Better Basics: Learning by Doing

Better Basics:
Learning by Doing


Ted Nellen


    After 22 years of teaching high school English in public and private schools, I have found my way to better basics, not back to basics. I was schooled in the traditionalist manner and began teaching in the traditionalist manner. Then computers were introduced into my classroom soon followed by the Internet. I was able the throw away the shackles of traditionalism and celebrate my constructivist self as I now teach Cyber English. I am a renewed and rejuvenated teacher in this new educational environment. Come and share with me the joys of this better educational environment and better basics.

The bell rings: one class is over and another is about to begin, and I have a problem. The class that has just been dismissed won't leave, and students who are streaming in for the class that is about to begin cannot find seats. Attendance on many days is 100% in many of my classes. This has not always been the case. Students regularly come in during class sessions other than their own, looking for a seat so that they can work on their projects. Once a week some student comes and asks how he or she can transfer into my class. Students transferred out of my class in the normal course of events come to me and complain, asking me to help them to stay.
No, I am not dreaming: this is reality when you teach English in a computer classroom connected to the Internet. My principal and English chair are also amazed. They keep wondering when the novelty will wear off. It hasn't and I believe it won't; the situation keeps getting better. As an English teacher in a public high school in New York City, I have discovered how to keep the students in the classroom and how to bring in students who would normally not want to be there. I do it by teaching English on computers and with the Internet.
I would like to introduce you to my students. They are 11th and 12th graders in a public high school in New York City. They come from all five boroughs of the city. Ours is not one of the elite schools. My classes are made up of 33% African-American, 33% Asian, and 33% Hispanic students. We have a 50-50 boy-girl ratio. In my classes I have bilingual students, special education students, deaf students, and general education students. In both the 11th and 12th grades, we have an honors and an Advanced Placement class, neither of which I teach; this means I'm not getting the top 68 students at each grade level. To meet my students, visit them at a their Web sites. Have fun and see how I have employed better basics in cyberspace.
I have empowered the students. I have given them their own space in which to perform that which they need to perform. They are in more control of their own education and environment. I am a constructivist. The Internet has allowed me to finally practice what I have been preaching since 1974: we learn by doing. Each student creates a webfolio, an Internet hybrid of the portfolio. Their webfolios contain their year's work: essays, book reports, research papers, poetry, e-mail exchanges, and their own creations.
When I began teaching in private preparatory schools in New England in 1974, students gave me hand-written papers primarily about dead white male Euro-centric authors. Now teaching in a New York City public school, I read my students' papers about live global authors on the students' Web pages posted on the Internet.
With 34 students per class, computers have become the best way to manage education. When I began teaching in a computer room in 1984, I found I could spend my preparation time in developing software for students' use that would replace some traditional classroom activities. This early online work included electronic handouts, drill and practice exercises, other sorts of computer-assisted instruction (CAI), and educational games. I quickly discovered, though, that computers could be used to go beyond traditional classroom practices.
When it came time to teach a piece of literature, I chose a reading selection (biography, short story, poem, essay) from one of our reading books or from a source unavailable to the students. In 1984, I used students in a typing class to type the text of the reading selections into the computer. In 1988, my new updated computer room had a flat-bed scanner with optical character recognition (OCR) software. With this new setup, I was able to place the text on the scanner which copied and saved the text into my favorite word processing program language. Once I had the text online, I would then use various shareware programs to deliver my lessons on the computer. The first part of my delivery was to present the text in a text-to-screen program which let the students read the literature on the computer. The students preferred having the text delivered via computer: the text-to-screen program (I used a program made by REXXCOM Systems) allowed the students to alter the screen colors; it also allowed for automatic scrolling of the text. These two features allowed the students to manipulate and personalize the text and so to immediately feel some control over it.
The second part of the delivery was software called PC-CAI that allowed me to insert questions into the text at my discretion and that waited for the students to respond. I could ask true-false, multiple choice, fill in the blank, and short- answer questions, inserting a question into the text at the point where I would have asked it in a traditional class. In the traditional class, however, few students would respond to the question. With the computers I was guaranteed that all of the students would answer all of the questions. Once they entered their answers, the students received immediate feedback and were given my presentation of the correct answer. Given the choice, students were always more likely to read a text on the screen than in the book. I know this because they always had the choice. The book with the story was sitting next to the computer.
