email

 

 

Introduction Final comments
Parede, Portugal and Navarre, Florida: An email cultural exchange Advice/Guidelines
The Spirit of Christmas

 

Introduction

My first basic information on how to carry out a Net-based project came from Ferdi Serim and Melissa Koch's NetLearning: Why Teachers Use the Internet. I bought it in the U.S., in August 1996, during my two-week stay at Fairfield University to do research for my Master's thesis on learning with the Internet.

One of the suggestions the authors make is for teachers to discuss and decide on the subject matter and contents of a project with the students. In spite of recognizing the great value of such a process/strategy, the bottom line is that it always ends up colliding with a relevant problem all teachers face to a greater or lesser degree - (lack of) time to do everything we should! And that's reality, whether we like it or not!!

Therefore, when I decided to try and carry out my first email project in the 1997-98 school year, I followed my own instinct for two basic reasons: to play it safe and to save time. I adopted what is probably an unorthodox method by presenting a ready-made plan to the students for approval. Obviously, I was open to criticism, suggestions for change, or even a refusal!

Before I describe each project in as much detail as I jotted down (no doubt a very useful strategy!) and remember, I will include a table with the main ideas of each one followed by its general outline.

 

Parede, Portugal and Navarre, Florida: An email cultural exchange

http://www.digibridge.net/teresadeca/culturalexchange.htm

Subject English (as a Foreign Language)
Grade level 6th grade
Objectives Listed below in the layout of the project
Activities Writing

Researching data

Interviewing a local councilman

Word processor and email

Activity level Beginner
Time frame 11 weeks
Partners A group of American 5th graders
Equipment used One multimedia computer with Web and email access
Assessment None

 

A.   Mutual introduction

1. individual identification of the group members: name, age, grade, hobbies/interests

B.   Description of the school (including photo/s)

1. name and community where it's situated

2. type of school (elem.? middle?)

3. number of students and teachers, etc

4. different socioeconomic backgrounds of the students

5. facilities

C.   About the student population

1. daily school routine: number of daily/weekly classes, subjects studied, favorite subjects and why

2. leisure activities in and out of school

3. dreams, hopes/anxieties

D.   Surrounding community

1. type of area (suburban, etc.)

2. facilities (Catholic church, health center, hospitals, etc)

3. shopping facilities

4. main problems

General objectives

1. promote cultural and social contact between different and distant communities

2. promote exchanges of experiences that can lead to a better knowledge and understanding of one another

3. create and acquire research habits

4. broaden linguistic competences/skills in the foreign language (for Portuguese students)

5. integrate new technologies in the learning process

6. publish the project on the Web

Specific objectives

1. stimulate the pleasure of reading and writing

2. stimulate the writing process in the L2

3. promote research habits

4. bring the school and community closer together

5. give students a wider reading audience/public.

I tailor-made the outline for my Portuguese students in their second year of English. Because it is content-based, it obviously reflects the curriculum and objectives I had in mind for them. The remaining details, such as starting date, duration and other procedures (how often students would communicate, good idea to follow the order in the outline, have students comment on the other groups' information, etc.) were arranged by Glenn Rutland, my American colleague from Florida [1], and myself at the end of January 1998. When I emailed Glenn and sent her the above project outline, she immediately sent an enthusiastic answer saying we could start as soon as I gave the signal. She chose six 5th graders, since they were closer to my students in age and grasp of the language. It is important to bear in mind that my students were only in their second year of English.

The first message from Navarre arrived on February 18. It was all a bit too sudden, because, as I said, I had expected to show Glenn the green light first. On the other hand, it was Carnival here in Portugal, so we were 'enjoying' a week off from school. And I hadn't even met with my group yet. I emailed Glenn at once and we decided to resume the project at the beginning of March with a message from my group. (Whenever there is any minor problem during the project, we have always tried to solve it 'on the side' doing our best not to let it interfere with the students' work.)

I had chosen (unorthodox again?!) seven mixed-ability 6th graders (two A-students, three B-students and two C-students). That's right, I followed Ferdi and Melissa's very wise advice to 'start small'. It may seem plain common sense, and I agree it is; nevertheless, it is a precious piece of advice!

The first meeting with my students took place on March 3. I showed them my outline and they approved it one hundred percent, showing great enthusiasm and a desire to start as soon as possible. We decided to meet two afternoons a week - one to prepare the message on paper (they were beginners, after all) and the other to write it in the computer and send it. Glenn's students met only once a week in their normal schedule. The project ended for both groups on May 27, with a two-week Easter break in between.

