Glimpses Into
at Chicago

November 21-26, 1996

A Little Technology, A Little Poetry, a Portfolio or Two

When High School Students and Prospective English Teachers Meet on the Internet: Discoveries From Weekly E-Mail Dialogues

From January through early May of one semester, twelve preservice English teachers at Indiana University of Pennsylvania paired up with twelve juniors and seniors from Butler High School in Pennsylvania and corresponded by email. In Linda Norris's talk entitled "High School Students Correspond by E-Mail and Shadowing: A New Partnership for Teacher Preparation," Norris explained that both the preservice teachers and the high school students were given opportunities to visit each other's academic environments, in addition to exchanging weekly email exchanges for fifteen weeks.

"How might preservice teachers benefit from continued electronic correspondence about and immersion in a high school student's environment? . . . In what ways can a project such as this help preservice teachers to gain further pedagogical content knowledge and context knowledge than their methods courses and other clinical experiences can provide before student teaching?" These questions as well as others were posed by Norris and speaker Kimberly M. Vero-Lynn.

Social issues in the classroom became important in email discussion. One high school student gave this advice: "Don't just think that your class is the only one your students have." These prospective teachers discovered that some high school students had demanding work schedules, that relationships were extremely important, and that drugs were common among the students. In an email message to a student, one preservice teacher commented, "I feel that it is important for my students to teach me something new."

Several of the preservice teachers and high school (or former high school) students discussed their electronic correspondence. One pair found their correspondence difficult. Preservice teacher Toni Ann Pilla got frustrated because her partner, Tammy Okeson, didn't respond to her letters, or, on the occasions when Okeson did, "The letters I received were not representative of Tammy's ideas or capabilities," Pilla said. On the day that Pilla shadowed Okeson, she discovered that the times allotted for Okeson to write letters did not fit with the high school girl's schedule. Okeson was a single parent to a 14-month-old and had a job after school. This didn't leave much time for email correspondence. Pilla said, "Both shadowing experiences proved a vital part of the project for Tammy and myself."

Although I didn't stay for the entire presentation, I learned that preservice teachers and high school students could establish a good relationship on the Internet and help each other to understand what works or doesn't work in the classroom. It occurred to me that my colleague and mentor Nancy Zuercher, who teaches a course in English for preservice teachers at the University of South Dakota, would have enjoyed this particular session. She was attending a session of the National Writing Project at the time; we had decided that we would exchange information on the sessions we each attended and double our learning experience.

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Do It Write--Technically Write: Using Computers to Enhance Process Writing and Reading

I also caught the last 20 minutes of a session entitled, "Do It Write--Technically Write: Using Computers to Enhance Process Writing and Reading," which appeared for the most part, to be aimed at teachers for grades 6-12. This large room was packed with teachers. Using a big screen projector, one of the demonstrators was showing the audience how to use Holt, Rinehart and Winston's Writer's Workshop and Language Workshop.

Because the presenters were out of handouts, they provided a sign-up sheet for people who wanted one sent to them; a few weeks after the NCTE Conference, a 33-page handout showed up in my mailbox in Vermillion. The handout provided clear explanations of several programs. Prentice Hall's Writer's Helper for Windows features prewriting activities and revising tools to help students with their essays. The program seemed appropriate for the high-school level. Holt, Rinehart and Winston's Writer's Workshop 2, described as a multimedia CD-ROM program designed for high school students, could be used with either a Macintosh or a Windows operating system. It helps students create different kinds of essays, such as autobiographical incident or cause/effect. The program breaks down the writing steps into prewriting, drafting, revising, proofreading, and publishing. The publisher also makes specific recommendations for using the program at different grade levels (9-12). Writer's Workshop CD-ROM software differs from Writer's Workshop 2 in that it is aimed at the lower grades levels (6-8). Language Workshop CD-ROM is a grade-level specific interactive multimedia software program designed to help students learn grammar, usage, and mechanics. It can be used with Macintosh as well as Windows platforms and can be set up to meet individual students' needs. Write On! is an interactive software program that provides writing activities for grades K-12; students are guided in writing stories, poems, journals, paragraphs, and essays. This program also breaks down writing into a series of steps--prewriting, writing, rewriting/editing, and publishing.

