Vol 6|No 6|March|1997
by David Penberg
Take 70 adolescents, 100 miles northwest of 125th street in New York to the regal lands of the Hudson Valley, situate them in a small liberal arts college for a month, expose them to writers and scientists, create a climate of high expectations, diligence and cooperation, stock it with purposeful and caring adults, repeat that with the same children over the course of 4 to 5 years and you have a learning community. Not a place without discord and discontent (contrary to the nature of adolescence) but one full of growth spurts that seed the habits for learning and thinking and the will to succeed. Like alchemy, the combination of certain precious ingredients can have a formative effect of bringing out the curious, the diligent, the inquiring, the researcher, the writer, the scientist, and the poet in urban youth.
The Academy was an idea some of us had 6 years ago at Bank Street, the progressive school of education in Manhattan to bring urban adolescents to study science and writing at a liberal arts college in upstate New York. The idea arose from Paul Goodman's work camps for adolescents. Our proposition was grounded on two ideas: to build curriculum out of the natural habitat of the Bard lands as a classroom for its unique combination of water, land and animal life; and second, on sustainability: Send an incremental core of students over time to the Academy (for a month) in order to be exposed to accelerated and enriched learning over a two-four year period. But this summer was different. The Internet, e-mail, and the World Wide Web, were introduced. And communication would not be the same, or their understanding of community or science or English.
In considering how to design a science program appropriate for urban youth, suppose we were to begin by asking: What does a 14 year old girl who has grown up all her life in the projects of Grant Houses on 125th and Broadway know about the natural world: about the rivers and watersheds, habitats and ecosystems, trees and birds and wildflowers ? How does she respond to practicing the habits and skills of reading and writing in seminars and workshops ? How does she learn to listen respectfully and to make and criticize knowledge in groups ? How can information technology enhance her research and her writing without becoming either a distraction or an obstacle?
A Personality Checklist
How well can you deal with the unexpected ?
How quickly can you shift from indignance to laughter ?
Is your threshold deep for withstanding technical breakdowns, frozen cursors and indecipherable codes flashing across a screen?
How do you deal with material that is there one day, gone the next, down the black hole of damaged disks or trigger happy students who trash the document that means the most to them 'by accident.' ?
How good are you at accepting accidents ?
--Kevin never meant to break into the e-mail of every student . "Honest, I didn't Dave." He never meant to. Or the electronic search for information on Foxes that brought with it a list of pornography sites longer than the credits at the end of a movie.
--Paul and Karl never meant to call over the rest of the class. "Really Dave, it just happened." Or when someone printed 100 pages of the same misspelled grammatically marred paragraph they had written about cicadas.
For the teachers at the Academy, working on the Internet was a kind of rite of passage: inuring them to the unexpected, stretching new definitions of the word patience and thrusting them into new roles as project managers. What was for certain in our entrance into the digital world of bookmarks and baud rates, was that notions of expertise or authority was as useless as 8'x 4 floppy disks. Teachers could cast themselves as learners and be free to make mistakes or not possess the answer.
Introducing the Internet not only levelized the playing field between teacher and student, it redefined it. Instead of instruction it was more a matter of modeling learning with alacrity and the willingness to be taught by others ( your students). The humility of not having an answer but seeking one became our most powerful instructional strategy.
Not a closet hacker or motherboard technician amongst us
There was a distinct and refreshing absence of missionary zeal. There were no born again motherboard technicians among us. No closet hackers. Our collaboration involved 2 writing teachers from upstate New York, a science teacher who was also an artist, another science teacher who was an outdoors learning specialist, an environmental science educator from Queens, and myself, who still needs assistance changing the cartridge to my printer. Together we team taught in an environmental science academy with the focus on wetlands and community. When we launched into doing the Internet for research and home page production we had no idea what would transpire . The digital world belongs to this generation. That much we knew and that it was incumbent on us to know something of what that world looked like. Would student research be central ? Would research on the net enable them to fine tune the art of questions and questioning ? What impact would these information technologies have on social and cultural practices in the classroom? What is the meaning of student access to new information sources ?
