"Morphing from Teacher to Cybrarian"

Written for Multimedia Schools Magazine, Jan 99

     "Good Morning, Ted." 
     "Good Morning, Evelyn."  Evelyn is the school secretary who does yeoman's
work in the front office.  After checking my mailbox, I gather my things and head
off to class on the fourth floor.
     "Make it a good one, Evelyn." I holler on my way out of the office.
     "Thanks, you, too, Ted." I walk down the hall to the stairs to make the first of
many climbs to the fourth floor.  This ascension, two stairs at a time,  allows me
time to collect my thoughts and prepare physically for the day.  The exercise gets
the heart going,  limbers my legs, pumps the lungs, and generally gets the adrenaline
going.  Upon reaching the fourth floor, I'm greeted by students sitting on the floor
outside the class.
     "You're late, Mr Nellen." they chime and tease.
     "Yeah, I decided to have a chat with my family this morning, sorry." I quip.
     They help me with my bundles as I unlock the door.  Upon entering the dark
room the automatic lights go on and the computer room is awakened.  The hum of
computers never turned off  assures us all is well with the world.  Greetings are
exchanged as everyone makes his or her way to  a respective workspace.  I move to 
the back of the room and enter my office.  I put everything where it belongs and
then make coffee.  The kids are already logged in and busy reading email, finishing
a project, printing something out, or just talking about last night's game with the
morning paper on the screen.  This morning, I was lucky to make it to my classroom
without meeting anyone in the hall or on the stairway asking for some computer
     Since class won't start for another forty-five minutes, I can settle down and
read some email, oversee what some of the kids are doing and provide guidance to
some who are there.  Perhaps I'll get to my coffee while it is hot and read a
newspaper article or two online, and then maybe not.
     Spying a certain student "John, I was looking at your web page last night and
saw you needed to fix the coding on the book report and perhaps proof read it, too." 
     "Yeah, I'm working on it, now, Mr Nellen.  It isn't finished."
     "I know." 
     "Hey Mr Nellen, where is the info on haiku?"
     "Go to the syllaweb and find the haiku link." I respond.
     "I knew that." replies the student as others laugh.
     My classroom is about 40 feet long and 25 feet wide.  I have 34 computers
placed back to back on two rows of tables.  We have a middle isle and two outside
isles.  Each student has four feet of workspace.  The workspace is roomy, but the
moving about is tight.  The computers were installed in 1992 and every one is still
working.  They are 486 PC's.  They are networked and attached to two servers: an
Intranet and the Internet.  In its day, it was high tech, today it is a museum. 
     Already the room is buzzing and humming with activity.  It will be like this
until five o'clock this afternoon, when I have to throw the kids out because I want to
go home.  Rarely is there an empty computer seat during the day.  Teachers and
students come in all day during their free time to use the computers.  It is one of the
ways we create community and a learning environment.  During class, as I am
moving around from student to student, I will draft a student to assist another
student or to help a teacher.  Usually students do more helping of teachers then the
other way around in this room.  We have built a core of student interns who are
assigned to any one of our computer classrooms to assist the teacher who may be
experienced or not in assisting in the technology aspect of any given class.  The
student interns serve as a model to the other students and alleviate any phobia the
teacher may experience when teaching in the computer environment.  With the
student interns taking care of the technology part of the class, the teacher is left to
his or her pedagogy.  We have found this partnership of student and teacher to be
very helpful in successfully integrating technology into the curriculum.
