"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 assistance. 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 peers. 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."