By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Eylin Salas, 14, a seventh-grader at Bronx middle school C.I.S. 339, has a contrarian streak, especially when talking to teachers. Her sixth-grade English teacher, Jesse Spevack, calls it the Eylin 'tude: She does her work, but she's not afraid to talk back and tease her teachers along the way
So it might have seemed like just more attitude when, the other day, Eylin escaped a conversation with her assistant principal to log on to a computer for what she said was "homework."
Seconds later, a stream of e-mails appeared on the right-hand side of her screen. Then a list of 100 names materialized on the left, each one accompanied by a circle glowing either red or green, depending on whether the person was available to chat or not.
The first name was Eylin's. Her circle was green. Next to it was a message: "In sKoOl lEaRnIn."
But this was no trick. Eylin had not logged on to her personal e-mail account attached to her MySpace page, but to her school account, a Google e-mail address that her teachers and principal had set up for her for the precise purpose of learning—or, as she would say, lEaRnIn.
The e-mail account is part of a larger attempt
by Eylin's teachers and principal to transform the way school works. While some parents and educators fret about MySpace, text-messaging, and online chatting degrading young people's writing quality (the librarian of Congress, James Billington, recently warned that text messages and e-mails lead to "creeping inarticulateness"), C.I.S. 339 and a growing number of schools like it are taking the opposite approach.
At 339, pencils and papers are being displaced by laptops and Google Documents, and blogging is a homework assignment. Elsewhere, social networking is part of the lesson plan; students create MySpace-like profiles with selected personal information for use in commenting on and editing each other's school essays. Other educators are encouraging students to bring cell phones to schools, saying students can use them to look up facts for projects or communicate about an assignment.
Teachers call it Learning 2.0.
"We're not afraid of what technology can bring," C.I.S. 339 principal Jason Levy said. "We're trying to infiltrate the educational side of technology. Anytime a student is at home logging into their Google Document or e-mailing their teacher, we've won that battle. That's time that they're not on MySpace."
It was apparent on a recent visit to 339 that there are many moments when Levy can say he is winning the battle. The lunch bell had not yet rung when a half-dozen sixth-graders descended upon Daniel Ackerman, C.I.S. 339's assistant principal, who was standing in a classroom doorway. They had come from lunch, and they were panting; a few held the frame of the door to catch their breath.
Ackerman looked at them sideways. Why the rush?
Earlier that morning, Emily's day had begun with a lesson on how to digest the important pieces of information from a paragraph. The room looked ordinary enough, for the Bronx: Light poured in through windows facing Webster Avenue, hitting a library area in a corner where Spevack had grouped books into bins with names like "Scary," "Funny!", "Urban Fiction," and "Friendship." A cockroach the size of a silver dollar crawled from one bookshelf to another.
But there were also signs of the transformation 339 is undergoing. Bulletin boards were covered in words printed out in Google's familiar typeface and rainbow colors. A prominent display explaining the "Writing Process" included all the traditional steps—"brainstorm, draft, revise, edit"—plus a final one, "publish."
There was no chalkboard in sight, and no pencils or loose-leaf paper, either. Instead, everyone in the room had a shiny white MacBook stamped with the words "Property of the NYC Department of Education."
Spevack's laptop projected the basic points of the lesson onto a SMART Board screen. When he wanted the class to pay attention he called out, "Pac-Man!" That was the sign for students to pull their laptop screens down toward their keyboards, like the old video-game monster chomping at a villain, and look up at the screen. Later, they returned to their own computers, to type into Google Documents answers to questions about the book displayed on the SMART Board.
At the end of the period, collecting papers was not a concern. Google Documents allows multiple users to access each document; a student's notebook is a list of documents, all shared by the student and the teacher. Often, other students join in, typing comments under a header called "Peer Feedback."
"Emily i liked your story because most of the time the good person not like the bad person like Batman," Savannah typed at the bottom of an essay Emily Torres had titled "Emily super hero."
"Emily, I liked the way you added details about the both characters in the story," Amy wrote.
Emily was pleased by the comments; this was her second round, after a first batch had told her to "add more details" and "add more names." (A bad guy became Cotton Candy Kid; the hero now had "skinny jeans and butterfly wings.")