Authenticity in an age of illusion by MikeJenny


									                      TEMA: Sprog og internationale projekter

Authenticity in an age of illusion
By Sanne Bork, Doreen Johnson, Elisabeth Rechnagel and Finn Sparsø

In a world where students are engulfed by             Applewood Heights Secondary School near
illusion from advertising to cyberspace, the          Toronto and Nordsjællands Grundskole og
value of providing a classroom learning               Gymnasium (NGG) near Copenhagen. The
environment that focuses on authentic                 program uses IT as a base and our platform
experiences cannot be underestimated. Our             is our website, Schoolconnexion (http://
students need guidance and encouragement    , built around a
in this multi-focused twenty-first century so         conference system where all online
that they can achieve not only breadth but            activities amongst the students take place.
also depth in their understanding of such a           Our joint study, started in the early 90s, has
complex universe. Ultimately they must be             gone through great changes in both
capable of communicating that knowledge               technological development and curriculum
and appreciation readily to others. IT                design. Our focus has never been on IT for
provides that ideal technology for the                its own sake; instead, we have always been
teacher who will adopt it and adapt it to             focused on creating a learning environment
build a bridge to the future for students.            where IT can be used to enhance the
                                                      academic and social skills of students to
IT by its multi-faceted nature encourages             prepare them to be global citizens.
new ways to convey academic skills, new
methodologies through which students can              More about this later but first some
work, and offers topicality through the               information about how it all started:
Internet. It is easier than ever to gather all
sorts of information from different                   When we look back at the early 90s when
perspectives; the students are no longer              we began our joint project, it’s amazing to
dependent on physical libraries or out of             see how far the technological development
date textbooks. Via email or conference               has taken us. Today we have the Internet,
systems, the students can engage in a                 and the WWW is full of websites
quality of dialogue that is highly motivating.        containing pictures, video clips, slide shows,
Furthermore, IT is ideal when it comes to             chat facilities etc. And every day new
establishing a collaborative learning                 features are being added at incredible speed.
environment: for students, by making it
easy to connect to other schools, and also            Our very first IT tool back in 92 was a
for teachers, when they are planning joint            Macintosh computer hooked up to a single
lessons for their crossnational classes. All          telephone line via a very slow modem. But
of these aspects must be seriously                    it worked for us and, even with what is now
considered and implemented in the virtual             old-fashioned equipment, we were able to
classroom.                                            provide marvellous experiences for our
This article is about ‘Schoolconnexion’, a
joint literature, issues based and student            But perhaps we should start by introducing
learning exchange program between                     ourselves.’We’ are presently four teachers

                      TEMA: Sprog og internationale projekter

from Applewood Heights Secondary                     and one personal section called ‘Bistro’. We
School and NGG who all share the same                want to give our students a ‘sense of
enthusiasm for technology and especially             community’ and interactivity; and, while we
the way IT can be implemented in the                 still see the students’ exchanges/travels as
curriculum. Our first communication was              strong links between our classes, onsite
established via AGE (a network set up by             forums designed for students to
Apple Computer called Apple Global                   communicate freely are most important
Education) and our classes used email to             when they are not meeting each other in the
connect: exchanging essays and responding            real world. Therefore, we have implemented
to assignments. For the first year or so this        features such as an elaborate conference
joint study approach worked well, but soon           system in which the students can discuss
the Internet and the WWW grew with an                and reflect upon all sorts of topics both
unforeseen speed and completely new                  related to their studies but also so that they
possibilities presented themselves to us in          are able to communicate personally without
websites that could be designed to suit the          interjection from their teachers. In order
needs of our program. Thus in 97, we                 for this level of communication to work
launched our first website and, even though          successfully, we have found that just having
it was a static page which only contained            a conference system is not enough. We
basic information, the fact that the students        must also provide the students with a sense
now had a common ‘meeting place’ was a               of ‘nearness’ and immediacy. Thus on the
significant improvement. However, we                 site in addition to the conferences there are
wanted our students to be able to exchange           also chat facilities and a kind of ICQ
information directly online and the next             feature where students can see who is
step was to build a conference system so             online and send immediate messages back
that students as well as teachers had their          and forth. This last feature is very popular
own forums where all sorts of topics could           and one that has added significantly to
be discussed. The conferences have proved            establishing the community feeling that we
to be a major step towards creating a virtual        find so important. What we are currently
classroom in which the students feel that            adding as the technology advances is
there is real interaction and where they can         webcam usage so that the students will be
engage in authentic discussions almost as if         able to discuss issues live.
they were sitting in their own classroom.
                                                     Today the technology is so far advanced
In sum, our evolution has been from simple           that almost anything seems possible but the
email exchanges in the early 90s to a multi-         overall question still remains: how can IT
purpose website built on a conference                and the Internet with its great potential be
system that includes chats, pictures and             an active learning tool, not a passive
webcams. In building the website (an                 medium comparable to video and
ongoing process), we are trying to mirror            taperecorders which have students watching
the structure of the traditional school. Our         and listening. We want our students to be
website is divided mainly into two parts:            interactive in their usage of IT, an
one for teachers and one for students. In            important issue that we will also consider in
the students’ area, there is one section             this article.
dedicated to schoolwork called ‘My Area’

