'Learning 2.0' Brings Schools into the Digital Age
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?
It's social-studies class, said 10-year-old Emily Torres. "And sometimes we go on Google Earth!"
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.")
Four weeks into school, the students said they were enjoying the lessons. They had already created a list of documents, e-mail accounts, and blogs, and were piling the computers full of thoughts on a series of books they read every night at home. Emily Torres had already read a Nancy Drew book, a book called Rotten School, and another called Captain Underpants.
She listed the books in her first blog post, visible to the world at Emily605.blogspot.com. The post also includes her goals for the year: two years of growth in reading and two years of growth in writing.
Spevack said that such progress is possible. Last year, he said, Eylin, who started out at about a third-grade level, left the class at nearly a sixth-grade level.
"About half of that happened between March and June, which is the time she was on the computer," Spevack said.
Twenty-four schools are part of iTeach iLearn, the city's pilot program that helped Levy's school get its technology. Though Levy and his staff only started at the school in 2005, they have already become a traveling team of experts, presenting their results at national and local conferences on instructional technology.
They join a hodgepodge group of educational-technology mavens around the country peddling the promise of the new technology. The group mostly gathers (surprise!) online, through blogs, YouTube, and social-networking sites, including one called Classroom 2.0, where more than 12,000 members share ideas ranging from their thoughts on John Dewey to tips on how to import shots of their computer screens into PowerPoint presentations. The idea that unites them is that new technologies not only move learning from papers to screens, but also enable a transformation in the way students learn.
"The shift is from teachers standing up and telling them stuff, to the 'guide on the side'—kids teaching themselves with the guidance of their teachers and peers," says Marc Prensky, a consultant and author of Don't Bother Me Mom—I'm Learning who has worked on bringing technology to schools around the world. This can mean emphasizing Internet research rather than listening to lectures, and instead of writing in black-and-white composition notebooks never seen by anyone but the teacher, publishing their conclusions and thoughts on a blog for the world to see.
The movement is gaining ground, but it is far from mainstream.
Prensky said one teacher described the technologies he encourages—cell phones, blogs, video games, social networking—as "the new spitballs," and alarm became more fervent in April, when the Pew Research Center published a report saying that 50 percent of American teenagers at one time had used informal writing in school assignments. Twenty-five percent said they had used emoticons in their schoolwork, and 38 percent said they used shortcut phrases like "LOL."
Under Mayor Bloomberg's schools chancellor, Joel Klein, the New York City Department of Education has embraced the 2.0 changes, opening an office of instructional technology stocked with staffers who are ed-tech diehards. But the city's embrace has only been to a degree.
Lisa Nielsen, who manages professional development for the office, has seen some resistance. Though in professional development trainings she teaches city educators how to use cell phones for instructional purposes, the city bans students from bringing cell phones to school. Nielsen has protested the ban on her personal blog, called "The Innovative Educator," though when she added the blog's Web address to her e-mail signature, the Department of Education said department policy dictated a disclaimer saying she did not speak on behalf of the department.
Still, both Nielsen and Prensky say the overwhelming trend is toward the kind of 21st-century classrooms they push for.
The director of instructional technology at the Department of Education, Troy Fischer, said his office is developing a plan for bringing all city schools that are interested under the umbrella of the new technology. About 300 principals have already signed up for a training program called iLead, and Fischer said that by the end of the school year more schools will have been labeled either "Basic," "Proficient," or "Advanced" at their technology progress—and then given help in how to improve their status.
"No longer should students be just absorbers of information, but they should be producers and publishers of information," Fischer says.
Not everyone at 339 bought into the 2.0 project when it kicked off. Some veteran teachers felt technologically illiterate. Even Daniel Ackerman, the assistant principal Jason Levy brought on because he had worked as a technology coach at another school, was skeptical.
"That sounds like the worst idea I've ever heard," Ackerman recalled thinking. "I felt like it was just like MySpace, and I was like, 'Why are we encouraging this?' "
But Ackerman said he quickly shed his doubts. He said the computers engaged the students in a way pencils never had; students who had never come to class started to show up, and others would even tune in when they stayed home sick. "I apologize for not being in today," one student wrote him last year via Google's chat program.
Ackerman claims some dramatic successes at 339, many of them in the area of motivation. "Kids who weren't doing their work were doing their work. Kids who weren't wearing their uniforms were wearing uniforms." Once, in a case that has become legendary, a student who had stayed home for a dentist's appointment even logged on to his lesson from home, after the appointment ended. He didn't want to miss the lesson, and didn't have to, since the assignments were coming in through his Google account.
Teachers said they are also happier with the new technology. They use Google Documents to collaborate with each other, sharing lesson plans and getting constant feedback from administrators, who will type out their advice on what is working and what isn't in documents visible only to faculty.
The staff also uses the Internet to organize an elaborate point system that teachers credit with slashing violence and disorder in the halls. Every teacher has access to a document listing the name of every student, and at the first disruption, a teacher can dock points from that student's record. Students who keep their points get to spend them at a virtual school store; those who lose them face consequences.
Other schools have their own tales. At the Joseph B. Cavallaro middle school in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn, teachers say an autistic student who had been completely mute began to speak when his class did a computer writing lesson developed in the 2.0 mold, by the nonprofit Teaching Matters.
Kristin Valinotti, a consultant at Teaching Matters who is co-teaching writing classes at Cavallaro, said most students enjoy publishing their work.
"I haven't encountered anybody telling me that they don't want their work to be public," she said. In one case, an eighth-grade boy even published a poem about the moment he watched his mother die before his eyes. "Are you sure you want to share that?" she asked him. He said yes.
There are also stumbling blocks. Internet interruptions, even for just a few minutes, can shut down a lesson. And while some students relish the possibility of sharing their work in public, others are just as shy as Internet-wary adults.
Victor Ou, a Cavallaro sixth-grader, said he was wary when he learned his reading class this year would include setting up personal profiles and receiving public comments from other students.
"I thought we were going to comment about how bad I was, and I was sad," he said.
But he said that after his teacher told him the feedback would be positive, not negative, he felt better. Teachers at Cavallaro said they are strict about preventing online bullying; every comment a student makes is attached to his name and can be viewed by all students and staff. Teachers said the lack of anonymity has been a strong enough disincentive to stop most bullying from the start. But in the few cases when students have written something offensive, teachers identified the problem quickly and enacted a tough punishment—an Internet time-out—that worked.
Another stumbling block is "chat talk." While teachers at 2.0 schools say it rarely appears in student writing, when commenting on each other's work many students will use "i" rather than "I," and all standards appear to vanish when writing e-mails.
Eylin Salas said that her teachers have been encouraging her to make her writing more formal, adding punctuation and more precise language; words like "hysterical" and "annoyed" replace "crazy" or "ghetto."
But in her frequent e-mails to teachers, she often gives in to the other language. Last week, a teacher who is no longer at 339 wrote to Eylin: "I just want to wish you a great year in 7th grade! Rock on."
Eylin's reply: "awwww Ms. Sefo i miss u soo much dhe 6 graders got som weird teacher i feel sorry 4 dem b-cuz dey dont got u as a teacher."
Another e-mail ended with her signature close: "lolszx."
Her sixth-grade teacher, Jesse Spevack, said he notices the language, but is wary of censuring it too strongly. "I never wanted to discourage kids from e-mailing me," he said. "I would rather have them e-mail me in a not-professional way versus not e-mail me at all."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.