     The room is filling up as we near the beginning of class.  I teach Cyber
English, a class I developed in 1994, the first three periods and then spend the rest
of  the day assisting in the other 13 computer classrooms serving 3400 students and
200 teachers overseeing the integration of  technology into their curriculum.  I have
morphed from being a high school English teacher into being a Cybrarian. My duties
as a Cybrarian are to integrate technology and curriculum.  To help fund this activity
we write grants or are included in them with other organizations.  They could
include City Universities, Impact II, Goals 2000 grants to name a few.  The grant
money pays for my time from a class and for the other teachers work in preparing to
use technology.  I work with English teachers to develop their own Cyber English
class, with social studies, science, math, and foreign language teachers as they
develop their own cyber curriculum.  Initially we get them free email and web space
at any number of free sites.  If the teacher already has either or both, we work on
optimizing their use of their own accounts.  Next, I begin providing them with
assistance in searching the web for sites which are subject related, so they can begin
to get an idea of what colleagues are doing on the web or what resources are
available in their subject area.  Once they become comfortable with finding
resources and beginning the rudimentary process of building their own website, we
move into their pedagogy and begin the process of transforming their curriculum
into a webbased curriculum.  This takes time and nurturing.  We find that a semester
is ample time to develop the site and then the next semester with my guidance and
student interns to practice the craft of webmastering a class.  By the beginning of the
second year this teacher beginning to morph and is ready to mentor a new recruit.  I
have found that this growth has become geometric.  For every teacher trained, two
more emerge the next year.  The goal is to have all the teachers knowledgeable
about technology and capable of using it in their classrooms.  The successes of the
teachers has excited their colleagues, who believed certain computer skills were
necessary.  Upon discovering that their colleagues are learning, reluctant computer
phobic teachers are beginning to realize they, too, can do this.  In addition they
come to realize that they are not abandoning their pedagogy but instead enhancing it
and actually allowing their pedagogy to blossom.
     In the early 80's I got my first computer classroom.  Immediately, I  realized
the power of technology to provide an environment in which the "students did." 
Initially, I used word processing which was my first taste of technology being an
equalizer.  Since all papers were printed, handwriting was not a factor in writing
anymore for the students or the teacher.  Technology also allowed me to use
templates and formats and to keep writers anonymous.  An early advantage of the
network in the writing class was peer review.  While I sat at one computer on a
network, I was able to view each student as s/he wrote.  In addition, I could
broadcast that students work to all the other students on the network.  Developing
Computer Assisted Instruction (CAI) software further enhanced the "students doing"
classroom.  I wrote many applications to enhance vocabulary, spelling. reading,
reading comprehension, drill and practice, and writing.  This CAI software allowed
me to customize student's coursework.   During my tenure as Chapter One
coordinator, I found the students truly appreciated this non pressure environment. 
We worked in ten day cycles which included a reading, related vocabulary, spelling,
grammar, and writing.  The students had to accomplish many tasks in the ten day
period but not in unison or in any particular order.  This freedom was not
squandered, but was instead managed quite well by these students.  Because they
came to the program having experienced many failures, they were not enthusiastic
about education.  The computers were different and provided a new environment. 
This was an environment in which they had nor previous experience hence no
experience of failure.  It was a new start.  They immediately became involved as
they moved from reading to a grammar exercise or did some spelling or worked on
the vocabulary.  They weren't constrained by the pace of the class, they were in
control and they enjoyed it.  After the first year, the school average on the Degrees
of Power Reading test (DRP) went from a -0.7 to  a +22 point increase.  We
matriculated more students out of the Chapter One classes in that first year then ever
before.  After three years, we were able to completely abandon the Chapter One
classes for the eleventh and twelfth grades and cut the number of tenth grade classes
in half.  The successes of converting the Chapter One program into a technology
based class, convinced the Special Education Department to follow suit. This was
just the beginning.
     By empowering the students and making them responsible for themselves and
their work problems with motivation were eliminated.  During this time, I found
students skipping lunch, coming in early, staying after school, coming in when they
had a sub, arriving on time, and not leaving when the bell rang to end class.  These
examples became the discovered power of the use of technology, something I
certainly exploited over time.  All of this early work was a perfect seque for the use
of the Internet in the classroom.  Adding email and global publishing via the
webpage added such power to the use of technology in the classroom, it is very hard
to describe its impact. 