As they read, the students took notes that could be used on the quiz and essay that would follow the reading. The quiz was administered on the computer in a program called TESTER. It presented the questions and answers in random order so no two quizzes were the same. Finally the student wrote an essay on the reading selection. Once all of this had been accomplished and each student had invested some time in the work, we could sit and have a meaningful and fruitful dialogue about the reading. More information about the software I use in my classroom.
Once the students had read the literature, we began the writing process that generated my grammar lessons. Grammar lessons were generated from the students' own work. If a student showed a weakness in subject-verb agreement or parallelism, I needed to develop software that would help the student overcome that weakness. I couldn't use canned sentences that meant nothing to the student; I had to use their own work to show them how to fix their own work. But the key was that they had to fix it, not me. Most commercially produced software was totally inadequate: how could someone who was not working with my students prepare exercises for my classroom? Word games like hangman, word definition games, and the like were interesting diversions, but they could never be taken seriously as educational tools. I have also found too many mistakes and contradictions in such commercial software. The shareware software named and described above were "engines" that ran the text I wished to present to my classes and was text written by me. So I would take a short story, scan it, use the scanned text in the REXXCOM software, which allowed the students to read the text. Then I would add questions to the text and use the PC-CAI software to deliver it to the students. TESTER would administer the questions asked in a random order to test their notetaking and comprehension skills. Finally, I would glean from their essays, written in a popular commercial word processing program, grammar errors which would be infused into my PC-CAI software for personalized grammar lessons.
After the grammar lessons and literature quizzes had been done, the real fun began: writing. The word processor allowed students not just to type, but to mark and move blocks of text. This single function eliminated much of the drudge work accompanying the writing of a paper. For example, if a paper took two hours to write, the student would spend one-and-a-half hours writing and typing and retyping it and only a half-an-hour thinking. With the word processor and its unique cut-and-paste feature, the student could spend one-and-a-half hours thinking and merely a half-an-hour typing. With word processing, the content of my students' papers improved markedly. Word processing also helped eliminate any stigma attached to a student's writing because of poor penmanship. Handwriting was no longer a factor in how I judged student papers.
My current class is called Cyber English. I have two 11th and two 12th grade classes of 34 students each. What is taught in one semester or year is not taught the next semester or year. It is not a static environment. The curriculum concept I use is to work backwards in time. That is, I have the students begin with the current literature that we find on the Internet. This literature is written about today and tomorrow with obvious references to yesterday. The students explore these links to yesterday as they become curious about literary and historical references. For instance in Dinty Moore's The Emperor's Virtual Clothes published in 1995, which is about the Internet Community, the author makes constant references to Henry David Thoreau's Walden. In fact Moore's book utilizes the Thoreau connection as one giant extended metaphor. Reading Moore, my students became curious about Thoreau--so curious that some wanted to read him, and did. Because of the diverse backgrounds of my students, I cannot expect them to walk into my class with common knowledge of American history or tradition. Many are newcomers to this country. Rather than overwhelm them with too much too soon, I provide specific references to and resources about the past when the need arises from the allusions made in today's works. I can no longer teach homogeneously in such a heterogeneous class. Another example of how I work backwards in time occurs when we consider female writers. Eventually we get around to who the first American women writers were and I can then lead them to Anne Bradstreet, Abigail Adams, Sojourner Truth, and many others without them moaning and groaning. Another example is having them read Brock Meeks, who helps make my segue to Thomas Paine is painless. The point is that today's work has relevance to my students: they can relate to the issues addressed by today's writers. I have a hard time with constantly reading about the past when I am always reminded we are training tomorrow's leaders and workers. I find it strange that we use yesterday exclusively to prepare for tomorrow. I question how many literature and history courses actually get close to studying current literature and history. Most fall far short, leaving huge gaps and unresolved questions about how we got to today. No, I cannot relate to yesterday easily. It requires presenting a great deal of information that is external to my and my students' experience. So when I teach The Scarlet Letter to today's students, they ask questions that are correct for today but not for yesterday. I question explaining the circumstances of the novel's plot and characters when they aren't applicable to today. I believe that we do not study the past so we don't repeat it, but instead because it is easier for teachers who do not want to or cannot deal with present literature. It is easier for someone to teach that which has been said to be good than to be a discriminat- ing reader. We cannot readily or adequately use yesterdays's literature to teach writing or language because it is written in a style not used today. If the literature sounds funny to me, imagine how it sounds to them. No, I start with today and reach back when it is meaningful. The students cannot relate to yesterday's writers. However, the reason today's writer's can say what they say and write as they write is because of yesterday's writer's.
