Bringing the K-12 Classroom Online, Part 4

RJ’s Story

During the spring of 2005, Richard J. Hartwell (who prefers to be called RJ), began to develop and use an online course management system to aid in the instruction of his more than one hundred 9th grade Earth Science students. RJ was young — only in his second year of teaching — and quite familiar with all the technological tools available to educators at Fayetteville-Manlius High School. RJ was a remarkable individual who believed in experiential learning, a teacher who wanted to learn firsthand that which he would later teach. Because of his love of learning, he tackled new things with gusto, and wanted to share what he learned with anyone willing to listen.

So it was no surprise when I saw RJ using technology in ways that were new to me also. Though I originally taught him the rudiments of his online course management system, it was only a few months later that he was teaching me how to use this system as a means toward delivery of content. Even more interesting was the fact that he manipulated course management so that it used other technologies to help his students learn!

But let me back up a moment. Though I was aware of RJs success with the normal tools of his system, I was not familiar with his other exploits and his general approach to teaching. I came to know of RJ’s teaching and learning philosophy in a round-about way:

The eSchool News story “Ed tech spurs U.S.-China exchange: Kids urged to learn from Chinese peers” alerted me to a new emphasis upon connecting classrooms to China. The article mentioned the use of ePals, which I knew to be a nice program that helped match classrooms across the world. Since our course management system Blackboard had an office in Beijing, I thought there might be an opportunity for a language connection with one of our schools. My reasoning was this: Teachers in both cultures had access to a common suite of tools based upon a classroom “paradigm”. Why not try to connect one of my school classrooms with a classroom in China?

The Chief Operating Officer for the Cernet-Blackboard Information Technology Company expressed interest in supporting such a project. The next step was to find a school district (I work with 25 districts) with the most potential for such a project. I settled on Fayetteville-Manlius Central Schools because of four factors:

  1. The district was relatively new to the course management system and interested in creating model sites;
  2. A district survey revealed that more than 95% of homes had adequate Internet access;
  3. The district had a good infusion of up-to-date equipment in classrooms, and
  4. A new superintendent was very tech-savvy and interested in new ideas.

So I met with Superintendent Corliss Kaiser and Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Anita Pisano to learn if they were interested in developing an online program involving Chinese language instruction. Their response was, essentially, ‘Yes, it’s an interesting idea, but we’re not ready for that yet.’ However, they were interested in the connection possibilities. Upon discussion, Anita mentioned that the best teacher she knew who could use the technology appropriately was “RJ” Hartwell. She wondered if we could do something with him, even though he taught earth science. That is how I came to meet RJ “face-to-face”.

My first step before calling RJ was to review his online course support site. When I did so, I was amazed at what I saw. It was a Sunday night, and Hurricane Rita had just roared through Texas and was winding down. There, on RJ’s front page, was a link to a video clip of him, in the middle of the hurricane!

RJ and his friend Matt had gotten permission to leave school on Friday, fly to an airport close to the hurricane’s projected path, and rent a car. Using a digital video camera, Matt filmed RJ in various locations within the Hurricane’s path. Throughout, RJ discussed the dangers, discussed the science of a hurricane while measuring wind speeds, and created compelling video akin to any that was shown on national television. Returning Sunday morning, he edited and posted his video both as a sizeable thirty minute show and as a simpler one-minute clip for his students to watch and discuss on Monday morning. I happened to review his site that Sunday night!

Fast forward: in October I asked him if he was going to do the same for Hurricane Wilma, but he told me that the Florida path would offer him no avenue of escape should he be driving there! He was very aware of the dangers involved with “storm chasing”.

Back to our story: after seeing the above videos, I wanted to meet with RJ and did so that next week. We discussed the “China project” and moved forward. [More on that later.]

Following our first meeting, I noticed something new on RJ’s site, something I had not seen before. He had posted an audio clip supporting the discussion of “Rocks and Minerals,” a unit of study offered in mid-October. I listened to the clip, which had a foreword of “Welcome to Telcaster…”. I Emailed RJ for an explanation.

He explained that Telcaster is a Podcasting Website which allows a person to register and then use a supplied phone number and code to call in, speak a message, and exit. That message is stored as an MP3 file which can be downloaded or used from the Telcaster site.

Podcasting now made sense to me in the context of online audio support within a course. I tried it out with great success, convincing an author, Brian Connolly, to post readings of his work Wolf Journal to sixth-grade students who were using Blackboard to study his book as part of a science project and who were grouped in the course with college education majors for support.

THEN I saw files on RJ’s site with the extension .8xv

I had never seen that extension, so again I Emailed RJ to ask. “Oh,” he explained, “those are Study Card files for my students’ Texas Instruments calculators.”

I invited myself to his classroom, where, during a free period, he showed me how his students submit questions to him and how he then uses a free program from Texas Instruments, called StudyCards to create multiple-choice questions that can be downloaded to the TI calculators.So now RJs students can stand at the bus stop and practice taking quizzes related to the factual material he is teaching.

So if I were to review RJs course support site, I would find the normal documents, presentations, discussions and assessments allowed by the course management’s tool set. But I would also find supportive video clips, audio clips, and offline formative assessment files.

And the China connection? In late October we linked up with a Chinese-fluent Syracuse University professor, Dr. Jing Lei, who would be visiting Shanghai that December. The COO of the Cernet-Blackboard Information Technology Company suggested a “middle school” in Shanghai as a possible partner, due to its use of a Blackboard server stationed there. “Middle school,” as he explained, consisted of our grade-8 through grade-11 students.

RJ supplied a modified list of NY State Standards for Earth Science, with suggestions for common projects. Using this, Dr. Lei translated the Chinese “Geography” curriculum and provided RJ with the Chinese version and her translation. RJ and I were most interested in the fact that, in the Chinese curriculum, Earth Science is more an extension of geography and not sequenced beside the physical sciences of biology and chemistry.

Meanwhile our Blackboard contact gave RJ and Dr. Lei the URL of the Shanghai Minhang Second Middle School. RJ, Dr. Lei, and I met one afternoon and accessed the site. Of course it was in Chinese, so only Dr. Lei could follow the screen display. She found a “Bb” reference and was able to link to the school’s Blackboard site. It looked quite similar to our local site! [Note: recently upgraded to allow for multi-byte characters, the site looks LESS like our site now!]

The course catalog listed several “Geography” teachers and we were able to access their courses with Dr. Lei’s help. We were able to isolate and capture several presentations developed using MS PowerPoint. It was remarkable for us to run the shows! Theough they were in Chinese, they included images that let RJ know what was being studied and how it might relate to his own program.

Recently we received a message from our Blackboard contact. He included the Chinese response (which only Dr. Lei could read!) and then explained:

Hi all,

I talked with president Yu about this. He has learned
about Fayetteville-Manlius High School from the Website, and they are very interested in this. If possible, he wants to directly communicate with the president of Fayetteville-Manlius High School.

At this juncture, we are not sure where the project will go. Obviously we will try to keep the focus on the study of the Earth, but we are sure that other opportunities would arise if we could find common ground on this area of the curriculum and surmount the language differences. Superintendent Kaiser, the “president” of Fayetteville Manlius Central Schools, is contacting her counterpart in Shanghai while Dr. Lei is traveling there as part of a research project.

RJ is excited about the future and is truly an example of a young teacher employing technology as a means toward an end. Interestingly, he never mentioned “using Blackboard.” He only demonstrates the tools he knows and learns new applications to use them to further the education of his students…and of myself!

Email:Dan Lake

Previous articles in this series:

John’s Story
Rob’s Story
Marlene’s Story