Meet The Teacher
George is teaching national, state, local government, and AP US history at North Hagerstown High School (NHHS) [http://bigdog.fred.net/nhhs/nhhs.html]. He has been teaching since 1983. Prior to teaching at NHHS, George served for five years as the Educational Director of Oak Hill House, a residential treatment facility for troubled young people. While there, he learned quite a bit about working with young people, especially in the areas of Reality Therapy, crisis intervention, and peer mediation. These skills have proven quite valuable to George in his current teaching position.
NHHS is an urban school in a rural district and also the largest with about 1,000 students. Seven percent of NHHS students are African-American. Most NHHS students are middle class, though a good part of the student body can be classified as "working class." Hagerstown is a "rustbelt" town with a formerly strong industrial base, but economic growth has been slow over the past two decades. The town is losing many residents to the nearby town of Frederick, just to the east. With a population of about 100,000, Hagerstown was once Maryland's second largest city. Now, the city planners hope to attract new high-tech and financial industries to the town by portraying Hagerstown as a place that is business-friendly but far enough away from the urban ills of Washington, D.C. and Baltimore.
Project Description: Essay Exchange Project
Starting in fall of 1995, George has had his history students engage in essay writing and exchanges over the Internet. The students write essays on various historical topics and then receive electronic feedback on their work. Each installment of essays takes George and his students about one to two weeks from the start of research to the final posting. During the 1995/1996 school year, George and his students posted several essay projects. George attempts to have his AP US history students complete one major essay exchange and review project per marking period. This rigorous schedule combined with George's high expectations for the projects' supporting research helps George's AP students prepare for the coming AP US history exams. For his 9th graders who do not take such exams, George pursues a slightly less formal approach, requiring less research and emphasizing shorter papers.
The essay writing project is also part of a larger Internet effort. George's 9th graders develop and engage in two interdisciplinary units each marking period. As the Interdisciplinary Team Organization (ITO) develops the unit, George adds a Web page to the NHHS site that deals with relevant topics. Other schools and classes are invited to collaborate with George's students on ITO activities. His students have developed activities which include e-mail and Web exchanges essays, poetry, artwork, and debates and George and his students have collaborated with many schools including schools in Colorado, New Hampshire, Victoria, and Australia. A professor of education in Louisiana has chosen to use some of George's students' essays about Martin Luther King essays to discuss the learning process with her students.
To create their essays, George's students use a basic text editor like DOS editor, TED (The Editor), or Notepad. George, along with some of his computer club members, convert the students' text documents to HTML, using either HTML Assistant or HOT DOG and George posts the pages on NHHS's web site. George uses various bulletin board services, news groups, listservs mailing lists, and regular e-mail to notify others of the new essays and solicit their feedback. All responses to students' work are directed through George's e-mail account, so he regularly checks his account to see if there have been any responses. His students maintain a folder of critiques they receive and they respond via e-mail to their critics. George feels that the interactive nature of the essays has really motivated his students-- students are "often skeptical at first, but when they receive e-mail from South Africa and New Zealand, I am asked every day 'Did we get e-mail?'"
George sponsors a computer club at NHHS and the club's members have played an important role in translating student essays into html format. However, up until now, the structure of the web site has been George's creation. George hopes the Computer Club will take a bigger role in creating and maintaining the school's Web site which would allow George to be more involved in other areas and would give the students a greater sense of ownership.
George integrates cooperative and interdisciplinary learning in his teaching. He believes that the Internet fits very well into these two paradigms given that it allows students direct access to information and often requires them to work in groups to obtain what they need. This access to information allows students to view learning as true discovery versus memorizing facts from prepackaged texts. To extend this process of discovery, George attempts to become a facilitator of learning rather than a purveyor of knowledge. This role comes into play as George helps his students make sense of the information and feedback they receive from the Internet -- a step that George believes is a crucial skill for the future. George is concerned that his students develop the ability to critically discern reliable from unreliable information on the Web. George also works to have his students develop the corollary capability of expressing themselves. He sees such skills as crucial for students to actively participate in the information age.
