Web Weaver Nellen

Using the web


high school student-writers


Ted Nellen


A Chapter from
Weaving a Virtual Web
edited by Sibylle Gruber, NCTE.

By today's pedagogical standards, I am a Constructivist. I have always been one since my first days as a teacher of writing in 1974. I have always believed the Deweyian idea that we learn by doing and having my students do is the best way to have my students learn how to learn. My classroom is student centered and not teacher centered. Watching students work out problems in groups or in isolation is education at its best. Constructivists use this term because students construct a solution on their own or in collaboration with others. To best illustrate my constructivist point of view, you can view my students' homepages which can be found at the following World-Wide Web URL: http://mbhs.bergtraum.k12.ny.us/work.html. Their work is organized by student and by assignment.

The World-Wide Web provides the perfect environment for the writing process. I believe this because the Web transcends desktop publishing and presentation programs. The Web provides a student-writer with complete control over the creation, from inspiration to publication. Student-writers have a wider audience, a more democratic audience, and a venue for peer review when they use the Internet. However, once access is achieved, the next question is what do I do? I will attempt to provide the reader with some of my insights about how I have boldly gone on to seek out solutions to transform a traditional writing class into a webbed writing class. I will provide a glimpse of our students and the electrified environment, the web tools we use and how we use them, the webfolio which is a wired portfolio, and student web writing results and teacher resources.

1. Electrifying the Environment

The 3200 students in our school (http://mbhs.bergtraum.k12.ny.us/) are a heterogeneous group picked from the population of every district in New York City. The age range is from 13 to 18. A third are Asian, a third are African American, and a third are Hispanic. The hallways are alive with the non-English languages which many call their mother tongue. The Internet is ideal for these students. My classroom (http://mbhs.bergtraum.k12.ny.us/comprms.html#439) has 34 computers connected to the Internet. In the classic Lancasterian mode, I have interns and colleagues in training who help in the management of the room. The interns are students from the previous year who assist the new students and teachersa in some of the technical aspects of the class. This is my teacher training model. Colleagues who wish to use the Internet in their classes also assist during my classes. By working in an active class rather than in the sterile workshop, the teacher in training will learn more effectively and quickly. My English class has become a real and virtual community.

I teach Cyber English (http://www.tnellen.com/cybereng/) which is a high school junior year English course. The students are from Special Education, Deaf and Hard of Hearing, Bilingual, and mainstream populations. The only students I do not have are the honor students who are in two honors English classes. The syllaweb (http://www.tnellen.com/cybereng/log.html) is Internet based. We include all of the elements of any other junior level English class, except we work exclusively on the Internet. The students work with all the genre: poetry, fiction, non-fiction, and drama. Each student contructs a web page which becomes his/her webfolio, the web portfolio. The webfolio is the key to the success of the class. The webfolio is their home page, it is theirs, the student's own page. It empowers each student and each student has a stake in his or her own education.

The reason I chose to use the Internet in my classroom is that it solves so many problems, bridges so many gulfs, inspires so many fertile minds, provides so much information, introduces such a large audience. The Internet is the ultimate presentation format for our students because each student becomes a publisher. The Internet provides the teacher of writing with access to the students' work right from the start and throughout the writing process. I or anyone else can access the student's work through the web page from anywhere at anytime. Since I have more access to my young student-writers, I can be more effective as a writing teacher.

A word of caution to teachers wishing to attempt this. I have worked hard to connect the classroom and its 34 computers to the Internet. I needed lots of help from technicians who created a LINUX/UNIX server for me. It took me an entire summer to set all of this up with the IP address for the school, setting up the computers, and preparing the class. In addition, I spend a lot of time maintaining the Internet connection, preparing classes, and grading papers. I would say I spend twice as much time at my craft now than I did before I had all of this power. So please be warned.

2. The Web Process

The students create their web page which is a Table of Contents for their projects. The homepage is such a powerful motivator. The students take great pride in their homepages and in their written work. The homepage demands constant care just like a garden. By the end of the year, each student has an outstanding webfolio which reflects his/her work for the year. Webfolios take the writing process to another level: publishing. The publishing process incorporates the writing process and considers the elements of layout: graphics, designs, color, font, presentation, hypertext. Publishing is the ultimate goal for any writer.

3. The Syllaweb and the Webfolio

The students follow a syllaweb, (http://www.tnellen.com/cybereng/log.html) an online syllabus accessed through an Internet browser, which explains and serves projects. The webfolio is the final web created by each student that introduces the year's work to the reading public.

