Integrating Productivity Tools in Primary and Secondary Education CLOUDS AND SUN

Student-Writers on the Web

Ted Nellen




Integrating Information Technology Tools in Instruction

These are especially exciting times for me as an English teacher who uses the Internet in his classroom. I teach at a 3200 student public high school in New York City. Our students come from every district in New York City. A third of the students are Asian, a third are African American, and a third are Hispanic. The students in our school choose a business major of emphasis in their studies, giving them 8 to 9 more credits than other New York City high school students at graduation. Sixty-six percent of our students are in households below the poverty level. Ninety percent of our graduating seniors go to college. Fewer than 15% of our students' parents graduated from college.

When I was a student, I used a typewriter to write my papers. I would type a draft, correct it, and retype it. I did the same thing at least twice, a waste of creative time.Then word processing programs gave me editing capabilities far beyond hand written or typewritten papers. I could spend more time in the writing of the paper and less in its physical manual creation. On the word processor, I could type it once and then edit it forever.

Now my students are in a classroom with 34 networked computers connected to the Internet. When I first began using the computer in my English class in 1983, I was overjoyed with word processing software, the dot matrix printer, and a LAN.The dot matrix eliminated the hand writing stigma of many students, including myself. The dot matrix and word processor allowed me to standardize the final product in terms of headers, margins, spacing and the like which speeded the reading and grading process. This uniformity also provided for equity in presentation. The LAN provided me with three powerful tools: distribution, a peek function, and a broadcast function. The LAN distribution feature allowed me to deliver my lessons to all of the students more efficiently. In addition, correcting or augmenting existing LAN lessons was easier and quicker. If I found a mistake in a lesson I could correct it and redistribute it to the students in a matter of minutes. The second important tool afforded me on a LAN in the writing process was the peek function. I could sit at my workstation and view what the student on the other side of the room was writing. I could watch the thought process. I could watch the sentence be written and edited as well as follow the thinking of the student while he or she was writing unaware of my presence. I could assist at this time if I needed to. I had more control of the writing process then I had ever had heretofore. The one problem was I had to be in the lab to do all of this. I couldn't do this from home. A third important tool was the broadcast function. With broadcast I could distribute the students work to the rest of the class. This was important for peer review and for creating a larger audience than just one. It helped the student-writers develop a critical eye of others work as they had to learn how to criticize. peer review is a double edged sword. A writer needs to learn not only how to accept criticism, but also how to criticize. The LAN was just a prelude to what was about to come.

When my lab was connected to the Internet in 1994, I was able to take what I had been doing thus far in a LAN environment even further. Each student had a web page. The was no longer written on the LAN using a word processor and printed out on a dot matrix printer. The students now wrote and published on the Internet. Now my students used pico or joe, two UNIX editing programs instead of commercial word processing programs. They did HTML (HyperText Markup Language) coding as they wrote their essays which supplanted the desktop publishing features of the best word processing programs. Ironically with more power in the writing process fewer skills had to be learned. Less time was spent in the mundane computer skills instruction now then before. They gave their files an html extension, e.g. br1.html for book report one. This file was in their public_html directory which is the directory accessed by the WWW browsers like Netscape. In a world of high tech, I had found a way of keeping it simple. It was essential that I keep it simple for me to maintain our school site and for the students to work. I had become a big fan of UNIX because it was so simple, it was basic, and it was universal. No matter where I went or where my students went they could function on any system because the Internet is on a UNIX platform.

The students were working in a Windows 3.1 environment. The students would start a Telnet session which gave them access to their mail program, PINE, and to their home page directory, public_html. Changing to the home page directory, UNIX command cd, cd public_html, the students could now alter their homepage file, index.html, or work on any number of essay files they were amassing. A very basic set of UNIX commands were given to the students so they could maintain their directories and create their html files which were their work for our course. Our first book report assignment was to have the students write a book report about their favorite book. Using the UNIX editor pico, the students would write their book report and imbed the html coding as they wrote. To view the final product the students would use the Windows switch function, ALT-TAB, to switch to the WWW browser and then they would load the br1.html file they were writing in UNIX. At this point they could view how the paper would eventually look. Proofreading and desktop publishing decisions could be made and then the students would switch back to their work in UNIX.

