All students were required to read the book, The Pinballs, in order to participate in the project. Less-abled readers (defined as those who rarely finished reading a book) completed the book in order to become a part of the project. English as second language (ESL) students were given assistance by the Spanish teacher to complete the book. The initial requirement to read the complete book established high expectations for success in all students--not just those who regularly found reading an easy task--and demonstrated the teachers’ concern for Chisholm’s first element, cultural awareness. By providing a purpose and supportive strategies to ensure success, all students were able to participate in the project.
Students from each class were assigned keypals with whom they shared four months of written exchanges about their lives (e.g., family, favorites, hobbies), their environment (e.g., description of their towns, including the town’s history and geography, famous people, and events), and their thoughts about the lives of the three foster children featured in the book. Equitable access, Chisholm’s fourth element was achieved in the NC classroom by scheduling entire class times in the computer lab. Equitable access was achieved in the IL classroom by using Alpha Smarts. Email exchange was invaluable in helping students develop cultural awareness and appreciation as they discovered their partners’ similarities and differences through their personal conversations. To ensure the equal participation of all students, the Spanish teacher assisted ESL students while they corresponded with their email partners. The technology expert assisted all students as they typed emails.
Students were genuinely curious whether their partners looked like them, sounded like them, liked the same types of activities, listened to the same music, and had families similar to their own. Cultural relevance, as described in Chisholm’s second element, is “the ability of the curriculum to make deep and meaningful connections with the lives of the students” (1998, p. 254). Relevance was achieved in the project by allowing students to share life events most important to them. The conversations also promoted a culturally supportive environment, Chisholm’s third element, in which students could express their own opinions, include their families in conversations, and explore their thoughts about personal problems they experienced. Several emails vividly illustrate the meaningful connections some of the students made during their communication:
My favorite character in The Pinballs was Carlie, because I liked the
way she changed for the better. The book reminds me how I felt when
my father died when I was nine. We could help kids like those in the
book who have problems by being their friend and trying to help them
with their big problems.
Segments of other email exchanges show the relevance of literature-based conversations. These bring to students a powerful culturally supportive environment of honesty:
The book reminds me of when my cousin got his legs run over…when
my great grandma died…when my parents got a divorce…when I fight
with my brother…my uncle, he chews tobacco and I don’t trust him…
popped my kneecap out of place…when my sister always yell at people…
when my aunt gets drunk like Harvey’s dad did…when my cousin had to go live with her grandma because her mom didn’t want her anymore.
The involvement of several teachers confirmed not only the effectiveness of using technology to make student learning more meaningful, authentic, and culturally relevant, but also its ability to encourage instructional integration (sixth element) of other content areas (Chisholm, 1998). For example, the school counselor extended the topic of foster children and cultural diversity as part of the character education curriculum. During the counselor’s classroom visits, sensitive issues like those in the book and in their email conversations found their way into class discussions concerning the challenges and emotions that all children experience. The art teacher based her instruction around creating decorations to hang in the library where the videoconference would take place and creating bulletin boards to publicize the project. The ESL teacher used class times to help ESL students translate their email correspondence. The media specialist taught students about being an author and illustrator as they discussed the book. The student teacher also gained valuable experience helping students during all phases of the project.
In addition to developing their language arts skills through reading the book and writing emails, students learned to write letters, and they sent invitations to parents, the school principal, local education administrators, school board members, and the community to attend the videoconference. Students also wrote sequels to the book, an activity that allowed them to participate as authors writing to an authentic audience, their distant partners. NC students wrote their own version of a sequel, voted on the best three submissions, and then sent the sequels to their partner class via email. The IL class voted on their favorite versions of the NC sequel and wrote ending sequels to conclude the story. The three versions were returned via email to the NC class who voted on their favorite conclusion for the book.
Similarly, mapping skills were integrated into the lessons to reinforce the geographical location of their email partners, where major historical US events occurred and famous people had lived. Students exchanged digital photos with their keypals, and these were displayed alongside giant copies of email messages on hallway bulletin boards where students eagerly shared their new friends with the whole school. Chisholm’s fifth element, instructional flexibility, was demonstrated by the variety of activities, types of media, and strategies that were included in this project to appeal to different intelligences, learning styles, personal preferences, products of learning, choice of partners, and selection of favorite sequels. Methods of learning included: (1) reading, emails, sequels, book, social studies text, and an author website; (2) writing, story sequels, emails, journal entries, and invitation letters; (3) hands-on art projects, posters, mobiles, illustrations; (4) character education oral discussions, foster care, divorce, solving problems; (5) mapping, historical events and people; and (6) using technology, email, author website exploration, digital camera, and videoconferencing.