In New York City we are required to provide socially related lessons in such areas as multicultural awareness, drug abuse, teen pregnancy, AIDS, and non-violence. High school literature anthologies do not contain works on such topics. These subjects are best accessed on the Internet or through current print journals and newspapers.
The Internet has provided me with a fantastic resource to tap and with access to the literature of the multicultural world. We have a complete listing of Internet sites containing literature at our own site, which include books and zines. At the first site, we have links to books that are electronically accessible. The second site contains links to electronic magazines and journals. These resources are popping up on the Internet faster than our publishers can publish the books for distribution in class. I have so many sources I can tap to satisfy the needs of my students that I am sometimes overwhelmed. I have access to short stories, essays, and writings from all the peoples of the world. This is crucial, because my class is peopled by people from all over the world. They will coexist in a multicultural environ- ment. The nature of the world does not allow for nor provide for isolationism. We are co-existing and co-mingling. It behooves us as teachers to be sure our students are exposed to more than what we were exposed to when we were students. The Internet allows me to provide a banquet for my students to feast on and to participate in preparing.
The amount of recent literature on the Internet is staggering. With the editor's permission, I downloaded a copy of a short story anthology called Verbiage and had my students read the nine short stories, write an analysis of five of them, and then write their own short story. Having my students read these stories gave them critical skills I need to have them develop. They had to trust their own judgment on these stories which weren't classics, and so did not come loaded with other readers' prejudices. The students read with fresh eyes and clear minds. Another source of literature has been the Trinity College online magazine which is created by students. My students read a fall issue that contained an editorial on violence in America. Using this editorial as a starting place, my students used Internet search tools like Yahoo, Excite, and other search engines for a research project that led to their writing a hypertext essay on violence. Another project involved their doing research for an essay called Cyber Biographies on the VIPs and notorious characters of the Internet. We are covering all of the genres of a good literature class, but on the Internet.
Using traditional printed literature anthologies, I have run or tried to run this kind of literature class in the past with little success. This year, I had no problems. In fact the work this year was far better than in years past. The stories that the students read were relevant to today, using today's themes, language, and settings. The students found the same themes, characterization, conflicts, and literary devices that are found and forced on them when the 'classics' are taught. The main difference was that the students themselves found the literary elements in this literature rather then hearing about them from the teacher. They were involved in their own education. The short stories they read were, for them, great reading and not boring like those they've read (and I've taught) in years past.
Publishing on the Internet gives students an audience that isn't the teacher and provides students with criticism that isn't just the teacher's comments. Each of my students created his or her own Web page. This Web page was a webfolio, a collection of works in progress. The webfolio became the semester's or the year's work. The work included their own poetry, essays, short story, biography, and autobiography. In addition they worked with design concepts, graphics, color, and a number of publishing concepts borrowed from print media. My students became aware of being correct in reporting because someone would find the errors in their work. Their writing became better because more than just their English teacher corrected their grammar. In our Adopt-A-Student program, mentors from all walks of life are involved with the development of our students. I was ecstatic when one of my students shouted out, while reading e-mail from her mentor, "He is fixing my grammar, and he isn't even an English teacher." Even the students' content improved because others asked, "So what?" The key was that the audience increased from one to many. That had a positive impact on students' performance.
Some examples of the dialogue between my students and other people from outside our class follows.