This method of working gave me access to their work. Because their work was on the net I could access it from any computer connected to the Internet. Besides me having access, their peers in the class and from other schools also had access. This is one of the ways in which we maintain our collaborative efforts with schools around the world. In addition, this process opened up the doors of our school to mentors. It was the mentors who provided the greatest input to my young student-writers. The mentors were introduced to our students by a business listserve sponsored and operated by Kathy Casper. She maintained a list which was a digest of business events around the world for a busy business community. One of her aims was to link up the business person who wished to serve as a mentor to one of my students. Using the Internet, mentors could quickly visit a student's web page and view the student's work and then email advice to the student. Mentors have come from all over the world. This provided valuable real world applications and a real world audience for my young student-writers.

I communicate with the class via email and on the web via the Today's Menu page. I use a listserve to distribute information to the class and and to have class discussions. I use the WWW Today's Menu to link the students to our WWW projects. Our classwork is presented in the projects which are listed on the class syllabus. In true constructivist practice, the students create a personal web page which houses and sevres up their work. This practice also allows the students to work on the project of choice and allows for constant updating and editing. Essentially their work is always under construction. The home page and project driven curriculum empowers the students. By empowering them, I have transferred the responsibility of the coursework to the students, which is where it belongs. At any one time, the students will be working a book report, an opinion on a current event from a web based zine, vocabulary from the web, and a class project. The books my students read come from a cyber, Internet, computer related booklist. The online zines include print newspapers or magazines with a web presence which provide access to current events. Students prepare responses to the articles read online. There are many vocabulary and analogy sites which offer formidable ways of providing vocabulary enrichment. To supplement writing exercises, there are many grammar related sites on the web which provide variety and reinforcement for my student-writers. All of these resources are accessed from our class syllaweb page. Projects result in poems, essays, research projects, and creative writing.

The types of writing I get from the students covers many genres. The students write a poem about the Internet instead of the ubiquitous essay. After learning about the Internet on the Internet, the students write a poem. I chose the poem because the words of the Internet are so unique and present themselves in a poetic manner. International exchange involves Japan and Haikus. Essays are written on current events which are more easily accessed on the web then in print. Most papers my students do are research papers and the web of course offers a dynamic environment for gathering information. In this gathering process the students learn how to be critical of what they find on the web. Not everything we find on the web or in a book is true. teaching skills of discrimination while research is very important. And finally because much of the web work requires publishing concepts, the students design their own pages in true web publishing style which fosters the best creative writing I have ever gotten from students. My students willingly write poetry, essays, and generate thoughtful essays on topics. The productivity of my students is far higher because they have a home page, a place to put their work, and an audience, which reacts to their work. These two reasons alone make teaching Cyber English very easy and rewarding.

Assessing the students' work is easier and more efficient now then it ever was before. I review the students' work on the web and use the mail function of my browser to return corrected work of the student to the student. I do not collect work nor do students had in work. I review their work at all stages of progress. Using the quote function of my web browser allows me to include the page contents which means I can make my corrections and then email the corrected paper back to the student. This method allows me to begin the teacher-student interaction from the time the paper is begun. I can monitor the progress on a daily basis and email my comments to the student. I do not have to wait for drafts or for the final paper. I can check it whenever I wish. Because I am involved in the writing process so early and so often, I can better guide the student through a more pleasing writing experience. Mistakes are caught early and are not repeated. What I am able to teach is editing skills. I see this manifest when a student reviews a paper written months earlier and and edits it much later. The webfolio becomes a collection of work which will always be subject to editing. The student-writer on the web leqarns early and quickly that work may not necessarily be ever completed.

In this very high-tech environment, I have discovered a way to keep my classroom very simple. It is less complicated now then when I taught in a traditional classroom and even when I began using computers in my classroom. The key is simplicity and the Internet offers me that access to simplicity. I could use Pegasus or Eudora or any other high tech program, but I can't be guaranteed that high tech program will be at another terminal in another city or at another school at which I or a student of mine may find ourselves. Get me to the UNIX prompt and I am off and running. I use UNIX's editors pico for all of our coding and writing for the same reason. If I were to use the fancy HTML writers I could not work elsewhere unless I had those tools. UNIX is the common language of the Internet no matter where I am or on what system I am working. Keeping it simple also allowed me to teach and concentrate on my English curriculum and not have to worry about teaching computer science.

Perhaps the best way for anyone to understand my euphoria is to look at the work of my students. You will find their webfolio presentation which is an electronic hypertext version of the ever-popular portfolio assessment model. The webfolio introduces all of their work, directs you to their home page, to our class which links you to our projects which links you back to the students' work. Everything is inter- and intra- connected so that navigation is determined by the user and all aspects of the course can be accessed by the user at will and in order of preference in true hypertext fashion.

At this time I would invite you to examine our site and the work of our students to better determine its effectiveness in my class and appropriateness in your class. All comments should be directed to me: Ted Nellen

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