All of these programs could be adapted to responding to literature/reading assignments, often working hand-in-hand with corresponding texts sold by the same publisher. Most of these publishers had booths set up in Exhibit Hall at the Chicago Convention and offered teachers the opportunity to try out their programs. They also handed out demo programs to try at home.

As a writer who struggles to get published in literary journals, I find it interesting that all of these programs refer to "publishing" as the last step in the writing process. Publishing in this case simply means using a printer hooked up to the computer to print out the completed writing assignments of the students. It suggests that all writers now have the power to publish themselves without the risk of rejection. I realize the publishers probably borrowed this usage of the word from educators, but I'm not sure if it's appropriate. Certainly, the goal of getting students excited about seeing their words in print is admirable.

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Student-Published Literature Anthologies: The Computer as a Medium for Literary Insight

In a creative use of CD-ROM technology, presenter Collett B. Dilworth discussed how high school students can pick a word like "love" or "peace," do a word search on a CD-ROM containing only literary works, and come up with a list of passages/lines containing only that word. Each student can then write an analysis of each passage or set of lines with the common word as the unifying theme. Next, the student can do rough page layouts on computer in a word processing package, selecting pictures that can be scanned in on a scanner and imported into the word processing program. Dilworth emphasized that the pictures must not function simply as illustrations but somehow add to the story, possibly suggesting a theme. After the pages are done, students can put them together into books. Dilworth mentioned that some of the books that the students had made were placed in a dentist's office for reading! I can only imagine waiting for my root canal and reading about Shakespeare's use of the word "pain" in Hamlet. . . .

An alternative to doing a word search on a CD, Dilworth said, was accessing the Internet and downloading texts that are not copyrighted--for example, most 19th-century literature. Copyright is not necessarily a problem, however, if the students are simplying reviewing small sections of a text. He suggested downloading literary texts from a web site such as Project Gutenberg for this project.

Dilworth stressed that it is important in reviewing a text that the student does not simply retell the story; instead, the student must explain what the selected passages have in common. For example, a discussion of the word "love" in selected passages of MacBeth reveals that love becomes perverted in the play. One of the goals of this assignment, he explained, is to "open the reader up," that responding to literature in this way "prompts thought and further reading"--certainly, positive goals.

The assignment, Dilworth explained, was to "write an essay to be read by real readers," people "who've read the literature but haven't thought much about it." It struck me that the writers, knowing that the public might be reading these reviews, would become very aware of audience as they wrote. The audience had been expanded from teacher and possibly their peers to members of their community, no doubt encouraging students to feel that writing the reviews had a purpose beyond fulfilling an assignment for the class.

The next step seems obvious: hypertext those articles and put them on the Web, with the world as the audience!

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Behind the Bureau and On Top of the Refrigerator: Ethnographic Writing

In his speech, "Behind the Bureau and On Top of the Refrigerator: The Writer's Portfolio," Geof Hewitt discussed assessing portfolios using the state of Vermont's official rubric, breaking down writing into five areas: purpose, organization, detail, voice/tone, and control over grammar, usage, and mechanics. Although I did not hear his entire speech, one comment struck me. In official assessment of the portfolios, the state did not recognize poetry. What kind of message does this send to students about the importance of poetry? In addressing this problem, Hewitt showed us a brochure he put together for teachers on using portfolios, which suggested that students may want to keep two portfolios--one to meet state requirements and one which presumably does not meet state requirements, which might include poetry.

Hewitt passed out a sheet that displayed a graph of Vermont's portfolio rubric. The focus, however, was an exercise for working with voice/tone, taken from Hewitt's work entitled A Portfolio Primer--Teaching, Collecting, and Assessing Student Writing (Heinemann Publishers, 1995), in which students wrote quickly for seven minutes, being conscious of voice or tone.