Our initial assignment is called "I am," which provides viewers with a brief autobiographical sketch of each student. The students choose what to include. The student who received the following e-mail became good friends with the sender because they discovered they had many things in common. This message was sent by a student from another high school in which we were establishing an email link. The teacher, who found our site from a listserv on which we were both members, asked if her students could begin an email correspondence with my students. Since my students had already placed work on the Internet with their web pages, I suggested that her students look at my students' work and start the conversation after viewing my students' work. This is one such letter. Hi! My name is (name) from (school) High School I am also sixteen years old and I LOVE Stephen King! I hate Star Trek, sci-fi nov- els, and philosophy also I love to read horror books and it would be nice to someday meet Stephen King I would like to someday be a criminal lawyer(hopefully) I should probably tell you that I am responding to your E-Mail Message that I received in my computer class, just in case your wondering If you would like to write back to me, my e-mail address is (e-mail) Hope to hear from you Sorry so short, I'm running out of time and I must get to my next class Bye!
Oftentimes, my students would receive mail like the following. Unsolicited mail like this that encourages and praises can add immensely to the learning process. The students expect it of their teachers, but not from outsiders. This first set of messages was exchanged between two students:
Student A:
I was browsing on the web when I discovered your very
interesting homepage
Keep up the good work!
Student B's Reply:
Dear (name)
Hi! How are you? Happy to hear from you (Whoever
you are)
Thanks for reading my homepage My homepage is now
under construction, and later on I plan to put more
interesting picture in there Well, are you from Bronx
Science? And try to tell me more about you.
Now let me introduce myself (Eventually I don't
have to, If you already visit my page, you should know
everything already) Anyway I hope we could be friend
That it for now Talk to you later I look forward for
your reply.
Student A's Reply:
Thank you for your kindest words Well, I am just a
sophomore at BxSci and have just started using the
internet as well as trying to build my own page. It is
still under construction I can see that your homepage
has a lot of essays and short writings If you plan to
add more pictures, it would probably be better It is
already very nice organized =)
Another student response to a student Web page:
Found your page interesting My school is doing
something similar only we are linking with some school
in Iowa Anyway, keep up the good work.
All English students do book reports. In our class we read cyber-, computer-, and Internet-related books. One student received the following response to a book report that she included in her webfolio.
Subject: Re: Stanislaw Lem: The Cyberiad
If this was part of a class assignment then feel free
to tell your teacher the Chicken Guy says "A+"
Keep up the hard work
One of the most powerful aspects of the Internet in the classroom is the helpful people on line. Students, teachers, and mentors all get involved in educating each other. It truly does take a village to educate the child.
Student to student:
Hello (name)
Thanks for the mail I'm glad that you like the picture.
I'd like to fix my web page up so if you got any ideas
tell me. If you know any thing about cars then maybe
you can help me I'm having a problem with my lights and
the gas gauges I think that it is a short so if you can
help write back but even if you can't I'd like to here
from you again any way I have to go So write back soon
I can use all the info I can get
(name) Reply: Yeah (name),
my name is (name) I am a student at Cummings High School in North Carolina I love your car If you need any help on the design of your web page, and if that is allowed on this project all you have to do is ask? Ok? If you want to see what I can do come to my site at: (http address) There you can get software, e-mail me, and find out some of MY interests C'ya in cyberspace (name) A teacher to a student: (name), your page is very beautiful! It caught my eye right away and actually encouraged me to read all of your selections My husband and I are teachers I am home with the kids; he is at Seward Park HS My criticism is this: while your writing is well thought out, you are presenting work that can be accessed internationally Watch your spelling/proofread You might also want to form your paragraphs in such a way so that they are easy to read You and your classmates are invited to go to http//shaktitrincolledu/~bpeery/NYChtml This is one page I keep returning to Good luck and congratulate your teacher for putting together such a cleverly integrated program. (name)
The preceding e-mail correspondences are just a sampling of what transpires every day in my classroom. This correspondence is an intregal part of the students' coursework as it serves to augment what I try to do in the classroom. It further provides my students with different voices and perspectives. I have found that a mentor, another student, or another teacher can often provide an answer to one of my student's questions that is better than the answer I can offer.