George believes using the Internet in classroom teaching provides a great way of extending students' learning environment. "By having critics from all over the globe review essays, students receive views and ideas that I may never have thought of. They receive similar or varying comments from independent sources, some of which are experts in their field. Also, information can be accessed almost immediately, and the students are forced to think about their audience as a global community that has immediate access to their work. They must keep that audience in mind as they write. When a student receives an e-mail from Saudi Arabia that states 'wow, loved your poem,' that's powerful. That kind of experience is something kids will remember for a long time. It also demonstrates the nature of the global village that the Internet has helped make our little planet." By developing the capability of the Internet to provide real audiences for student work, George has tapped one of the most valuable aspects of the Internet. Students realize the difference between the real audiences on the Internet and the imaginary audiences that many teachers must use to provide different writing experiences. The experience of getting feedback from all over the world provides an authentic context and also motivates students.
George thinks that the Internet provides a great vehicle to get students engaged in learning. Not only does it provide them with opportunities to connect with different people and their ideas, it is a medium with which they easily identify. George says, "I think the issue may be more about how I learn! Of course, the current generation of schoolchildren were bred on video games and MTV. The Internet is like an academic version of those media. The computer is the 'geek's' TV set, so young people are quite open to learning from it." George hopes to have his students become critically literate in the use of the Internet as well as in many other traditional media. He believes that this skill will become increasing important "as the Internet increases in its multi-media capabilities such as CU-SeeMe video teleconferencing, QuickTime Movie files, and sound clips that can be downloaded and heard in real time."
George prefers small cooperative groups work best to develop web content. He believes that groups of 2-3 students are ideal for conducting web research. Given the complexity of HTML, George also prefers to work with HTML templates that he creates and students use to insert their content.
George sees the Internet as a tool to allow him to creatively respond to the state of Maryland's curriculum mandates. Ninth grade students are required to take and pass a test on Citizenship Skills in order to graduate at the end of their high school careers. Using the Internet allows him to supplement more traditional forms of memorizing content. George says, "The biggest hassle I have to deal with is the state-mandated Government/Civics test our students must pass to graduate. This ties our hands in the area of integrating outside material and technology. The Internet will not be on this test. That is why I have tried to bring test-material into the writing and Internet-based processes. With all of the Government content on the Internet, I can use the Internet to bring these concepts to life on the computer screen, and students can write about those concepts for the Web."
In addition, George has found the Internet to be a wonderful way of fulfilling his district's curriculum guidelines. The Internet is rich in content and provides an excellent research tool for students in his history classes allowing almost any academic source to be tapped to answer a student's (or teacher's) question, express a thought, or explore an idea. But George uses the Internet for more than just its information capabilities; he uses the Web to let his student exchange ideas across the surface of the globe.
First Experiences with Technology & Internet
George's first experiences with computers began through his family and started with more traditional uses. "My father-in-law worked for AT&T, and as they cast off their old PCs, he would buy them cheap and transfer them to me. I started word-processing lesson plans and poetry, and after a couple of years, I was pretty handy with WordPerfect. All lesson plans are now on-disk and updated regularly."
Like many other teachers, George became interested in Web technology as a result of seeing the power it had to offer. George initially focused on finding ways to use some the discussions he found on bulletin board systems (BBS). He used an old computer and monitor to capture and project the text from the electronic discussions so that his whole class could partake of he dialog.
Later after he acquired an America On-Line account, George was able to actively participate in listservs and newsgroups dealing with history and government. These forums provided the first places for George's students to publish their essays. George found this approach fruitful as "some of our best critiques have come from scholarly e-mail discussion lists. One exchange involved Dr. Peter Temes, a professor of historical writing from Harvard University. His critiques were so great for my students because he was gentle; he used the sandwich approach: a compliment, a criticism, then a compliment. The kids learned a lot about history and about writing."
One of George's initial experiences with the Web was when he attended a conference at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. George was quite impressed when conference organizers projected the Louvre on a screen using a Web-browser called Mosaic. As he says, "I thought to myself 'I gotta do THAT for my classes!' Since then, George has been trying to get a high-speed data link to his classroom to better allow him and his students to access the Web.
George has been able to accomplish a great deal given a few limited resources. His efforts serve as an example that work on the Internet is not entirely dependent on the best and most expensive hardware and software. George started his essay exchange project with some old and basic equipment-- as set of five 286 PC computers he gathered from local businesses and schools. Students have been using these machines in George's classroom to compose their essays. During the 1995/1996 school year George was able to replace some of his older equipment and he now has a 28.8 modem and a new 486 PC computer with more memory so that students can use more modern graphical applications. These additions have really improved Internet access for George and his students.
NHHS also has an IBM lab, but it is not networked or even linked to the Internet by a phone line. George's room has one of only three connections to the Internet; the media center and one of the science classrooms also have connections. George says "I rarely use the lab to have the students compose because it means kicking the computer teacher out of his room. So we rotate use of the four computers in my room, and we work in cooperative groups."