                       TEMA: Sprog og internationale projekter

What do we teach? Some of the                         In the second week each student of each
practical aspects of literature                       group must write an essay on their topic
instruction                                           involving a discussion of the relevance of
One of the current literary works in our              Shakespeare for contemporary students and
joint curriculum is “King Lear”. Over the             quotations from the research of the
years of our joint Shakespeare study, we              previous week.
have amended and added to the project.
This is how far we have come:                         During the first week of school after
                                                      December holidays, the students were
We prepare the students for their                     expected to read all essays by others on the
understanding of the play as we have always           same topic. They assessed what was
done; there is no mystery here. In the                common and what was different in the
school year 2001-2002, we began reading               various responses and as a group wrote a
the play right after the October holidays             400 word critical response in which they
and finished it in the last days of                   reached a conclusion regarding the topic as
November. While reading the play and                  such. Once again some quotations from the
talking about it, we also watched and                 essays were included as proof.
discussed a film version of ‘King Lear’ to
note how a director interpreted the text to           What with new laptops and good computer
make it live for his audience. In the two             facilities, the organization of this project
closing weeks of our studies, we had two              has been easy and smooth-running. The
weeks to work closely with the text before            students feel the authenticity of the
all students, Canadians and Danes alike,              conference, which in itself is a motivating
would be busy writing their Independent               factor. By reading the other responses, the
Study Units and afterwards celebrating the            students developed an insight into what is
holiday season.                                       relevant and what isn’t and they now see
                                                      that the writing process as a progressive
From the teacher’s perspective                        experience. Many students also feel that it is
The first step was to give the students a list        easier to express themselves freely in the
of essay topics that we found relevant for            conference rather than in class. Quiet
the understanding of the play and have                students have better opportunities; they can
them sign up for one of these while seeing            add comments at their own pace. It is
to it that the topics were divided evenly             advantageous for students to learn both to
among the students of each class.                     give and to take advice from fellow
                                                      students. At the end of this stage of the
In the first week of the assignment, each             joint project, the students appear to have
group found a number of quotations                    acquired real insight into “King Lear” and
important to a consideration of the chosen            depth and precision of their postings
topic. The students were expected to post             indicate the growth in their proficiency in
these quotations and, at the same time, add           both writing and ‘speaking online’.
comments, explanations and ask questions
of others working on the same topic. They             Global issues
were also expected to find contemporary               Along with their joint literature studies,
comparisons, even quotations if possible,             each year the students explore a relevant
that fit their topic.                                 global issue. Whether our discussions

                      TEMA: Sprog og internationale projekter

challenge the issues which are inherent in          the students were finally required to submit
such topics as freedom, cloning, global             individual work, viz. a proposal in which
warming or violence among youth in the              they had to influence someone of authority
world, students learn that local factors            (a mayor, a principal, etc.) to change,
influence global perspectives and that the          modify or adopt some policies or plans
individual can make a difference if he or           based on the students’ findings.
she decides to speak.
                                                    Just before the Canadian students visited
In 2000, for example, when the Danish               Denmark in March, there had been another
students came to Canada with their teachers         tragic school shooting in the USA. When
in September, Applewood and NGG                     the two groups of students met for their
students met for a joint session on “Youth,         joint project in Denmark, they were asked
Violence and the Media” with a focus on             to read an article on the Santee school
the question of how to make schools safer           shooting and then discuss a question
for students. In preparation, students              assigned to their group. The groups were
watched a CBC (Canadian Broadcasting                given questions such as: “What cultural
Corporation) video which summarized                 norms impede us from reacting when we
recent events and perspectives on youth             suspect a violent act will occur?” and “Is it
violence in North American schools, and             necessary to circumnavigate many of the
students discussed three articles to focus          rights and freedoms of individuals to
attention on the topic with some common             sustain a ‘just’ society?”
                                                    The discussion that ensued among the
The next day, three panelists presented             students proved to us that our social activist
different perspectives on the issues: an            stance appeals to students and that we
editor with The Toronto Star, the President         should continue to develop a curriculum in
of the Canadian Safe Schools Network and            which we consider major societal issues.
an attorney from the Ontario Crown                  Every year we see how the students find
Attorney’s office. After a question and             their voices. Collectively they determine
answer period, students worked in groups            that they vary little on issues of equity, race
to develop five recommendations which               and culture; they want a better world with
were to be a five-point action plan that, if        fair treatment and opportunities for all. The
implemented, could make schools safer               students explore issues with conviction and
places.                                             seek answers with zeal. Danes and
                                                    Canadians may not always agree on how to
These recommendations were posted on                reach a solution, but they come to respect
our website by each group and when the              the reasons for the differences in point of
Danes left Canada, the students continued           view.
the joint project on our website. The
students were asked to examine with the             Used in this way, IT may, we believe, add to
rest of the group questions that they might         and expand the traditional classroom by
be interested in exploring with reference to        giving students the possibility to engage in
the topic: youth, violence and the media.           authentic discussions about topical issues.
After much brainstorming and sharing of             Accuracy, correctness and argumentation
findings through research on the internet,          are necessary in order to make direct and

