Student-Writers on the Web

on the Web


Ted Nellen
English Teacher
Murry Bergtraum High School
New York, New York

ABSTRACT The writing process has become a more complete art form with the World-Wide Web. Writers have become their own publishers. Writers have a larger audience. Writers are in more control of their work at all levels of its development. This is more true for student-writers today then ever before. And the results are astonishing. The high school writing process has evolved from literary magazines to webfolios in a very short time because of the Internet.

When I was a student in college in the early 70's, I was introduced to the concept of being my own publisher in a book binding course. The instructor explained that the writer was one of few artists who had very little control over his or her work. Once the idea was put on paper and presented to a publisher the artist lost control to editors, a printer, typesetter, book binder, distributor, and others. Unlike other artists, such as musicians, painters, sculpturers, dancers, to name a few, the writer had little control over the final product. However in this bookbinding course we created the text, we printed our work, we chose an ink, we chose a type, we bound the book, and then distributed the finished product to local bookstores. As the writer we had control over the entire process. That feeling of power stayed with me and has finally been manifest as a teacher of high school English who uses the Internet. Publishing one's work is power which we have seen since our early American pamphleteers to our publishing moguls of this century.


Murry Bergtraum High School for Business Careers is a 3200 student public high school in New York City. My classroom has 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 word processing programs gave the writer vast editing capabilities far beyond hand written papers and type written papers. More time could be spent in the writing of the paper and not in its physical manual creation. The dot matrix eliminated the hand writing stigma of many students. 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. The LAN was just a prelude to what was about to come.

When I connected my classroom 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 students now wrote and published on the Internet. They did HTML (HyperText Markup Language) coding as they wrote their essays which replaced the desktop publishing features of the best word processing programs.


Traditionally the student-writer writes for one person, the teacher. The student-writer was not getting just one voice of criticism, s/he was now subject to many voices of criticism. Those voices could be peers, teachers, student teachers, retirees, and virtual community volunteers from around the world. Different points of view were available for my student-writers. These other voices came from telementors. Using the Internet, telementors could quickly visit a student's web page and view the student's work and then email advice to the student. This provided valuable real world applications and a real world audience for my young student-writers.

One of the first applications we begin with is a lesson on peer review. By teaching the student-writers how to be peer reviewers themselves, they can better understand how to be mentored and how to accept criticism. By learning about and applying tactics of proper peer review, they become better critics of their own writing.

I communicate with the class via the Internet. I use a listserv to distribute information to the class and to have class discussions. I use the web to present the class syllaweb (WWW version of a syllabus). I use the WWW and email to correct papers.


In true constructivist practice, the students create a personal web page which houses and serves up their work. Their webfolio is an electronic hypertext version of the portfolio. The webfolio introduces all of their work and to many of the student's own WWW resources.

A further benefit to a project oriented class is that it allows the students to work on the project of choice. Their work is always under construction. The project driven curriculum empowers the students. By empowering them, I have transferred the responsibility of the coursework to the students. At any time, the students will be writing a book report, writing an essay, writing a poem or short story, or working on vocabulary, grammar, and spelling. These are just a few of the types of traditional lessons we can now do more efficiently on the web. More efficiently, because I never had access to many of these resources before the Internet.

There are many reasons this approach is effective. First, students select the project upon which they wish to work, which empowers the student. Secondly, this approach appeals to students of different abilities. Since we are not working simultaneously on a project, quick students can move right along while slower, more deliberate students can take their time. Thirdly, for students who might be absent due to sickness or other reasons, can make up work more easily. Fourthly, students are often found in the lab on their own time. What I find is that students work more diligently because they have control over the project upon which they choose to work; they do more, no matter what their ability; and they never fall too far behind because when absent they can work from home or in non-class time.


The students cover the traditional genres. The traditional paper is linear and provides references which the reader may not have immediate access to. With hypertext links, the student- writer can supply added information to the reader by creating hypertext links to the sources quoted or alluded to in the essay. For example if a student-writer is making reference to a poem and the reader has not read that poem nor does he have access to the poem, the essay looses effectiveness for the reader. However, if the student-writer provides a link to that poem, the reader can pause, link to the poem, read the poem and then return to the essay with more knowledge to better appreciate the essay. Hypertext provides equity in shared knowledge. Another example of hypertext might be when a student-writer needs to provide definitions of terms or words. By creating separate files containing this information the reader merely clicks on the link goes to that file and returns to the document. When student- writers write that ubiquitous research paper, linking to the sources provides great veracity to the paper. A particularly engaging exercise is Hypertext Haiku. The students write five haiku. Within each haiku they select appropriate words which will logically link them to another haiku. Rather then present the five haiku in a linear order the reader can select a word from each haiku and link to another haiku. The reader has some control by selecting an order in which the haiku will be read and the writer has some control by selecting the words which will be linked. Equity is achieved to some degree between poet and reader. More advanced uses of hypertext are possible in short stories, novels, and plays. Many fine examples of these new forms of literature are cropping up on the Internet everyday.

Perhaps one of the most worrisome aspects of Internet resources is veracity. I do not think this is a problem. Consider these salient points. First, we do not rely on just one source. By finding many resources we can compare resources. If we find a resource is really off base, we reject it, just as we would in a traditional print research search. Secondly, a resource on the Internet found to be lacking in credibility will soon find its critics writing to point out the errors. An advantage to Internet resources is that if they are blatantly wrong, they will be corrected soon. This is not so in the print world. A book with a mistake will always show that error. We teach our students to find more than one source and to judge the information they find against that which they already have. Doing research on the Internet isn t any different than doing research with books.


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 hand in work. I review their work at all stages of progress. 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. The student-writer on the web learns 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. As Internet access becomes more commonplace and universal equity in the classroom will become a reality. The Internet is the common ground and potential source of equity. I 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.