isaacs. "Next slide, please, Jessie."

On November 15th we held the first meeting of the Outer-Island Parent, Teacher and Community association. Participants in this meeting were spread all over the coast of Maine. Donna was in the two-room elementary school on Islesford (Little Cranberry), a few miles out to sea from Northeast and Southwest Harbors. Jessie is the teacher on Monhegan and was running the video presentation from that island. Together, the two educators described collaborative island school activities to community members on Isle au Haut, Matinicus, Cliff Island in outer Casco Bay, and a few who joined in from the 4th floor of the Island Institute offices in Rockland.

We were all using our Tandberg and Polycom units, our school videoconferencing equipment. Actually, for a few minutes Cliff Island was just listening on Skype until Anne (our inter-island project coordinator and tech-help desk) got a few connectivity bugs worked out, but no big deal. We're so high tech. Well, we're learning!

Maine's smaller year-round island communities still support one- and two-room schools, which serve students from Kindergarten through fifth or eighth grade, depending upon their location. However, for various reasons the populations of these islands have been steadily shrinking over the past few decades, and some of these schools now have only a small handful of students. The Outer Islands Teaching and Learning Collaborative is an initiative started by island teachers which creates a larger school community for both students and teachers. The TLC provides mechanisms for academic collaboration, an expanded range of educational opportunities and sharing of expertise, some socializing to combat the inevitable isolation, and it offers a support system for students and teachers dealing with both routine and unusual stresses.

Using a variety of telecommunications platforms, students separated by many miles of water are able to work together on academic activities in much the same way as professionals and businesspeople in separate cities collaborate on work. They also share happy occasions and cement the bonds of friendship formed when they visit each others' islands.

This year they have formed the first Inter-Island Student Council, with elected officers from various islands and regular meetings held through videoconferencing. The Student Council has decided to fund-raise for two important projects: an "awesome" field trip, to use their expression (hopefully to Washington, D.C., or Boston), and for cystic fibrosis research, as these students have personal experience with what is involved in living with CF.

Teaching multiple grades on an isolated island is quite unlike teaching as part of a large faculty in a large school. It is a very demanding job, requiring long hours and, if you'll pardon a terribly over-used expression, "wearing many hats." I was the Matinicus teacher a couple of decades ago, and there were no ed-techs or aides, no educational specialists of any kind, no community volunteers, no connections with other islands, no professional peers for informal support, and no Internet. Just the fact that my students didn't know anybody their age on Monhegan tells a story. A lot has changed in the island teacher's job description, and for the better.

In some cases the island teachers now align their science and social studies curricula so that kids from several islands can work together on their studies. The student book groups on Skype are a huge success, and even the youngest children enjoy getting together with age-mates over the water to talk about what they are reading. There are wonderful multi-school field trips, where the group does anything from meeting with their legislators to skiing at Sugarloaf to visiting former Penobscot chief Barry Dana and his educational program to traveling to the Challenger Learning Center of Maine, in Bangor, which offers simulated space exploration missions for students. These are multi-day trips that require a great deal of planning and make a huge impact on our island kids. No island student will ever grow up truly isolated again.

Island life isn't always easy, and this year especially, many islanders are feeling more than the usual burden of anxiety. Having a peer group, no matter your age, makes a difference. Both teachers and students have expressed relief that with the friendships and professional support that have come from the Teaching and Learning Collaborative, they don't have to "start from the beginning," explaining where they live, how they live, about how, yes, it is a one-room school, or whatever, every time they need somebody to talk to when life gets stressful. For this reason alone, the collaboration between the island schools would have been worthwhile. On a happier note, the TLC is much more than a support group. I hope our students from Isle au Haut, Monhegan, Matinicus, Frenchboro, Cliff Island and the Cranberries raise enough to make that trip to Washington, D.C.!