In writing about literature, perhaps one of the strongest applications of computers that I use is peer review. Students write at the computers. After some time, they stop, save their work, and get up. They then move one seat to the right and read the paper on the screen. They leave notes on a piece of paper left by the writer. After doing this for awhile or as time allows, the students return to their seats and review the notes left and act according to the messages. I, of course, read a printed copy before the work is finally transferred to their home page. Once it is posted on the Internet, other people see it and comment back. The comments they receive from the outside are insightful, intelligent, and helpful. The students respond by correcting their work. Once the work is posted students are required to read at least five other writing samples from the class and are to respond to each with a critical comment. I have found that this process has made them stronger writers and better readers. They are developing that critical eye. They can explain why they like or dislike something beyond that ubiquitous shrug and "I don't know, I just do/don't like it." They are learning the language of criticism from outsiders, from themselves, and from me. And the work we are talking about is theirs, which makes it relevant to them.
I find that my students who work on the computer and interact on the Internet have become far more socially active. They assist each other in solving computer problems and questions. They communicate with each other and with others via e-mail. They are writing to each other, speaking to each other, and generally communicating far more than I have seen high school students communicate in the past. They are working with students in another country or time zone as if those students were here. For example, some students worked on a project with students in Alaska, another with students from Japan, another with students from Sweden, another with students from California, Washington, upstate New York, Quebec. The assignments included participating in an e-mail project, a home page design project, sharing views on literature, and just collaborating on work. The assignments come from our syllabus, which can be found at or they are generated by a student from another class who contacts my students about collaborating on a project.
Often I have heard one student ask another to e-mail a message about something academic or personal. Reading a book is antiso- cial. How easy it is for someone to shut the world off when engrossed in a book. Libraries are not social places because quiet is the rule and it is strictly enforced. No, I don't think the Internet or computers are anti-social. They are just the opposite. I have seen in a short period the most introverted of students become sociable, and the extroverts become tempered. They do not sleep or just lurk for long in cyberspace; they log off or participate.
Let me provide a real life scenario. One of my students, Beth (not her real name), had a neat home page. We had been receiving mail from students in California commenting on our students' work. This project was begun when a teacher in California read one of my messages on a listserv and wrote to me asking to have her students correspond with my class. I wrote to the teacher, suggesting she have her students view my students' work and then have her students respond to the author whose work they liked. Beth called me over and said she was getting weird mail from someone. I sat down at her computer and read the letter. It was not nice. The writer, a student, was using language Beth deemed inappropriate and was saying things that offended us both. She told me that she knew there were more letters that she hadn't read. I proceeded to read the remaining letters myself, while Beth got a drink of water. What happened next was absolutely astonishing. The lad from California began to calm down and actually say some neat things about Beth's work. His final letter was fantastic and full of praise for her work. I showed her the next three letters, and forwarded all four to me so I could write to the California student's teacher to find out some facts. After she had read the next three letters, Beth decided to write back. To cut to the chase, Beth and this boy, who apologized profusely, became good friends. He was forced by his teacher to read Beth's work and then to respond by e-mail. The bad messages were his way of reacting. However, he came to like what he read and was sorry for his first reaction. The teacher, in California, wrote to me apologizing profusely, explaining that he was a problem in class and wasn't supposed to send e-mail without her first reading it. However, she was amazed at how receptive he became to Beth's work and how remorseful he had become. He is now an avid, responsible user of the net. Put this same situation in a face-to-face context and we would be in conflict mediation and nothing this positive would have resulted. The student in question eventually made the choice to modify his own behavior through continued exposure and through a dialogue. The Internet provided the space in which the violent behavior was tempered without harm to anyone. The young boy, as I learned from the teacher in California, was a problem student. His initial reaction to everything was always confrontational. However, the Internet provided him with a new environment. His normal behavior was not modified until he encountered the Internet. The Internet was crucial in modifying his behavior when traditional methods had failed. In fact allowing him access to the net allowed for him to behave in his normal way, but this time he corrected himself, instead of his being corrected by an authority figure. I saw this as very positive proof that distant conflict resolution was possible.
