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October 1, 1995
Vol. 53
No. 2

What 2nd Graders Taught College Students and Vice Versa

An Internet exchange gave elementary students an audience for their writing and provided preservice teachers with insights into classroom teaching.

The first few weeks were chaotic. Would college students and 2nd graders have anything in common? Would they learn anything from one another by communicating over the Internet? The idea started quite simply as a way to help two teachers—mother and daughter, in our case—use technology more effectively in our classrooms. Basically, our plan was for the two classes to engage in a reading workshop and to chat with one another over the Internet. Much more than that happened. The project grew in ways that we couldn't have planned.

Pam's Story

I teach Children's Literature and Reading and Language Arts Methods courses at a university in Iowa. My children's literature methods course during the fall 1994 semester included 24 traditional and 3 nontraditional students. Over the past three semesters, I had been trying to guide my students away from a conventional sharing of different genres of literature toward participating in a reading workshop (Avery 1993). My experience with writing workshops (Hansen 1994) in reading and language arts courses had shown me that students do not readily transfer their experiences from methods courses into the classroom.
I also felt challenged to discover meaningful ways to incorporate more technology into my courses. I often noticed students using the Internet to exchange messages with friends across the country, and I routinely checked my electronic mailbox every day. How could I integrate use of the Internet into my course?

Kerry's Story

I teach 2nd grade at an elementary school in Nebraska approximately 160 miles away. My classroom consisted of 19 students: 15 boys and 4 girls. Four students were identified with language disabilities.
As a first-year teacher, I was full of ideas to try with my new students. My classroom was equipped with eight new computers complete with color monitors, CD-ROMS, and printers—and we were connected to the Internet. I wanted to get my students involved with computers in meaningful ways.
I was also searching for an engaging way for my 2nd graders to respond to the trade books they would be reading in their daily reading workshop. Students need to be excited about books. What do adults do when we get excited about books? Write about them? Well, sometimes. Usually, though, we talk about them with others. Maybe my students could “talk” about their books through letters over the Internet.

A Tale of Two Classrooms

We were in a unique situation. Why not encourage the 2nd graders to write to the college students about the books they were reading, and invite the college students to dialogue with the 2nd graders through the Internet? Writing letters over the Internet would give the 2nd graders an audience for their work, and putting the preservice teachers in touch with the 2nd graders might help them better understand how to implement reading workshops in an elementary classroom.
At the outset, we decided that participation would be optional for students in both classes. We didn't want either group to do the writing begrudgingly. We also agreed that we would record our students' progress and our own feelings about the experience through journal entries over the Internet.
At the beginning, the 2nd graders had to overcome some practical hurdles. Time constraints did not permit them to write their letters in longhand and then copy them onto the computer. They needed to compose at the keyboard, but only students who had a computer at home had any experience on one. The children had to remember to use the space bar; sound out words in their heads; find the corresponding keys on the keyboard; and do all of this while keeping in mind the next thought they wished to communicate. Remarkably, these children met the challenge! As letters arrived from the college students, the 2nd graders scurried to share them with their classmates and parents.
The children particularly loved the special names the college students gave themselves. “Miss Curtiss!” Jeff exclaimed, “Cortez wants ME to call him Tez!” And Chad asked Meredith if he could call her “Mere” because that was how she signed her letters.
The preservice teachers faced some initial obstacles as well. None of the 3 nontraditional college students had ever been on a computer, and 16 of the 23 traditional students had never been on the Internet. All of the students spent the first few days getting their e-mail account numbers and learning how to gain access to the system. Because there were 27 college students and only 19 elementary students, we had to group some of the 2nd graders with more than one college student.
Throughout the first half of the semester, most of the elementary students received a letter once a week and were eager to write back. A mid-October fall break for the college students, however, broke the one-letter-a-week pattern. “I am a littl worweed abot you becus you hade not root me in a lon lon time,” 8-year-old Kim wrote her pen pal via e-mail. During that week, nearly every elementary child asked if he or she had received a letter. We were pleased to learn how much the children valued the interchange.
The second week in November, a death in her family took one college student out of town. Her 2nd grade pen pal continued to write, even though he was not receiving a response. His December 2nd letter began, “I am so mad bcuz you haved not rot me.”