In response to the shortage of hardware and funds for technology acquisition, one of George's students in the Computer Club came up with a great idea. The student suggested the school raise funds for a Pentium computer by selling ad space on their web site in the same way that Webcrawler [a Web search engine] does. George says, "So we have raised almost $1000 this way, and the kids do all the graphics and HTML. The businesses get a web presence, the kids get experience, and hopefully, the club and the Social Studies Department. will get a multi-media station that will do the Internet and CD-ROM technology justice."
While George and his students do not have a large amount of fancy equipment for their work, they have been well supported by their administrators. George says, "Our principal and technology coordinator (system-level) have been supportive, allowing me the discretionary leeway needed to act effectively and independently." George and his students have also been well supported by Frednet, an Internet service provider that houses NHHS's Website.
The Challenges of Interactive Publications
Creating a successful interactive publication requires time and effort, as George has amply described above. But one of the most crucial components for the effort's success is the audience. Teachers who, like George, seek to create and maintain a critical audience for their students face a number of challenges. One key challenge is developing the audience at the outset. As George says, "the hard part is when no one responds in spite of one's best efforts to notify large parts of the on-line community. The students work hard on a product, and they expect some sort of return on their time investment. So one must not build up their expectations too high."
After the audience has been developed, their interactions with the students' work poses another challenge. Here teachers play a crucial role, serving as mediator between the students hoping for responses and the audience providing the feedback. George is concerned about the possibility of non-constructive negative feedback and so he screens the responses to student work. All incoming responses come through his e-mail account, and he reviews them prior to passing them along to students. As he says, "no one wants their students to be 'flamed' or harshly criticized. I edit out all e-mail that serves no constructive purpose. This almost never takes place, but when it does, it's important that I catch it, or else the wind can be taken too easily out of their sails."
The problem of negative feedback has not posed much of a problem-- so far most of the audience's responses have been supportive. George has found this to be true of his own efforts. He says, "the Internet community has always been supportive of my own efforts personally and professionally. I often use the listservs as a sounding board, and when things don't go well, I often write to thousands of people at a time to see what their reaction is. I am almost always supported in my activities. From time to time, a critic with nothing but an axe to grind does surface, but the best way to end a flame war is to ignore the flamer."
Problems with Technology
As with any new teaching concept, these wonderful benefits come with a certain price tag. George knows from experience that using the Internet poses a real challenge to teachers -- learning a new technology. As he says, "This requires a huge time commitment. So, papers get marked later, comments are more brief, and I get home later spending less time with my spouse and children. Conversely, one is always considering ways the activities can be broadened to include the on-line community so as to maximize the students' exposure to as wide a viewpoint as possible." To achieve these goals teachers must both put in the time but also learn more about different aspects of technology, such as HTML and e-mail use. George has immersed himself in the Web and is developing these skills on the job as he works and learns along side his students.
Given that George has a limited number of computers with which to work, much of his students' use of the Internet depends on collaborative work. Further, his project's goal involves collaborating with other teachers. George discusses the challenges of such work: "Getting both students and teachers to function in a team format is challenging. Each person has their own agenda and baggage. But within the cooperative learning model, the kids and teachers are able to develop integrated activities. Knowing when to bring in other subject areas is hard as well."
On a more basic, technological level, George has faced his share of mechanical and software problems. His older and slower machines are prone to lock up and he has found configuring Netscape software to be a real challenge.
George addresses the concern of improper student use of the Internet by having acceptable use policies instituted ahead of time. He says, "There is a district wide Acceptable Use Policy, but so far, since students are not using the Internet independently, we have not had parents and students sign it. If there is a violation of the policy, it is treated just as any infraction of student discipline. Teachers can handle it in-house, they can refer it to an administrator, who then can decide the next step. It also depends on the infraction.
"Since I monitor all on-line activities on the account I run, it is virtually impossible for a violation to take place. Students NEVER surf unsupervised, and all incoming and outgoing e-mail is screened by me. This is the responsibility I take as webmaster and postmaster."
George also has parents bet involved in their children's use of the Internet. George has been using a release form he found on the web to secure parents' consent to their children using the web. The form gave permission to allow students to send and receive e-mail, post to the World Wide Web, and have their photograph posted to the web. Most parents signed the form to allow their children to participate in all on-line activities. Some parents have asked that their children's photos not be posted, and George has respected their wishes.