Email inspires Frank Miracola's students to expand their world.
Credit: Joan Hughes
For my dissertation pilot study at Michigan State University, I interviewed and observed four fifth-grade teachers who use technology to support their curricula. Frank Miracola teaches at Armada Elementary School in Armada, Michigan, a rural town located 45 miles north of Detroit.
In September 1998, Frank began his twenty-third year of teaching. He still feels his education degrees did not prepare him well for teaching. Even after using computers for sixteen years, Frank says, "I am not a techie. If it breaks, I just want to know the fastest way to get it working."
In the early 1980's, Frank began learning about Logo, the computer language for children. He then taught Logo as enrichment outside of class. He also began using a word processor and saw its value in overcoming his own penmanship and spelling. A few years later, Frank met Jim, a doctoral student at a nearby university.
Jim put Frank's students in e-mail contact with Robin Hill, a clerical worker in Australia. Frank said his students began by asking simple questions: "'What is Australia?' 'Do you have kangaroos in the street?' It was giving my children a written interpretation of what life is like in Australia. It was phenomenal."
A Great Lakes Collaborative grant provided Frank's classroom with a computer, scanner, video camera, laser printer, and Internet access. Frank recalls, "That grant really turned the page, and I really took off." E-mail correspondence again provided his students with the motivation to write and expand their world.
"One Australian student talked about the Gold Coast in Brisbane. What did my student do when he got the letter? He wanted to do research to find out where the Gold Coast is. One Australian student asked, 'What does it feel like when it snows?' I had my students go outside and feel the snow and come back in and write about it. It gave them a reason to write."
Opening the world to his students also made discussions about racism much more relevant: "My students now have [e-mail] partners who are different races, colors, religions. Before, I would tell them that you shouldn't be prejudiced. Now, they have a partner who is black or Jordanian and that gives them a reason not to be prejudiced."
One of Frank's favorite projects involves exchanging local field trip information. Frank's class used a still camera, scanners, video cameras, and HyperStudio to present historic Greenfield Village to partner classrooms studying the Industrial Revolution. Instead of mindlessly walking through "another old building," Frank's students worked with a purpose in mind -- "to tell what you have learned to somebody else." Even after his students completed the report, they continued to ask questions and learn about these sites.
Frank credits his principals with helping him focus on technology as a professional development goal. One helped him write the Great Lakes equipment grant. His classroom now has eight Macintoshes, four of them networked. "Every one of our first ten Macintoshes was a result of fundraisers and creative finagling. See those Macintoshes, all networked together? They were all throwaways from the high school. All I had to do was ask, 'Are you using them?'"
Frank is currently president of MACUL (Michigan Association for Computer-Related Technology Users in Learning) and writes a teacher-to-teacher column in its newsletter. He also provides in services at his own school. Frank credits the Internet with putting him in touch with teachers around the world.
"Professional development, that's the other benefit happening on the Internet. Now I can go out and talk to someone in a school, say in California, and find out about multi-age classrooms or block scheduling. I have done projects with a partner in New York and, with my family, traveled to meet her. I met my partner from Australia and went to Hawaii and met my partner there. These individuals have become teaching partners in my classroom."
Joan Hughes is a doctoral student in educational psychology at Michigan State University in East Lansing.