The Plot Thickens

Of the entire 2nd grade class, only Jerry began to show signs of ambiguity toward writing. By early October, the college student writing to him had asked if in his next letter Jerry could write a sentence exactly as she wrote it: “I like to eat candy.” She continued to write similar messages for the rest of the semester. Jerry was not using standard spelling and punctuation, and his college pen pal was trying to teach him these skills. Although Jerry did not stop writing, he wrote less and less often as the semester progressed.
Within a few weeks, it became clear that the college students needed more information about the 2nd graders and the instructional philosophy of the classroom. We decided to share Kerry's journal with them, one entry at the beginning of each children's literature class period. The journal quickly became the focal point of the course! It presented a realistic viewpoint of what was happening in the elementary classroom as a result of the college and elementary connection.
The college students scrambled to find and read the books the children were reading. Three students scoured the library to find The Stupids Have a Ball (Allard 1984), partly because they needed to read it to ask good questions, but also because the 2nd graders said it was “a gud book and you shud red it.” At the end of each class, the college students reflected on what was of value for them that day. In October, one student wrote, I find it very interesting to listen to the teacher in Elkhorn talk about her kids. For them to want to keep writing us on the computer about their books is amazing. I love the way the little kids love to read and be read to. Another student expressed this view: Reading the elementary teacher's journals stressed to me how important it is to believe in what you are teaching and how you are accomplishing that. In a sense, the preservice teachers felt very connected to the 2nd grade classroom because they were nearing their student teaching experience and would soon be first-year teachers, too.
By mid-semester, the elementary students wanted to know personal things about their Internet partners: “What do they look like?” and “How old are they?” The college students were also curious about the 2nd graders. We decided to exchange photos. When the pictures arrived, the college juniors and seniors huddled around one another to get glimpses of everyone's “child.” The elementary students could barely contain their excitement and asked to take their pictures home. Writing became much more meaningful when there was a face to go with the letter.

Teaching One Another

As the semester progressed, the elementary students' writing increased in quality and quantity. Here's an example of just one child's progress. From Mary's first letter: Today is setember 7, 1994. Dear Alison and Paula, My Book is called Yummers, And the Book is by James Marshall,Love Mary In early November, Mary wrote, Dear Alison and Paula, I had a good time at halloween I'm [reading] Henry and Beezus. This story is about thes two boys thay are best friends Henry wuns a new bike he ask his mom and dad if he cold [could] get the bike his mom and dad sead NNNNOOOO!!!! I am writing a story about anmuals [animals] the titul is anmuals and meLove Mary Mary's last letter, in mid-December, read: Dear Alison and Paula, I am going to miss you! I am going to kry. I like you vary, vary, vary, vary, mmuucchh. Have a marry Christmas. Do you got your eres pest [ears pierced]? I do not. What grad are you going to be in next? GoodbyLove, Mary.
The Internet experience helped the elementary students' writing, reading, and comprehension because (1) they had to read and make sense of the letters they received, and (2) they had to think about their book one more time. During the semester, they learned that writing was real communication. Previously, when they had encountered a question mark in their reading, they saw it merely in a rhetorical way and read on to see what the author had the character say in response. When they wrote to the college students, they asked questions and then eagerly awaited the e-mail response. And when the college students questioned them through the Internet, they had to answer back. As a result, the 2nd graders began to view their reading material as an interactive medium. A great example of this came when Dan wrote, Dear Deena thank you for the letter!!!! I want to tell you a joke. Why did the skilleten cross the road. I like the play that we are doing next Tuesday. I like to write to you!!!! how you doing man. remember to do the anser to the jokelove Dan
What did the college students learn? First, they were surprised that the children could communicate in a sophisticated manner even though their spelling and sentence structure might not be standard. They also realized that children, like adults, have varied interests and can read at various levels. Some children were reading fairly simple picture books, while others were reading complex chapter books. For example, Tad read Maniac Magee (Spinelli 1990)—coincidentally, a required book for the Children's Literature course. Next, Tad began to read Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. Tad wrote his Internet partner, My favret part is when someone's father sings this song: “Five men on the dead mans chest, Yo ho ho and a bodle of rum!” Or something like that. After receiving Tad's message, his pen pal began all of her Internet messages with “Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum.”
The experience became even more interesting when all the students saw the tie between reading and writing workshops. The elementary students realized that the stories they were writing were stories just like the trade books they were reading. For example, Jeff relayed this message to his pen pal, “I rote a book called The 4 People football team and Its a real story.” The college students, too, began to better understand the connection between writing and reading that they had been studying about in their reading and language arts courses. As one student said, “Throughout the semester I learned that children don't need to learn to read before they learn to write. I now know that it's a simultaneous process.”