Though it was an after-school project, my first priority was to integrate curriculum, content and new technologies. They would talk about the school and the surrounding community while using a word processor and email, both innovative media for most students involved. Considering it was an extracurricular activity, I decided there would be no assessment. They were doing it on a purely voluntary basis, above all, helping me carry out an experiment I was interested in. I was totally honest about this and they were a hundred percent there for me! They gave a lot of their free time and were extremely cooperative! I will always be grateful for their goodwill gesture!

The first week they had to collect data in the Administration Office and in the School Board (the three elected teachers who ran the school) in order to complete the *description of the school*. To write about the *surrounding community*, I suggested they interview the President of the Local Council. They loved the idea! I made an appointment. He was very nice about it and went in earlier that day to suit the students' schedule. When we arrived, he gave the group a book about Parede, our hometown, published by the Local Council. Curiously, one of the authors is a History teacher at our school. He also gave each one of us a map and a pin of the town.

The students had prepared questions in advance, but with the excitement, I suppose, forgot them in my car, so they improvised new ones during the interview - interesting and relevant questions, I must emphasize. They found out a lot of information about Parede, its traffic problems and possible solutions, transportation, shops/commerce, infrastructures and development plans up to the year 2000. They took their mission very seriously, taking notes all the time. As we were leaving, we noticed a huge aerial photo of our hometown on the wall, so the President took some extra minutes of his time to clear up a lot of things with the help of the photo. They loved the way they were received and felt very important to have interviewed such a relevant personality at the local level of government! The interview was the basis of one of their last messages. (You can take a look at a summary of their interview in an article I wrote available at http://www.digibridge.net/teresadeca/parede.htm).

During the remaining weeks, most of them showed great commitment and enthusiasm. They were always looking forward to getting messages from their partners. Now and then, they got into a more personal basis, telling jokes and riddles, which proved to be lots of fun. On the final week of the project we all worked a couple of times at my house. They loved it! We chose the most significant parts of the project, cut them out from the prints and glued them onto cardboard. We also included an enlarged a map of Florida where we pinpointed the Navarre school. Then we put everything up on a bulletin board in the Main Hall for the whole school to see. As a surprise, I included a colorful Merit Award for the group, dated and signed by me, as praise for their excellent work!

As a final reward,

The project didn't always run as we had initially planned:

However, none of this had any negative effects.

I also feel that Glenn and I exchanged too many messages (some unnecessarily?), but it was all part of what I consider a 'trial-and-error' process that taught us both a lot. Proof of that is the considerable reduction in messages between us during our second project, and a more logical flow of messages back and forth between the students.

Although one or two of my students may not always have been as committed as I had expected, others were much more, which kept quite a good balance. I have to admit it's comprehensible. After all, it was their free time and the project did demand a lot of hard work! So I can honestly say that they behaved and worked very responsibly, showing some degree of autonomy and often allowing me to be the guide on the side quite often.

The feedback I got about the acceptance of the project came from the students' highly enthusiastic participation and from a questionnaire I prepared for them. Their main conclusions were:

As a 'first experience' for teachers and students on both sides of the Atlantic (!), Glenn and I agree that the project went very well. It was a wonderful experience, so much so that I immediately started thinking about the next one.

I also think I can honestly say that most of the objectives were met. And for my seven students, using innovative tools such as the computer, a word processor and email was certainly an added attraction and a basis for great motivation. From my personal contact with Glenn, I know that things went very well with her students, who also enjoyed being in touch with foreign colleagues and exchanging ideas with them!

 

The Spirit of Christmas

http://www.digibridge.net/teresadeca/spiritofxmas.htm

Subject English (as a Foreign Language)
Grade level 6th grade
Objectives Listed below in the outline of the project
Activities Writing

Researching data

Word processor and email

Activity level Beginner
Time frame 10 weeks
Partners A class of American 5th graders
Equipment used One computer with Web and email access, one multimedia computer, two 386s (a PC and a laptop)
Assessment See outline below

 

Getting to know each other

1. introduce yourselves

2. talk about yourselves

Christmas and the spirit of Christmas

1. what is Xmas to you?

2. is there a spirit of Xmas? what is it like for you?

Xmas decorations

1. when do you start decorating your home?

2. how do you decorate it (indoors and outdoors)?

3. you can talk about your street, neighborhood or community, if you like

Xmas celebrations

1. how is Xmas with your family? do you celebrate Xmas eve, Xmas lunch or Xmas dinner?

2. talk about Xmas in your hometown

3. you can mention any (special) religious cerimonies you attend

Shopping

1. when do you do your Xmas shopping?

2. what kind of presents do you buy? for whom?

3. when do you start putting out the presents?

4. when do you open the presents?

Food and drink

1. what is your traditional Xmas lunch or dinner like?