     I have always learned by doing and when I
became a high school English teacher in 1974, I tried
to practice this notion.  Before I had any access to any
kind of technology in my class, I always tried to find
ways for the "students to do."  When I taught
Shakespeare, we performed the plays.  When the
students had to do research reports, I had them work
in groups and present a magazine or perform the
project which might be taped.  It may have taken us
longer to get through work, but I was assured that
they would "own" that knowledge.  This theory of mine was borne out when I read
some Dewey and then saw the Average Retention Rate Chart that provided the
percentages of what we retain under what condition.
     I consider myself a constructivist.  I have combined the theories of Vygotsky,
Freire, Dewey, and Piaget as well as others, to arrive at my flavor of constructivism. 
Because each of my students works on a computer and is always responsible for
his/her work agenda and completion of projects, my approach is very chaotic to
many.  I seek chaos because it is from chaos order emerges. My syllaweb is not
logically or linearly ordered.  The students are not assigned seats and sit wherever
they choose.  I use hypertext exclusively in assignments.  I am always seeking a
discomfort zone.  In this manner, the students must devise their method of
accomplishing the tasks in this seemingly chaotic disorganized set of projects.  What
comes of it is the student's representation of how they would accomplish the given
tasks in their way and using their own methods of problem-solving, team work, and
interpretation.  This is my form of constructivism.  The environment of computers
allows me to glide about from student to student and assess methodology, assess
progress, guide development, and challenge their products.  I am always amused at
how the students react in the first couple of weeks of school.  Upon entering the
computer class, they stop and recheck their program card and asking, "Is this
English?"  I respond, it is and welcome them.  "With computers." they respond,
"that's different."  
     "You don't know how different." I respond with a chuckle.
     That first day they log in and begin building their webpage.  After the first
day they have a webpage.  The next day they are introduced to the other technology
tools like email, CAI software, and links on the web to find their assignments.  At
some point someone will ask about assigned seats or the rules of the class.  I
respond, that we don't have assigned seats or rules.  I point out that they have been
doing just fine for these first few weeks and that we have not needed either assigned
seats or rules to get this far.  Upon reflection, they realize what has happened.  This
new found power and trust jettisons us into the next stage of our work which is
global collaboration.
     The important tool in global collaboration is peer review and telementoring. 
The technology lends itself beautifully to both of these important features of my
brand of constructivism.  Peer Review is an important art form of criticism.  My first
applications in peer review had the kids moving from computer to computer and
leaving the writer notes based on approached methods of the writing process.  As
the networks became more sophisticated we were able to broadcast one student's
work to all the students in the class.  Finally with the net, we have the power to
publish the student's work to the world.  Peer review gains a new definition. Not
only are they being read by classmates but by the world.  Once students begin
receiving email from people outside our realm, they begin to take their writing more
seriously.  This leads to another powerful facet of the class which is telementoring,
an enhancement of the age old mentoring concept.  Technology has allowed me to
tap into the wired global community for mentors for my students.  Technology has
provided me with the ability to give my students access to authorities, mentors, and
     Telementoring was a happy accident.  After my first class posted their first
assignments on the web, I proudly announced their existence on a few listserves.  
Within  a day, on a Friday, I received an email from a retired English teacher on
Hawaii, lambasting me for putting such trash on the web.  She said I was giving
English teachers a bad name, that I should have had the students do a better proof
reading job, and that this was inappropriate material for the web.  I wrote back
agreeing with her and explained that I had tried to tell my class to be more careful.  I
had gone through many versions of their work.  The students were not careful or
complete in their corrections.  I told her that they didn't believe anyone was going to
read their work anyway.  So I told them to out the junk up, then.  I asked her for her
assistance by writing to  a few of the students, her criticism of their work.  That
weekend our retired teacher visited all of my seventy student's websites and wrote
each of them a letter about the work.  Monday morning was a day of epiphanies for
everyone.  Upon opening their email, the students were shocked that someone had
read their work and had taken the time to write.  The harsh criticism of their work
by an outsider alerted them to the importance of careful proofreading and care of
writing and of the power of being their own publisher.  From that point on, we never
had too much a problem with assiduous proofreading nor doubting the power of web
publishing.  This also introduced me to the idea of telementoring and soon I was
soliciting the aid of the global community in educating my students.  The response
was overwhelming.  Within a month every student had at least one telementor, and
in one case ten.