Saying Goodbye and Other Dilemmas

In addition to the obstacles mentioned earlier, a few other problems arose during this learning experience. For example, letters did not arrive when students incorrectly addressed messages or made other technical errors. Time, too, was an issue. Even with eight computers, finding time to compose and send a weekly letter was tricky. Some of the elementary school kids chose to write rather than go out for recess, and college students living off campus had to make a special trip to campus to access an Internet terminal.
Another unplanned problem was how to conclude the experience. One issue was how to explain to 2nd grade students that the college students were not going to be in the same class during the spring semester. In mid-December, Chad wrote that he “herd that you are not going to be at school and I think I can still write to you but I dont no.” Billy wrote, “This is the last day to write to you. I will miss you Jennifer. I feel sad because you have half a year of school.”
At the college students' suggestion, we videotaped both classes as a way to add closure, and shared the tapes with one another. Three of the college students traveled the 160 miles to meet the students. Two students visited the classroom and spent a day teaching the 2nd graders a science lesson. Even though the semester was over, some of the college students planned to continue writing to their younger friends.

The Teachers Learn Some Lessons

What did we as teachers learn? First, to our relief and surprise, we succeeded in getting 27 college students and 19 elementary children on computers and on the Internet on a regular basis.
Traditionally, instructors teach students keyboarding techniques and other computer skills, have them practice, and then show students how to use the computer as a communications tool. We took the constructivist approach, where students discovered how to use the computer while engaging in authentic communication.
Second, the Internet's interactive medium enriched the learning and teaching experiences in both of our classes.
Third, we learned that writing needs a response. Those students who got a weekly letter were more likely to write back and to write longer, more detailed responses.
Last, we believe that interactive projects need to be based upon honesty, mutual respect, and trust. We are lucky in that we are mother and daughter; our open communication and trust were established before this endeavor. Participants must also realize that students' needs must always come before teachers' needs. For example, our frank communication brought out the fact that 2nd grader Jerry was discouraged about the Internet writing because his partner tried to teach him grammar. By sharing information openly, we were able to address this concern and others in a beneficial way.
We continued our Internet activities the next semester, with similar results. This year, each of us continues to use Internet with our classes, Pam with prospective principals, and Kerry linking her 2nd graders with another 2nd grade class.
Writing over the Internet was an emergent process that developed into something wonderful for the students and us. There are so many possibilities for meaningful experiences available through technology. Through this project, we all grew and will continue to grow. Computer technology and the Internet gave us a new and creative context for dialogue and reflection.
References

Allard, H. (1984). The Stupids Have a Ball. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Avery, C. (1993). ... And With a Light Touch: Learning About Reading, Writing, and Teaching with First Graders. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann.

Hansen, J. (1994). When Writers Read. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann.

Spinelli, J. (1990). Maniac Magee. New York: Scholastic

Pamela M. Curtiss has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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