2. let's exchange special or typical recipes

Special traditions/customs

1. you can talk about anything special or different that you did not mention before

Conclusions: similarities and differences

 

Objectives

1. establish a social and cultural contact between students from different and remote communities;

2. share traditions and experiences that may contribute to a better knowledge and understanding of one another;

3. develop research habits (directed to the Portuguese students);

4. improve knowledge of English (for the Portuguese students);

5. stimulate a liking for reading and writing;

6. introduce new communication technologies in the learning process;

7. make the students both producers and publishers by publishing the final project on the Web;

8. widen the numbers of readers.

Duration and deadlines of the project

a. the project will last 9-10 weeks, starting the second week of October and ending the third week of December 1998;

b. we will try to alternate the sending and receiving of messages. Hopefully, each party will send a message every two weeks in order to have time to prepare their next assignment as well as answer/comment on their colleagues' messages.

Assessment

1. as the project is integrated in the curriculum and is done in school hours, it will be assessed as group work and will be considered a part of the students' continuous assessment;

2. for each group to work correctly and for grading to be as fair as possible, each member should make an effort to participate on an equal basis, according to his/her capacities and skills. (Bear in mind that they were all were mixed-ability groups);

3. any shift away from this rule will influence the grade.

The second project was carried out in the first term of the 1998-99 school year (19Oct98-8Jan99). Glenn and I prepared it two weeks in advance. Because the preparatory phase, the procedures and the development of our first project had proved well, I decided to become a little more ambitious and introduce a few significant changes. First, I ventured into working with a whole class of 25 and divided them into 5 mixed-ability groups. I chose the members of each group. Second, the basic work was done in class time once a week over a period of 10 weeks. Because we did not have a free computer room during class time, the keyboarding part had to be done in after-school time - theirs and mine - with a different representative from each group every week. So, apart from one lesson a week, we had an extra two hours (at least) on the computers. However, there were never any complaints about the extra work and there were always volunteers on a rotational basis. Third, it was a part of their term's continuous assessment, because we were doing it in class time and integrating it into the curriculum. These rules were laid out from the beginning and accepted by everyone.

Assessment was based on their weekly written texts, which I brought home to correct and grade after they wrote them on the computer, and on how they worked in their group during class time. I never told them the grade - only at the end of the project. I wanted to try and avoid the 'stress' of grades, and I think I succeeded. In the end, they all did a pretty good job, so it had a positive influence in their end of term grades.

The great majority of the students were very committed, and worked and collaborated very well in their group, including the weak students, who generally tried to do their best and were voluntarily helped by the others. Now and then a couple of students showed some resistance to group work, behaving in a somewhat individualistic and selfish manner, but that was promptly dealt with by me and, in general, understood and accepted by them.

As each group had the outline of the project, I always advised them to previously think of the subject matter they would be writing about the following week, but asked them not to prepare their texts in advance. In addition to the material used in any normalclass, I asked them to take a bilingual dictionary, though I always carried some extra copies with me. . . just in case!

These were very demanding and exhausting lessons, especially for the students, because they were doing work that was (sometimes more than) slightly above their expected knowledge level. But also for me, because I always had 5-6 students around my desk (literally over me) asking for all sorts of help. I must have looked like 'a mother hen with all the little chicks around her'. Although we sometimes prepared vocabulary beforehand in class - case of the Christmas decorations and the recipes - , or I gave them a list of useful words/expressions, they constantly showed up with perfectly natural doubts. They also wanted me to help them translate complex Portuguese sentences for their level of English. When that was the case, the first advice was: "Go back to your seat and with your partners simplify the Portuguese sentences. Then try to write the idea in English. If you're still in trouble, come back and I'll give you some help. That's what I'm here for - to a lend a helping hand, not to do your work, right?" By the way, I introduced as few corrections as possible in both projects - strictly those that could affect communication.

On the other hand, the rhythm we had to maintain was so demanding and exhausting that in mid-November I decided to interrupt work for one week, let everybody take a deep breath and set a few things straight. I noticed that several students were having problems coping with the flow of messages back and forth as well as interpreting parts of them. We never read the messages in class. Instead, I would give each group a print and let them do the reading on their own. So at this point I decided to sift through every message received until then, sort out what I considered the most difficult and/or significant parts of their colleagues' work and translate it. I also cleared doubts they had. It proved to be a very useful strategy. I guess I was expecting too much from them!

One interesting point I would like to emphasize is that, during the project, the American colleagues went to Space Camp for a few days. They stayed at the Kennedy Space Center and saw in loco the launch of the Space Shuttle carrying the veteran John Glenn into space for the second time. The excitement on both sides was enormous, obviously for different reasons. Some of my students were glued to the TV set to try and see their colleagues! I was, too, but for the sake of the launch itself. The weather conditions were perfect, which turned the event into a truly extraordinary and unforgettable moment. The following week the American partners sent very enthusiastic reports of their stay and experiences. They're all in the Web page. This goes to show not only the value of diversions from the normal development of a project, when there is something out of the ordinary to tell, but also emphasizes the need for flexibility on our part.