And so, like the more than life sized explorers from the Age of Gold in the 15th and 16th centuries, adventurers who navigated for uncharted lands with maps and hunches, we traveled into the land of risk beyond the horizon of routine in search of information and people and resources . What got us through, was embracing the unexpected, seeing teaching as a way of learning, and communicating that complexity with our students. The only flag we swore allegiance to, were children's abilities to use those wonderful search engines: the mind and the imagination.
What I came to like most about multimedia is the assortment of abilities it taps : those who can operate video cameras, record data from the field, draw illustrations of wildlife, write html. It is an inclusive medium, no one is in need of remediation or pull out. What's more, its fun. What the web enables is multiple intelligence's to sparkle.
A primary purpose of this summer's Academy was to field test a vision of what information technology could do to accelerate and inspire urban youth in science and writing. We tried to situate the uses of technology within their own experiences as researchers (ecologists) and writers. In learning how to construct an electronic field guide of Wetlands, students visited other web sites to identify criteria for good 'home pages,' participated in class discussions about habitats and organizing data, read articles, researched in the library and on the Internet background knowledge on the insect or bird or tree they were assigned. In doing ecological surveys, students worked in teams, practiced scientific process to define problems and develop hypothesis, accumulated data through fieldwork and built a web page using an assortment of materials (photographs, text, video). Everything had an audience and the expectation that knowledge was important to share.
Constructing the field guide became our umbrella. Our unifying structure for bridging the writing with ecological field work. We were going to take their research, fresh from the streams and bays and wetlands of the Bard Lands on put that on our web page. Digitizing research meant we needed photographers, illustrators, scanners, people who could explain and show it to others; writers, proof readers, researchers. This is where project management and project based learning came into play. Kids like Dylesi and Kristine and Cassandria picked up the nuances of the web work faster than most. They became the front linesman who showed the others, like apprentices how to get to the site, how to operate the templates, how to do electronic searches. By the second day , the 3 of them were the designated html guides for the others. Vygotsky and Dewey would have been pleased by the notably social and very situated nature of their teaching and learning. Who would have known that Abdul Adardour was a whiz, on the web sites cutting and pasting photographs with the fluid hands of a Walt Frazier. If you could have seen the size of Ariel's smile when his photograph emerged on the screen for the first time.... Doing a field based and internet focused curriculum created unforeseen couplings of collaborators: Carl and Michael and Paul; Julius and Tyvie; Kalemah and Pop. Once you get 14 and 15 year olds working as if they are playing basketball and ignite that in a classroom, than you know, pedagogically speaking, that you're onto something.
To do project based work the principle of all for one and one for all became operative. For the cicada team to do the research on the 17 year cicada due in 9 days time someone had to locate and paste drawings or photos from the Internet onto our page; Dilessay had to find data supporting their field observations from library; Natalia did the same using electronic sources; someone had to write and proof text; and somebody had to ensure that everyone was doing what they agreed to do. The energy had the hum and buzz you find in playgrounds and ball fields. They needed to rely on the strengths and knowledge of everyone in the group, or they could not successfully complete their work. Dealing with problems "the library didn't let us take out any books", "I left the disk at home" situated the learning as practical and real. Problems in a project base classroom are like compost: turning into new insights through examination and argument.
To do project based work, Project management was a necessity. It needs introduction and framing by the teacher. This is one of the few times that any of us took center stages. Project Management is crucial for people working together to make something. When done well it mirrors the work world and how work gets done. Project management means documentation (project plans, status reports, field notes), task delegation, time management (deadlines), follow through. It provided a system for student self management, a method for getting the work done. When I would come upon squadrons of 3-5 students, at the edge of a forest armed with binoculars, books and cameras calling out Bird names, enjoining silence to identify the species, it was like finding pieces of blue sea glass at the ocean. It wasn't just the web work but the ability to work independently and interdependently that emerged. What the web enables is multiple intelligence's to sparkle.
Computer Labs and the Logic of :
The logic of computer labs have always baffled me. Especially if we do more than pay lipservice to communication and social interaction as the primary means for how most learning takes place. I have come to dislike computer labs with the same discomfort I have with doctors offices and banks. They are spaces that smell medicinal, that have an aire of walls, expertise and hierarchical communication. Most (not all) are run by men. What kind of view of learning organizes space so that seeing your neighbor means you need to crane your neck or communicating as a group is physically inhibited ? Why do schools put all these tools in one place, call it a lab and then name a science after it ?