                      TEMA: Sprog og internationale projekter

persuasive statements. With IT, learning has          a seamless way. Whether the students are
the potential to become an active process in          online, or in person, the talk and shared
which the students must engage as opposed             laughter is spontaneous and ongoing. And
to passive acquisition of predefined                  not surprisingly, these relationships last
knowledge.                                            from year to year. We are still receiving
                                                      emails that students are visiting each other
Real time travel                                      from every class. Siblings too join the class
A dynamic dimension of this authenticity is           in subsequent years and report that their
a sincere desire on the part of our students          brother or sister has just returned from
to meet and work with the other                       Canada or Denmark or that they have just
participants each year. As part of the joint          met in Great Britain, France or Africa.
studies, the Danes travel to Canada for ten           According to graduates, these long lasting
days in the early autumn and the Canadians            liaisons were formed as a result of all the
travel to Denmark mid to late winter for              people they met in the class because
the same length of time. While together we            everyone has known everyone else. Has
not only have classes, introduce                      anyone married as a result of the
assignments and work in groups, we also               connection? Not that we know.
are billeted at each other’s houses ( teachers
are included in this as well) and get to know         Our experiences as teachers
what it is like to live with a Canadian or            Much of what we are doing makes a real
Danish family and experience the culture of           difference to the students and as teachers it
each nation.                                          is highly satisfactory to see that what we are
                                                      trying to achieve in the classroom with IT
To start this travel portion of the program,          actually works. Still, we are also aware that
we establish at the beginning of our joint            we must continue to work on our site to
project communications between our                    make adjustments and enhancements, we
Canadian and Danish groups several weeks              must consider our curriculum choices, and
before they even meet. The Danish                     we must adapt our pedagogy. The changing
students send off their bios so that as soon          nature of IT environments demands that
as the Canadians begin their new school               we keep up to date. What we did yesterday
year Danish bios are waiting for them, and            is not necessarily effective enough for
they immediately begin to work on their               today. Not only is IT being constantly
own and send them back to the Danes.                  enhanced, the skill levels of our students
Thus a highly prolific communication goes             are advancing at the same or a faster rate.
on in the period before the students                  When we first started, students knew very
actually see each other in person (their              little about IT. These days it is rare for the
photos are attached to all messages as soon           student not to have home access and easy
as they become users and get their                    facility with the medium.
passwords). These connections heighten
their anticipation and they very soon find            Our joint curriculum project has not only
out that this and that person shares their            continued to develop to fit the time and the
own interests.                                        new opportunities given us. Two more of
                                                      the Danish teachers at NGG, Sanne Bork
We find this travel a very necessary part of          and Elisabeth Rechnagel along with their
the joint experience and it operates in such          English classes have been involved in the

                      TEMA: Sprog og internationale projekter

project for several years; plus this year we         connection between schools. They are open
have added another grade that is working             to new ideas, when they provide growth
on a short joint project in both schools and         opportunities for students.
an additional teacher. The program keeps
expanding in many ways. Any limitations              How does the future beckon?
are the ones that we set, these are not              Our way has always been to look towards
imposed.                                             what will make the future better for our
                                                     students while including what worked in
Indeed, the administrators, Michael De               our curriculum from the past. Now we are
Angelis at Applewood Heights and Jan                 investigating ways to include video
Thrane at NGG, have been most                        technology on our site to enhance
supportive of this ongoing IT connection             experience, databases to sort information,
that stresses global education, technological        and connections with other grades within
advancement and international relations. At          our schools and with other schools to
each stage of our evolution, these school            expand our horizons.
leaders have actively engaged in the
discussion of our goals, provided budget             We all believe that in this multi-tasking
support and have participated in the                 world, where the skill sets of our students
program and the travel so much so that               are constantly changing and they are
both have been several times to each                 juggling a diverse portfolio, IT provides the
country. Their ongoing long term support             environment and the stimulus to make our
has facilitated and encouraged the                   students better communicators.


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