One last aspect that was common to both projects - we ended up using my home email, because we didn't have access to an email account of our own at school. And we had previously noticed that some messages were being deleted (on purpose? inadvertently?) even when kept in our own directory. Thus, we adopted this strategy for safety's sake. We wanted to save each and every message so we could sort them and present them to the school community. So, whenever possible, I had a couple of students come to my house, send the message(s) and make a print. But most of the times what really happened was that they wrote the messages on a word processor at school and saved them onto a disk that I brought home. Then I pasted them onto email and sent them.

A print of each message sent or received was given to each student (1st project) and each group leader (2nd project). In this case, the other members could xerox them if they wanted. They all agreed to this arrangement.

As a final reward, I prepared three surprises:

My overall analysis is that the five groups did very well and most of them not only enjoyed it very much, but also learned a great deal curriculum- and technology-wise. I was also amazed at how well they reacted to the after-school keyboarding sessions. Most weeks they stayed an extra two/two and a half hours without a complaint or a retreat! On the contrary, they took their work seriously and at the same time had a lot of fun together, as can be witnessed in some of the email messages they sent me at the end of each session with their impressions/comments. On the other hand, those who finished quicker would always help others voluntarily.

 

Final comments

I am a great fan of these projects and think they are a very stimulating, valuable and worthwhile form of learning/improving a foreign language, as well as learning about a different culture and communicating with others. Kids are actually doing something they like while using a medium/tool they relate to, whether they've had previous practice or not. And this is extremely rewarding for teachers and students, despite the hard work involved, a feature that is easily forgotten when we're faced with permanent enthusiasm and. . . the end product!

In most cases, I had to teach my students how to use a word processor and email, so that they could write their messages and send the emails. But it turned out to be even more interesting, because it was integrated into the work they were producing, work that had rapid feedback from real people other than the teacher. Thus, they saw an immediate and genuine value and purpose for the work being done and the technology being used - it wasn't merely technology for technology's sake!

It is also interesting to compare the students' behavior in a traditional classroom and in a class using computers and new technologies. In the group-writing sessions in our normal classroom, they were a bit on the noisy side (I sometimes had to call their attention to the fact that there were other classes going on around us) and also a bit slow in organizing themselves and their work. (At the beginning of the lesson they had to arrange the desks for group work and at the end they had to leave everything back in its place.) In my point of view, this is normal behavior, which nevertheless improved as the weeks passed. In their case it was also proof of motivation and engagement. Time also went by very quickly. In the computer/ keyboarding sessions there were only five to eight students (often more volunteers than necessary!), but we all know that just a few can make a lot of noise. They didn't. In general, they were so concentrated on their work that they were less noisy and rarely asked to leave the room to go to the restroom or buy a snack. Those two hours flew without any of us noticing it.

I also feel that they are more helpful towards each other and more cooperative. The level of orderly collaboration and helpfulness is really amazing. On the other hand, their identification with these new information and communication technologies is real and has genuine motivating power.

One other aspect that deserves emphasis is the 'close' teacher-student, student-student relationship that develops during these projects - something that is very special and rewarding for a teacher! Students also appear to be more at ease, interested and involved in their work.

Last but not least, my short experience has shown me that there is enormous and diverse potential in these new media for the teaching-learning process. All this, and much more, makes me reflect deeper and deeper on the advantages of integrating technology into traditional learning, on using it as another tool among many others. I truly believe that we, teachers, must grasp these new information and communication media in order to attract students to the learning process and get them motivated about and engaged in school work. So what are we waiting for? Let's roll up are our sleeves and get to work! As Dyrli and Kinnaman say: "This is the best possible time to be a teacher!" (61) [2]. I would add: "I believe it is also an extremely stimulating time to be a student!"

 

Advice/Guidelines

The following pieces of advice are based on personal experience and on feedback collected from different books and articles.

 

Endnotes

[1] I was introduced to Glenn through email early in 1997 by another American colleague, Stephanie Stevenson, whose project I had read about in Ferdi Serim's NetLearning. When I emailed Stephanie asking for permission to describe her project in my dissertation and showing interest in finding a colleague for an exchange, she sent me Glenn's email address. There was an immediate empathy between Glenn and I that led us to decide on doing a project together as soon as possible. Curiously, the three of us have never met face-to-face, only through email - a fabulously great communication medium!

[2] Dyrli, Odvard Egil and Daniel E. Kinnaman. "The Changing Face of Telecommunications: What's next for Schools?" Technology & Learning Apr. 1996: 56-61.

 

Teresa Almeida d'Eša

Dec99

 

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