Professional Learning

One Teacher’s Story: Using E-Mail as a Teaching Tool

Incorporating the use of e-mail in the classroom was just the beginning.

August 5, 2003

Lynne Sueoka

Credit: Edutopia

Lynne Sueoka had been teaching for twenty years when she was thrust into the world of educational technology. At the time -- 1992 -- she was a language arts resource teacher on the island of Kauai in Hawaii. A couple of teachers wanted to use e-mail, and it was Sueoka's job to help them learn how. "I didn't know the first thing about it, but I needed to learn it to assist and support them," she says.

As she investigated the subject, Sueoka saw some interesting and educationally effective uses of e-mail, such as correspondence between students and a man on a bicycling tour of Japan. The exchanges were so interesting and so popular with the students that when the state of Hawaii offered a two-week "tech boot camp" at the University of Hawaii in 1993, Sueoka jumped at the opportunity.

E-Mail Partnerships

Later that year, she helped create a fourth-grade project in which students in Kauai compared stream studies with students on the West Coast and in New York. They communicated mostly through e-mail, although there were a few forays onto the mysterious World Wide Web. The students found the partnerships stimulating. "I guess it was so engaging for the kids because there's so much of an authentic audience," Sueoka says.

The following year, as a seventh-grade English teacher on Oahu, Sueoka continued the long-distance academic relationships. Her students would write poems that they'd send to Vermont students, who would comment and then write their own.

Each e-mail partnership, whether it was comparing differences in plants, sports, or marine life among Kauai and communities on the mainland, further confirmed Sueoka's initial reaction that technology provided an opportunity to teach and learn in a new, exciting, often longer-lasting and deeper, way. What really cemented her belief in the benefits of integrating technology into the curriculum was the enthusiasm of her own two children, who were invited to Washington, DC, to present a project they and another student did about Kauai city planning and sustainable growth. "It was almost like Sim City," she says, referring to the popular software where certain actions have certain consequences, whether it's about commercial and residential development or dating or supporting a home and family.

Content First

But even as she gained a working knowledge of technology, she never let herself forget the mantra, "content, then technology." All the PowerPoint, PhotoShop, Web page creation, hyperlinking, video editing, and interesting Web sites such as Global Schoolhouse, KidLink, and ThinkQuest would do little good without a solid curriculum. The idea was to let technology enhance curriculum and learning, not the other way around. But as long as that philosophy is followed, Sueoka has found, technology can be a huge help, not just in motivating students and helping them master material by reproducing it in different forms, but by allowing teachers to better assess students' progress as they go along and steer them in a different direction if they're having trouble. In the middle of a video project, Sueoka can tell if a student really understands how the Kansas-Nebraska Act played a role in the Civil War or knows the definition of metaphor.

Sueoka is still learning and is heavily involved in Moanalua's lauded professional development program, which includes moving teachers forward on the road to technology use and mastery. "There are a lot of teachers [who] look at technology with trepidation," says Sueoka. But when they see the enthusiasm and high quality of work produced by the students, "they just go for it." And, adds Sueoka, the teachers know they have the added benefit of technology experts. "The kids will help out," she says.

Diane Curtis is a veteran education writer and former editor for The George Lucas Educational Foundation.

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