The students start with three projects that help identify the writer. The three projects are a short autobiography, a poem about the Internet, and a book report about their favorite book. Much of the student's personality pours out in a short time in this new media. After they become comfortable with web writing, I request that they do 3 or 4 of the projects at the same time while maintaining their homepage. These projects include their own poetry, short story, and hypertext essays. The syllaweb reflects the wide range of choices from the classical literature found in most anthologies, classical literature not found in anthologies, and literature not yet canonized. Using relevant material makes for more receptive students. I am concerned more with creating students who learn how to learn, learn to enjoy reading and writing. To this end my students perform admirably on state standardized tests. I find it contradictory to rely on the 19th Century when we are moving into the 21st Century.

4. Specific Web Projects

Hypertext essays make every assignment a research paper. The value of using the Internet to publish student work is that the research done to create the essay was done on the Internet, hence hypertext links to the research source can more readily be made by the reader. Each web project entails Internet research, Internet hypertext links to sources, and publishing.

One such assignment used an editorial (http://www.trincoll.edu/tj/tj9.25.95/articles/violence.html) written in an online college student magazine which addressed violence in America. After the students read the editorial, they immediately went on a hunt for more information on violence. They used the popular web search engines (http://www.tnellen.com/find.html) like Yahoo, WebCrawler, Lycos, Excite, and others to find articles on violence. The students used the editorial as the base for their own essay and then used the Internet resources to augment the editorial. In their research they took it beyond the American borders as they sought information on African female genitalia mutilation, Bosnia, China, South America and other areas of violence around the world. Their essays (http://mbhs.bergtraum.k12.ny.us/ce-violence.html) were well done because of their ability to follow relevant links. The essay they each eventually wrote had hypertext links back to the articles they had read which had given them the ideas they used in their papers. Hypertext adds so much to writing because the reader can immediately access the resource the writer used to verify or to learn more about the topic. It is far superior to the tradtional research paper which merely refers to an article I would then have to seek out in a library. It is not a click away. The publishing of the essays brought in a great deal of mail of praise and support. These kudos served as fuel for my students to go on and to continue.

Another successful assignment dealt with the December Holidays (http://www.tnellen.com/cybereng/09.html). The students research Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa. Again the students sought out the information on the Internet. This multicultural essay could never have been done successfully in a traditional classroom. Hypertext essays give the reader access to the writer's sources, which makes for more authentic writing and reading. These essays became part of the database for other students trying to find out information on the three holidays. It came quite as a shock when my students received letters from other students who asked them about the holidays. My students has suddenly become experts and were being asked questions as they had asked others. Their work had become part of the database which gave it authenticity.

Perhaps one of the most exciting projects for the students was the Cyber Biographies (http://www.tnellen.com/cybereng/05.html). This project had them research the people responsible for our cyber community. Since most of these people are both alive and Internet active, the students were able to visit these folk's home pages. Some bold students even wrote email to some of these cyber pioneers. When mail came back the students were ecstatic. Publishing on the web made this interaction possible. Our students were able to access home pages of their subjects and the subjects were in turn able to view the student's web pages. In addition, these cyber biographies become resource material for future student researchers.

The project which draws the most moans and complaints is the short story project (http://www.tnellen.com/cybereng/13.html). They have to read a classic short story, online, and then write an essay. They then have to compare and contrast a classic short story with a contemporary short story. Finally they have to write their own short story. When I introduce them to this project, I am met with a great deal of resistance. However, when they start their own short story and I have let them know that it is their short story and they may write any short story they wish short of obscene. Since these students live in New York City, their short stories are fantastic and great reads. It has become their favorite project of the year. The response to their creations draws the greatest amount of mail to the writers. Publishing on the web gives the students access to a great deal of information and it provides the world access to the students' work. This two-way information flow is a powerful motivator.

A financial by-product of their web presence are job offers. Publishing web pages introduces them to potential employees. This necessitated creating an online resumé (http://www.tnellen.com/cybereng/17.html). Since this wasn't a traditional resumé, but instead a web resumé, many considerations had to be made. This project was real problem solving type of situation because it involves more advanced HTML writing, like tables, and it requires their transferring their previous knowledge of paper format to web format. This is their first step in converting from traditional format to web format on such a serious and important level. Their acceptance is easier than it is for their adult counterparts. Publishing their resumes has brought job interviews and jobs.