Having used portfolios on a limited basis, I was encouraged to try again, using some of Hewitt's ideas. But I couldn't help thinking about the state's refusal to assess poetry in the portfolio; perhaps, it amounted to an inability to assess poetry? I wondered if one possible solution might be to assess a fixed-form poem such as a sonnet, a villanelle, or a sestina.

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Richard Beach thoughtfully provided a photocopy of his speech, "Conducting Media/School Ethnographies." He explained how students adopted an outsider or "Martian" perspective in order to study people and groups around them with greater objectivity--for example, how people behaved at athletic events, in restaurants, or at ceremonies. They wrote descriptive papers about what they discovered.

In preparation for this task, the students examined groups as micro-cultures, read examples of ethnographies, discussed how "a group's micro-culture influences individual group member's responses to texts," selected topics, and posed questions on which to focus. They then selected groups for observation, interviewed group members, and collected information.

Before beginning to write, they needed to analyze the results of their findings; in particular, if the ethnographies have a media focus, Beach explained that "students may also describe the particular aspects of texts that evoke or invite certain responses." Beach provided the example of a newsgroup, explaining how "flaming" (insulting other participants in the newsgroup) was considered inappropriate; usually, other group members admonished the flamer.

Beach concluded that, "in studying how others respond to text, students will better understand their own responses." Given that my knowledge of literary theory is limited, it seems to me that this approach combines reader-response criticism and sociological criticism, with the focus on how readers and viewers are influenced by their own attitudes and experiences as they respond to a text.

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Patti Capel Swartz's talk, entitled "How This Life Story Affects My Life Story: Student Narrative Responses to Multicultural and Lesbian and Gay Narratives, Essays and Issues," was especially thought-provoking for me. Although I have consciously made an effort to include multicultural works in my literature classes, I had not considered the importance of including lesbian or gay narratives.

In what appeared to be another combined usage of reader-response and sociological criticism, Swartz recommended that students discuss and write about assigned readings of multicultural, lesbian, and gay writings. The focus would be on helping students to understand how the issues in these works relate to their own lives and to reduce fear and and hostility toward others different from themselves.

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Electronic Journals: How Telecommunication Helped Preservice Teachers Learn and Grow

Speakers Liz C. Stephens and Margaret Hill talked about their experiences using a newsgroup and email with a group of preservice teachers at the University of Houston in Clear Lake. Stephens said that the student teachers grudgingly learned how to use a newsgroup to discuss their common problems and concerns in tutoring at-risk elementary school children. They were expected to post at least ten times to the course newsgroup, with this "electronic journal" (the combined postings of all the preservice teachers to the newsgroup) counting for 25 percent of their grade. Even though all of the preservice teachers had taken a basic computer course, many of them were uncomfortable using computers.

After a few months, many of them became enthusiastic users of the newsgroup and had developed into a real community. The presenters said that this group of student teachers had bonded more as a group than previous groups had.

Strands of discussion on the newsgroup included readings (the three books assigned for the course), site experience, professional development activities, and thoughts about technology. Although Stevens said she initiated these strands, she did not participate in the discussions, nor did Hill. They both felt the newsgroup should be for the students only. Students had to answers other students' questions; this helped them to build support for each other. Students were aware, however, that the teachers were "lurking" or monitoring the discussions on the newsgroup.

In examining the advantages of having the newsgroup, shy students tended to be more articulate in the newsgroup than they were in class; eventually, this gave them more confidence in the class itself. The group also established a camradery, and it also forced students to learn how to use the technology.

The disadvantages were many. Computer knowledge varied; for some students, accessing the newsgroup meant a drive to campus or a long-distance call; computer support was difficult to provide; some complained that the newsgroup became overwhelming, with as many as 20 messages a day to read; and some strands were not useful or pertinent to the subject. In spite of these disadvantages, most of the members of the class felt that learning how to use a newsgroup was extremely valuable.

In visiting with both Stephens and Hill before their presentation, I learned that they prefer newsgroups to listservs primarily because their mailboxes do not fill up with messages. (When you subscribe to a listserv, you are vulnerable to receiving an infinite number of messages.)

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So Now You Have One Computer in Your Classroom: What Are You Going to Do With It?

