n a byway just off Silicon Alley, a computer lab is the setting for some of the most important work under way in cyberspace today. Among the PCs and servers, the mastermind of this vital experiment works overtime on a project that may some day redefine how a million New Yorkers experience the Internet.
Ted Nellen's students use the Internet every day in his English classes at Murray Bergtraum High School for Business Careers.
Nellen is a maverick, at 46 a tenured public school teacher with no time or patience for the red tape and politicking that goes into so much of what is done in New York's vast public school system. His trademark course is CyberEnglish, a highly charged odyssey through the Net that forces kids to explore the world and themselves.
"It's about empowerment, pride, relevancy," said Nellen, a Vietnam veteran and doctoral candidate at Columbia University's Teachers College.
This week, 100 or so seniors will graduate from Bergtraum with an understanding of the Internet that few other New York public school students have -- and with reading and writing skills they did not possess before taking Nellen's course.
They are not the top students at Bergtraum, not the kids in honors classes and Advanced Placement courses. Many are special education students, several are deaf, and most read below grade level. Most were not eager students -- until they hit the World Wide Web.
"As you read their papers, you can see the emerging consciousness," Nellen said. "They speak with people all over the world, and it excites them. I'm doing the same things any English teacher does, only with live people. Today. Now."
Ted Nellen's classroom allows high school juniors and seniors to publish their work on the Web -- and respond to e-mail critiques from a global audience.
They are clearly hooked by the Web, and by putting their own style into html* documents that anyone can read. But they learned a hard lesson in what is means to do quality work, Nellen said.
"I was hammering at them, urging them to make sure their work is grammatically correct," he said. "Finally, I just said, 'Fine, put garbage up there.' "
But there is an e-mail link to the students' mailboxes on every page, and it didn't take long before a Web surfer wrote in with a terse message: "Someone ought to teach you grammar."
Nellen recalled that the students' first response was, "Who does this person think he is?"
"But they took it very seriously," he added. "By letting them putting the garbage up there and getting slammed, they learned a lesson. They began to seek not just my assistance but the help of other kids in the classroom. My geeks became the heroes of the class. It became a cooperative thing, and they began to do their work in earnest."
Getting a high school classroom fully wired for the Internet and putting a workable curriculum in place is definitely a cooperative thing, but it usually doesn't require the cooperation of the Board of Education. Nelle said his program exists despite New York's educational bureaucracy, not because of it.
"The bureaucracy in this city is mammoth," Nellen said. "I did this without consulting anyone. After I did it, I told the principal. When I started, I knew I wasn't going to go through any channels. It's my own little baby. Too much bureaucracy would kill it."
But Nellen worries that the technology gap between "the haves and the have-nots will grow" if more children don't have access.
"Twenty percent of the schools in New York are still burning coal, and many simply cannot be wired," he said. "But that's a job for the politicians. It needs a champion, and right now there is no champion."
His simple message for the Board of Ed: "Give me the T1* and leave me alone." Before arriving at Bergtraum in 1983, Nellen started his teaching career at fairly exclusive private schools in New England. A year later, he remembers "throwing a fit" when the principal told him he'd have to teach English in the computer lab, but he took one of the machines home and started preparing lesson plans with the word processor. Pretty soon, he said, he realized that it made more sense to do the whole thing on the computers.
The Dorsai Embassy, a New York nonprofit group devoted to providing public access to the Intenet, helped Ted Nellen get his electronic classroom off the ground.
And his students became publishers.
"My attendance is phenomenal," says Nellen. "The room is constantly filled. At the end of the year, it's 'When can I come in during the summer?' I have to kick these kids out of here at 5 P.M."
Nellen's Internet evangelism isn't limited to his English students. He has started a mentoring program that uses the easy communications of the Net to link students with people in the business world. That in turn, led to a project at Teacher's College to put together an on-line mentoring guide. Nellen also runs Bergtraum's computer club, teaches computer skills and English to adults in the school's adult education program and maintains the school's impressive Web site.
But it's the CyberEnglish curriculum that should have New York's new-media industry paying close attention. Nellen is not just creating confident, inquisitive high school graduates with a good grasp of the World Wide Web. He's helping to create a new batch of committed Internet consumers, and he knows it.
In the end, cruising the Internet is all about intellectual freedom of choice for students, Nellen said. "And when the kids start making choices, they learn."
DIGITAL METROPOLIS is published weekly, on Mondays. Click here for a list of links to other columns in the series.
Copyright 1996 The New York Times Company