One of the most exciting aspects of the Internet I have discovered has been using mentors. Mentors are adults who wish to be involved in their community's youth programs; their involvement may include education, recreation, or guidance. The Internet has enlarged that community beyond one's own real community. Adults with access to the Internet can serve as mentors to students around the world. Many businesses encourage a mentoring program at work. While using the Internet, workers can provide their expertise in distant or local classrooms while still sitting at their desks. It does not take much of their time and provides a great deal of support to the classroom teacher while also providing the student with outside assistance and a different point of view. We are involved in a program called Adopt-A-Student. Our school site was found by Kathy Casper of InfoQuest who runs a list and Web site geared to the business world. Casper is a member of the HTML Writer's Guild which is an organization of Internet writers, and she provides her 2000+ members with weekly digests of Internet related happenings. She began providing a synopsis of my students' work to her audience as a pet project of her Free Launch page Her readers began viewing my students' Web pages. These business people began writing to my students offering HTML assistance, giving writing tips, and providing advice. It became a great success. Rather than have one teacher, each student was adopted by other teachers. One student gathered 10 mentors.
Why is mentoring important? First of all it gives me more credibility in the classroom. These mentors were saying the same things I was saying. I'm the English teacher and I'm supposed to say it. Secondly, it provided the students with another resource. It gave me more assistants to complete my tasks. I found students writing to their mentors for advice rather than asking me. My students were becoming resourceful. Now education was happening. They were asking intelligent questions, understanding the answers and growing. I was satisfied, they were satisfied, and the mentors were impressed. This program has introduced my students to others outside their New York City environment. What is so powerful about this is that we are actually realizing the fruits of the concept of partnership with business and with other resources outside the school. Perhaps one of the reasons partnership failed was that the outside partners could not get to the school. With the Internet, people in offices around the world can enter a classroom anywhere. Classrooms can tap the resources of retired teachers, retired professionals, and people who want to help in the classroom but can't make a personal appearance.
Another scenario involves my students being mentors to younger students. The Santa program run by the Global SchoolHouse Foundation matches up older students who act as Santas with younger students who e-mail Santa. What began as a simple exercise in writing simple Santa letters turned into considerably more. After the Santa exchange was done, we learned that the teacher of our partner school had discovered she had cancer. We were told this news was devastating to her second graders. My twelfth graders, too, were touched. They knew those little ones needed help and they provided it. The compassion and the general humanity that poured from my students was astonishing. They used anecdotes and incidents from their own lives to comfort and cajole the young- sters. I wondered where they learned this. From their own families said some, from their peers said some, and from their readings said still others. They expressed themselves in writing beautifully and elegantly. I felt a great deal of pride for my class.
Another source of important reading comes from the New York Times OnLine every day. We used the articles in our school-to- school projects. With students in Japan, our students were discussing such topics as abortion, rap music, politics, and baseball. For each topic the American and Japanese students had completely different interpretations. Both groups of students came to the table with established ideas and concepts based on their own culture. The students read the New York Times articles and then shared in an e-mail and/or listserv discussion about the readings. Through their reading and discussion, both groups of students modified their beliefs and concepts based on the beliefs and concepts of the other group. The students eventually created essays that reflected their new understanding of these tricky topics. Cross cultural discussions like this are crucial in creating better citizens. Jefferson encouraged education and created a plan to educate the citizenry so that they would be more educated voters. Now we are in the business of creating better citizens of the world.
In my classes my students are not falling asleep and they are not bored with time-worn literature. My students are very active, interested and involved. On those standardized tests so many put so much stock in showed my students out-perform both their predecessors and the honors and AP classes in our school-- and, I would dare say, in other schools as well. The percentages of students passing those tests in my classes were equal and better than those in the honors classes. In fact, my percentage of students taking the tests is higher than all classes but one honors class. Why? Because they are involved in their own education, they are empowered. They are not being force-fed. They are working at their own pace and with their own determination and with their own reasons. What we have been able to do is to motivate our students to want to learn and to demonstrate their knowledge.