The videoconference was the culminating activity of the project and was the first time students visited virtually face-to-face with their new friends. As students met and listened to the voices of their new friends, excitement and laughter filled the room by students, teachers, and visitors who had never before witnessed the possibilities of this new technology. Following personal introductions, students discussed their similarities and differences with their email partners, their feelings related to the problems of the children in Byar’s book, and solutions they thought would help children in similar situations.
After students said their goodbyes and the videoconference was disconnected, the NC teacher gave her students small silver pinballs, purchased at a local hardware store, as a tangible reminder of the lessons they learned about caring for other people whether they come from foster homes or from different cultures. The event appeared in both local area newspapers and on the evening television news in IL. Teachers, students, and visitors alike expressed genuine excitement about this learning experience. Based on surveys, everyone was astounded at the degree to which the educational experience positively impacted the lives of students. This was evidenced by comments such as one made by a visiting professor from a local university:
This technology purported to students the value of sharing and
networking. It further purported the significant role that technology
can play in teaching and learning. The videoconference proved to be
highly effective means for bridging great minds…it has the potential
to advance intellectual thought and bridge learning for young minds.
Comments by a participating teacher and student teacher illustrate how a project such as this can have a significant effect in motivating teachers into more advanced stages of technology adoption (Dwyer et al., 1991):
Students showed so much interest and enthusiasm on this project. Many areas of communications, such as writing, speaking, reading, typing, and listening were used as learning tools…There was nothing that was not exciting or useful about this use of technology…Overall, a wonderful way to teach–many objectives were met!
I thought the children were very excited about utilizing new technology.
This was the first time I have ever witnessed anything like this. I was
amazed! It was exciting to see another class in another state over the Net. I was delighted to be exposed to this project because I am the first in my graduating class to see a teleconference. This has been a wonderful experience for me. I feel honored to have witnessed such an outstanding feat!
Student remarks reveal in their own words what they learned and how they perceived the project experience as more “fun” and meaningful than typical schoolwork:
I liked that we could do a project all the way to Illinois and write letters
back and forth. I liked that we got in the newspaper and that we got to write sequels.
Passing each other letters over the Internet was fun. We learned to read a lot better. Our whole class learned that people are more alike than different even though we live in totally different places.
You didn’t have to do another school subject because it gave us a break from school work.
Doing these activities was a lot more fun than doing everyday work. I
learned that you can do something so amazing as we did.
Students learned to relate to their distant friends and understand that they shared common lives and struggles like the children in The Pinballs. One student wrote, “We made friends and met people and we learned a lot about technology. I learned to never give up.” Another wrote, “I learned that you always be yourself…it was hard to say goodbye to a friend.”
Besides inspiring enthusiasm for learning and motivating teachers to use technology, the videoconferencing project compellingly demonstrated several other significant outcomes. Technology has the ability to:
Support and deepen students’ cultural understanding, appreciation, and ability to communicate with people of different cultures
Provide engaging and authentic cultural experiences otherwise impossible without its use
Generate meaningful curriculum integration among a variety of disciplines to mutually support different standards and connect life events as they would be experienced in the real world
Demonstrate to teachers how technology can help students achieve instructional goals in ways unlike any other resources
When technology is used to help children appreciate cultural diversity and to provide a context for applying these values, the presence of technology becomes overshadowed by the outcomes of the experience. Table 1 illustrates the how The Pinballs Videoconferencing Project supported Chisholm’s six elements for integrating technology in a curriculum that promotes cultural diversity.
Table 1 Chisholm’s Six Elements Applied in The Pinballs Videoconferencing Project
Application of Elements through Technology
- Email exchange and videoconference – intercultural communication
- A variety of activities – support of learning styles, interests, intellectual ability, special needs
- Supportive instruction for slower readers and ESL students
- Email exchange – writing related to personal interests and lives
- Purposeful Activities – writing to partners about lives, problem solving solutions concerning foster care, sharing with real people
- Real-life experience – email, writing sequels, learning about real people and their environment, meeting partners via videoconference
- All voices heard – email exchange, discussions about individual differences with partners, class discussions with guidance counselor, solutions students offered on foster care in videoconference
- High expectations – problem solving, success support offered for slower readers, technology assistance, reading book
- Parent involvement – student invitation to videoconference
- Computer access – each child had access to a computer or Alpha Smart device and computer assistance
- Use of programs – all children used a word processing program and participated in videoconference
- Multi-modal instructional delivery – silent book reading, assistance during writing story endings, art assistance, computer help in writing email and sequels, discussion, journal writing, ESL assistance
- Choices – students had choices in what they would write to partners, art decorations for videoconference, book sequels
- Multi-modal Assessment – completion and discussion of book, observations of participation in email, public exhibition during videoconference, portfolios of products, dispositions toward others
- Literature-based activities – reading
- Email partners and writing sequels – writing
- Art projects, bulletin board, digital photo creation – art
- Counselor discussion of foster care – character ed
- Email exchanges and videoconference – social studies, listening
- Media lessons on authoring and illustrating books – information skills