     Ten telementors were drawn to this student because of her suicidal
tendencies.  She wrote about how she had tried to commit suicide when she first
came to America from China.  On her first night her, she was robbed at gunpoint,
and was living alone in New York City.  Her family was still in China and they sent
her along alone to live with an aunt.  The aunt had died while she was enroute. 
Friends helped her out while she lived alone in the dead aunt's apartment.  The aunt
had enrolled he r in our school so she started school.  Her English was weak, but her
desire was high.  The telementors, some professional psychologists and very caring
people provided her with a support group, online.  It was a joy to watch her walk
down the aisle with her classmates at graduation two years later.  Her English
improved, her outlook on life improved, and she was communicating with her family
in China via email.  Her mother and sisters were at her graduation.  Here is an
example of how the technology saved one child's life.
     Perhaps one of the greatest criticisms of this environment is the lack of verbal
interaction in the class.  I can only say that our class doesn't lack for verbal
interaction, nor has any computer class I visit.  Let me explain by telling a story.
The scene is a NYC public high school English class.  Class size is 34.  Class
period is 45 minutes long. This may be relatively similar across the country with of
course minor adjustments.  Now losing, let us say 3 minutes on both ends for
settling in and packing up, we are down to 39 minutes.  Teacher introduces the
lesson and the lesson begins.  Introduction may be 5 minutes.  Now in 34 minutes,
each child gets one minute to say something.  The big criticism from Stoll, Healy,
and others of computer use has been the lack of classroom discussion.  Well, I
submit that classroom discussion is a bogus argument because it was never handled
well anyway.  Now my above scenario is not real either.  Students will never get a
minute and not all students actively participate. Walk into any class in this country
with the above numbers (roughly) and you will find the teacher doing most of the
talking, answering his or her questions, a few students dominating the discussion,
and perhaps seventy-five percent of the students in various states of listening.  Now
after that class give that class a quiz on what just happened in the previous forty-five
minutes and you will be sadly alerted to the dismal failure of education as we
practice it right now.   Now in the same high school English class, you put each
student at a computer with standard software and a connection to  the Internet and
something quite different happens.  First of all the generous 3 minutes for startup
and breakdown I gave earlier becomes less.  Teacher does not need to start a lesson
since the students will be logging into their email to see what is required or to a
webpage which presents the tasks to be done or the student just continues on tasks
already begun.  Students become responsible for their work.  Discussion happens on
listserves, on webpages, in MOOs, or as necessary.  Each student in this
environment is actively engaged for the full 45 minutes.  Hold this class over to
discuss with them what they just did and you will be around for awhile as each child
shows you the work s/he did in a 45 minute period.  That work will include peer
review, cooperative work, problem-solving, research, and creation of webpages. 
Their will be active engagement in the process of education as learners learn how to
learn and do learn.  They learn so well so quickly they can help others learn.  They
can teach others and that is a true test of learning.  That is how we judge teachers,
can they impart knowledge learned to others?  In addition in this class you will not
see a dominating teacher nor inactive students.  The sage on the stage in the first
scenario has become the guide by the side in the second scenario.  Real teaching is
occurring in the second scenario because the teacher can glide around from student
to student and spend quality time with an individual or a group and provide more
meaningful instruction.  By the way, students in the second scenario are more likely
to return to the classroom during the day, before school or after school than the
student in the first scenario.  
     The role of the teacher is changing dramatically.  We are morphing and the
technology is causing it and assisting in this rapid transformation.  It is the evolution
of education. 
     "Okay, guys, it's 4:55, so log out, shut down, and clean up your area."