By Michelle Younghen explorer Will Steger launched his 2,000-mile expedition to the North Pole last February, he and an international team of scientists loaded their dogsleds with stoves, sleeping bags, rifles and 35 fourth-graders from P.S . 279 in Brooklyn, New York.
Now that's a field trip. O.K., so the kids from Brooklyn were traveling by modem, not dogsled, but teacher Ronnie Falkowitz says her students still felt like they were in on the adventure of a lifetime. "It wa s an exciting journey that we followed with daily updates," she recalls. "We discovered how much a part of history we were when National Geographic came out with Steger's complete story, six months after we had been a part of it."
With little fanfare, teachers like Falkowitz have been among the first to see and seize the promise of online communications. Creative educators are using the Internet to break down classroom walls and put the world in the palms of their pupils.
Scenes from the online-curriculum revolution:
In Karen Krupnick's gifted classroom at Newman Elementary School in Chino, California, Jay, 9, discusses a complex geometry problem via E-mail with professor Bill Cherowitzo of
the University of Colorado. Using his Website as a cyberspace blackboard from 800 miles away, Cherowitzo explains key concepts to the young math whiz.
Building an Online CommunityMinnesota's Minnetonka school district is a textbook example of how technology can be a key to community, involvement education. Retiree Joe Riordan volunteers in the schools every Wednesday morning. A retired Honeywell engineer, Riordan says he "needs to give back something to the district" for the fine education he says his daughters received in the Minnetonka schools. "He's one example of the kind of connectedness that the community plays in the district," says elementary-science coordinator Karen Newe ll.
"Older students are working with the youngest ones too," says Newell, "creating an integrated, interactive school community at all levels." At the Clear Springs School, sixth-graders become buddies to the kindergartner s. Each buddy team works on the computer. The younger ones draw, using KidPix software; the older kids help them write short stories about their artwork.
"From desktop publishing, extended social studies, science and global- link projects to multimedia and technology maps for district-wide curriculum," says Newell, "kids are involved online, producing electronic portfol ios, using scanners and developing multimedia presentations of their accomplishments." Many parents volunteer to edit and maintain the fourth-graders' video portfolios. At the end of the year, highlights of each child's science projects are compiled for s tudents and parent to look back on.
Far beyond the borders of the Minnetonka schools' communities, students also assist in Operation Monarch Watch, a butterfly-migration project run by the University of Kansas. From Gro undhog's Day until summer vacation, they monitor spring's return along with dozens of other classes across the country as part of the Annenberg/CPB's Journey North Project.
Building BridgesThe simplest Internet tool, E-mail, is an early and powerful part of the online curriculum in many classrooms. A literature-keypals project brought together Michelle Bodner's fourth-grade language-arts class at Sun Valley School in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Can ada, and Linda Sprague-Lambert's class at C.K. Burns School in Saco, Maine. Searching for more projects to share, the teachers realized that their students could also learn more about each other's culture. The result was perhaps their most successful proj ect: Bridging the Gap: Dispelling the American/Canadian Myth, which touched on a broad range of subjects, from geography and history to life-styles on both sides of the border.
"We witnessed firsthand that educational opportunities abound for those who are willing to venture past textbooks, lectures and purple dittos," says Bodner. Like many teacher pioneers on the Internet, Bodner and Spragu e-Lambert invented their own curriculum for the new medium. "The digital revolution is incomprehensible for the majority of educators in my system. The concept escapes them entirely," adds Sprague-Lambert.
This summer the two hope to encourage more teachers to try their high-tech approach. They plan to present a workshop to Internet novices at the New England Alliance for Computers and Writing in Salem, Massachusetts. Th e workshop will cover teacher-designed, classroom-tested, curriculum-focused Internet writing projects; and educational Websites, resources and lesson material that the two have used successfully in their classrooms to promote literacy and writing.
Calling her pre-online classroom isolated, Bodner describes telecommunications as a means through which she opens her classroom doors to the world. And by opening those doors, Bodner and thousands of other teachers ar ound the world are discovering new avenues of learning to explore together, thanks to the digital revolution. Always seeking and reaching, educators like these have learned that the more they grow, the more their students will grow.