The students were hooked after the first day when we started their home page. They became addicts when they started receiving mail about their home pages. Introducing the students to the web was never difficult and getting them to do the work is no challenge. The biggest problem is getting them to leave when the bell rings so the next class can begin work. Attendance is always close to 100% and we never have an empty computer seat, because students without a class come to work. When school starts the next year, one of the students' first stop is to logon, check mail, and to fix some of their work on their web page. Many former students spend a great deal of time rewriting essays, adjusting their resumé, adding new papers to their web page. This is done knowing the new work will not affect a grade, they do it because they recognize the power of a published web page. Some may call it pride.

5. Publishing Produces Better Writers

The Internet enhances the writing process because the Internet provides the writer for the first time in the history of education, the power to publish his/her work. Publishing is the power, history tells us this. As the teacher, I can access their work in progress from any computer connected to the Internet. The teacher is not alone as the student's gain a wider audience. My constructivistic pedagogy is satisfied on the Internet.

One of the purposes of writing is to verify what the writer knows. When we write something down we are sorting out our knowledge and then we present it. Writing is thinking before speaking and ultimately publishing. An example of this epiphany for the young writer is when s/he sits with a writing teacher and tries to explain what was meant in a recent essay. At some point the teacher asks, "What exactly are you trying to say here?" The student immediately breaks into a long discourse on what was meant by that vague sentence. When the teacher can get a word in, the advice is to put this rambling on paper. The Writing Process is that activity which reveals to the writer his/her knowledge on a topic culminating in publishing.

Student publishing is successful because the teacher, peers, and mentors can monitor the young writer's progress at any point. This constant access allows the teacher to intervene earlier and more often in the writing process. Mistakes aren't repeated incessantly because they are caught early. Good habits are infused early in the writing process eliminating the "red ink" shock syndrome. Instead of returning a paper after the student has invested a lot of time with a low grade and disappointment, I begin looking at their work in progress from the time it comes into being. I follow its growth from beginning to publication and beyond. Students have become very good editors of their own work because they accept peer review willingly, and spend much time reviewing their work and others. Oftentimes I see students revise work months after publication.

The Internet provides audience for my students: peers and mentors. Our students are communicating with peers in Sweden, Japan, China, and Spain, (http://mbhs.bergtraum.k12.ny.us/ip.html) as well as with students around the United States. Our mentoring program, which can be found at URL: (http://www.tnellen.com/mentor/), includes an Internet community which chooses to assist me in my classroom. We have had people from the business world, retirees, college students, and peers view our students' work and then comment on it. Essentially, people who choose to be mentors do it because they have decided to interact with students. Internet mentors do not come into the classroom, but instead visit vitually. They use email to communicate and provide guidance, writing help, and audience for my young writers. Perhaps one of the greatest effects of the Internet is its access to a larger audience for young writers.

from sage to guide

I have always been a person who learned things by doing. I was told by sages that homework was practice, and everyone practiced. If I practiced throwing a ball, riding a bike, or playing the piano; then I should do my homework, they told me. When I became a guide, I dispensed the same axioms I had heard. My students practiced writing by writing. Now my students create, design, and publish their work on the Internet. They are learning about writing by writing and publishing. Publishing one's writing after all is one of the goals of writing. Publishing is an oftentime forgotten part of the writing process. The World-Wide Web changes all of that as young writers learn how to write by including publishing. Today learning by doing is called constructivism.

Looking for a better way to teach writing has been a professional goal of mine since before I became a teacher. It has taken me twenty plus years to realize the better way on the Internet. Some things I have come to realize is that each student should sit a his/her own computer. Each student should have a home page which provides immediate involvement and a sense of belonging. Provide multiple projects so the student can move from one project to another at will. Don't worry about providing all resources, leave discovery for the student. Work with the student, discover along side, show how to follow hunches, clues to discovery. Keep it simple. I would avoid glitzy, gourmet type software. Use real time applications as opposed to hypothetical situations. Look at what other teachers have done by examining their syllabi (http://www.tnellen.com/resource.html#syl) and borrow ideas. Be willing to share ideas with others. Do not go it alone.

Using computers in my writing classroom began in 1983. Now with the Internet, I believe I have come to as perfect an environment for the student-writer as possible. It has eliminated many of the negative aspects of writing while providing many positive aspects.

Write on!!