At Bard, the lab was divided into 2 sections. Downstairs was the networked IBM Lab (I could never understand what was networked because the printers were always breaking down and long cumbersome passwords had to be typed into the computer to get going), where every station had an Internet connection. Upstairs was more of a word processing lab with a mix of Apples and IBM's with about 5 Internet stations. Getting the networked lab sometimes was like being a foreigner with poor English skills trying to get a visa. Scheduling was always cabalistic. When you asked for assistance it felt like people were doing you favors or at best, tolerating you. You never knew if it had been reserved by a fictitious group or not. Many times it was locked. The lights were off and we were told that it was still booked. You never read about this in the educational reports or academic articles on collaboration. I'm talking about the territorial, primitive instincts of academic man to horde and obstruct, rather than exchange and facilitate, as you would expect of any place called school.
DIGITAL SAVVY or : WHAT IS THIS THING CALLED INFORMATION LITERACY
There is a heady feeling about the prospect of opening your classroom to the world. Exchanges with writers and scientists, incorporating archival materials from the Smithsonian, or the Museum of Broadcasting, or the Franklin Institute, are opportunities that seem full of inexhaustible possibilities. It feels like we are entering a different kind of historical era when the cultural treasures are beginning to open their doors and extend their hours to anyone with a high speed modem. The gaps between the sources of knowledge and where we learn are getting smaller. What is the meaning of having access to new information resources ? What's to guarantee that students have the slightest clue of how to use these resources once they're there? Access to the Library of Congress doesn't mean a thing if you don't know how to look for the Declaration of Independence or have never heard the name W.E.B. Dubois.
When all the escape keys were removed from the lab and kids kept going back to music video sites, I had trouble convincing myself that I was partaking in the radical shift in how people are gathering their information and learning about the world. They were still falling asleep in classes. Still addressing one another with terms that were derisive and gender baiting.
What is the value of tapping into extensive electronic libraries and international resources in the arts and sciences without the development of thoughtfulness and reflection ?
Creating home pages, constructing biographical profiles, combining images with text, was an opportunity, for kids to present themselves in living color to an audience that might never have heard of Harlem. For urban youth who's territoriality rarely takes them outside the subway line where they live, writing their stories and fed expressing it to the world, can be liberating and instructive. They were learning and practicing literacy in context, while expanding their repertoire of communication and technology skills.
The kids at the Academy were not wired. The work was not about anonymous wanderings in a country that has no affiliation to geographic space and locality. The Internet did not sever their bond to neighborhood. It gave them the opportunity to define it and represent it. When Tyvie describes the Apollo theater and the restaurants and stores that line 125th street; and Chaitanya and Tiana and Shatese trace the origin of their names; and Javid takes you into his grandmother's kitchen in St. Kitts; and Paul describes the program he belongs to and school where his teachers "really do care" .... they are in earnest reaching out across cultures, with a high five and a twinkle in their eyes, to be understood and to acquire understanding. It wasn't only websites and insects that were being exchanged, but the construction of selves with histories and localities that made them distinct.
The summer the Internet arrived at the Academy, the connections between research and writing, technology and communication, blended the way the sky and the catskills do at twilight. It felt like real bridges were being built. New relationships were being field tested. But the Academy was not about technology. It had much more to do with exposure than hardware. Exposure to people who prodded, provoked, supported and pushed young people; to literature and writing; to multisensory experiences; to independent living; to college life. Exposure to a more direct understanding and comprehension of the Hudson River: it's estuaries and bays; to wildlife and plant life; to trees and birds; to ecological issues of the area; to each other and the challenges of community life. The Academy was more than building websites and learning html. There was a learning that exceeded a set of academic goals or national standards, that was energetic and robust. Kids and teachers taking ideas and running with them. Young minds and imaginations at work. Professional development hormones percolating all over the place.
What I remember the clearest, are not the photos we scanned, but the look on Cassandria's face when she gave the tour of our web site to parents on Family Day. It was in the timbre and eloquence of Aye's reading Langston Hughes to an audience of peers, in a voice that seemed powerfully at home in the woods by this great River.
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