On Saturday afternoon, I sat in on a presentation in the Computer Demonstration Mall that focused on some software programs and ideas for making use of a single computer. Interestingly enough, the presenters were having problems with getting the newly-installed software to work properly on the PowerBook they were using. Lesson learned: technology teaches you the importance of flexibility and thinking quickly on your feet. . . . One of the presenters discussed having a student take notes using the computer while the teacher lectures/presents. Then the teacher asks the student to read back to the class the notes and the teacher can see what the student(s) did or didn't get and clarify further. That seemed quite useful.

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WILLA General Membership Meeting and Program

Nonmembers as well as members of WILLA (Women in Literature and Life Assembly of NCTE) were invited to attend this WILLA-sponsored program. First, we watched a presentation on a large TV screen about St. Louis teacher Cissy Lacks getting fired from her job at Berkeley High School. What evidently got Lacks into trouble was a videotape of a play Lacks' students put together in creative writing, in which the characters, played by students, used swear words and pretended to urinate on another character. The school administration and many parents were upset by this tape; eventually, Lacks was fired. The screen presentation included clips from news programs and interviews with people on both sides of the issue.

After the screen presentation, Lacks talked to us about what happened in greater detail. At one point, she said that the school administration took examples of student writings (as well as the video tape) without asking the students' permission to use as evidence against her; in addition, they threw out student work that didn't support their case against her. When she mentioned this, a collective gasp went up around the room; this room was filled with teachers who were understandably horrified at the disrespect shown for students and their work. It appeared that Lacks was fired for being a good teacher and that censorship was the main issue, although, because Lacks was a white teacher in a mostly black school, race also entered into this troubling situation. Lacks is currently fighting to get her job back. When asked if she would really go back into that school to teach again, Lacks said that she would; she felt it was the right thing to do.

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Moon Journals: Telling Nature's Stories Through Inquiry, Writing, and Art

This was the session I enjoyed most. Joni Chancer and Gina Rester-Zodrow talked about recording in a journal on a daily basis the changes in the moon. Students were instructed to observe the night sky every night for a month. They could record their observations any number of ways, through scientific observations, poems, questions, diary entries, stories--it was left up to the student. Students were encouraged to draw, paint, write, and cut and paste in their journals, with a focus on the moon. Writing and art were combined, with the idea that the writing completed the art and the art completed the writing--each was incomplete without the other. Many of the journal writings resulted in interesting poems, and some of the journals were quite beautiful. I noticed that the room was packed for this session and that only one person got up to leave before the session was over. The presenters gave handmade mini-journals to many who attended the session, although there were not enough for everyone present.

It would be wonderful to design a creative "moon" web site and display some of these writings and art works on the web site to share with the world. That seemed to me to be a possible next step.

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Concluding Remarks

I enjoyed a little technology, a little poetry, a portfolio or two, and a lot of good teaching at the NCTE Conference. I learned much from teachers at every level, from kindergarten through college (those grade boundaries don't matter when it comes to good teaching). It was interesting to see the creativity of teachers in applying computer technology. It's clear that technology can enhance and support teaching; it doesn't replace it.

Shuttling back and forth between two hotels, the Palmer and the Hilton, in downtown Chicago worked fine. Occasionally, I walked instead since it only took ten minutes of brisk walking to get from one hotel to the the other. It would have been nice if sessions could have been held at one hotel, although, considering how many concurrent sessions the NCTE sponsored, that would probably have been downright impossible. Sessions of the National Writing Project were scheduled at a hotel in between the Hilton and the Palmer, and shuttles stopped there as well. One of my regrets was not getting to hear Al Pacino talk about his film Looking for Richard; another was losing track of time while I was walking through Exhibit Hall looking at books and trying out computer programs and, in the process, missing a session I dearly wanted to attend. But, overall, this was a great first NCTE conference for me. It was exhilarating to meet teachers from all over the United States, people who cared enough about teaching to travel to the City of the Big Shoulders.

Rogge Day Hurwitz

Comments to Michelle Rogge Gannon

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