The Seeds of E-Collaboration
Cooperative projects among distant classrooms are growing like weeds.
By Brian McDonough
Teachers have always worked together. They were taught by teachers.
They have always shared information, resources, teaching ideas. And long
before the first computer was plugged into a classroom, students have collaborated.
Group projects, inter-class efforts, even school plays. But communications
technology has taken this organic process and accelerated it. The Internet
is a global hothouse for ideas and enthusiasm. Teachers now seek advice
from peers on the other side of the country. Web sites link children from
In classrooms throughout California, projects are linking our teachers
and students to peers in farflung places. Here are a few California teachers,
a few CUE members, explaining how they have used online collaboration to
let projects rooted in basic education standards blossom into far-reaching
yet simple activities that excite students and drive the lessons home.
Marcia Russell was a first-grade teacher at Rancho Romero, an elementary
in Alamo, California, who wasn't afraid to get her hands dirty - in the
figurative sense of rolling up her sleeves and learning to work with technology,
and in the literal sense.
Russell had her children growing a garden at school. Using class gardens
to teach an appreciation of nature, an understanding of food production
and satisfaction in accomplishment isn't uncommon. Which is why Russell
decided to use the Internet to reach out to other young gardeners. Her
students were interested in finding out what other classes that maintained
gardens were doing and planting. "I posted to a [gardening] project Web
site," Russell says. The site drew classes from around the world to talk
about their gardening efforts. "I wanted my students to work with them,
hear about what other schools were doing."
The discussions of what other schools were growing - or not, because
of the local season - brought up complex questions of climate, hemispheres
and the foods common to other regions. And it was a simple project to get
into -Russell just posted her interest and contact info. "We had people
contacting us from around the world on the first day."
It's the sort of project she says works well with even the youngest
children. If students are too young to compose individual letters, the
teacher can type a collaboratively written class letter.
Peg Stahler teaches 20 second and third graders in her multi-age classroom
at Rolling Hills Elementary in the Poway Unified School District, north
of San Diego. Earlier this year, her students participated in a writing
project that had them collaborating with students to put together a short
"This was a project I found on Global Schoolhouse," she says. "It was
called the Global Writing Project. Six schools participated in the story.
We did the first part, then it went to Texas, then to Iowa, New Jersey,
Taiwan and Alabama."
Stahler's students started the story with two long paragraphs - a fair
creation for a room full of elementary students - and sent it off. The
Texas students added two paragraphs on their own, taking the story forward.
And on it went, with the students receiving and discussing each addition,
until it was in the hands of the Alabama class.
The Alabama kids' conclusion to the story ran late. Two weeks late,
and Stahler's anxious children were asking daily whether the ending had
"We decided to write our own," she says. "We went ahead, and each child
wrote their own conclusion."
Thinking about storytelling, both in starting the project and in watching
it develop, provided invaluable writing lessons, Stahler says.
"We did a lot of brainstorming," she says. "First we had to decide what
kind of story they wanted to write - mystery, science fiction?"
They decided they wanted to do a story about an animal, and they picked
a great white shark. "Second and third graders love great white sharks,"she says, laughing.
Stahler says students that age can write stories, no problem. It's getting
them to understand how to structure a story that's work. Establishing characters
and setting was a lesson in itself.
"The kids started the story with a family taking a trip to Hawaii, and
went into the background, developing the story," she said. "When they got
to the end, they realized they'd forgotten to mention the shark."
Fortunately, they were working with other kids their age. To their joy,
the New Jersey students chose to insert a shark in their chapter.
The Alabama conclusion came in a day after Stahler's class had penned
their own, and they were able to compare their work to the other class'
effort. Stahler says every chapter was a good addition to the story, but
even if one of the participating classes had turned in a real clunker,
there would have been a lesson in dissecting the failure for what made
it unsuccessful. And collaborating outside the classroom gave the
students a chance to think and discuss that they wouldn't have had if they'd
simply written an entire story in their classroom.
"We did a lot of predicting - 'What do you think Iowa will have happen
next?'" she says. "I don't know we could necessarily have done that working
only in our classroom. As other people added their part, I could ask, 'How
did this paragraph help the story?'"
Stahler says this was her first truly online collaboration. Previously,
the Internet had led her to an offline project in which students from 32
states had exchanged postcards. She found the online project to be simple,
with most of the work - the brainstorming, composing and analysis - taking
place off the computer. When it was time to send out their chapter
or check for others, it took only a few minutes on one of her classroom's
five computers. It was, she says, well worth the small step into cyberspace.
"There were a lot of teachable moments," she said. "I'm definitely going
to do it again."
Down Under & Under Sea
Dianne Graves teaches fifth grade at Painted Rock Elementary, in suburban
North San Diego County. Her 28 students have three Internet-enabled computers
and printers in their classroom, though for her
letter-writing collaboration with an Australian teacher, she prefers
to have the children write in the computer lab, where they have 32 computers
and can save their work to the school server.
She and a teacher in rural Australia have been trading email
for some time, and have their students doing so as well. The cultural exchange
excites students, and provides an opportunity to address a number of standards.
"Well, of course it ties to writing," she says. "Writing to a specific
audience, letter writing, correct grammar. The fact that we live in two
different hemispheres brings up many questions, but we soon discovered
that our respective areas are very similar in weather and vegetation. We
also learned that many of the problems we face here are the same as there.
So, there's plenty of connection to social studies, geography, and science."
And the project is simple. The students write in a word-processing program,
and send email through a standard mail program. Attaching images or other
materials is simple.
Graves says the students love sharing basic information about their
lives, and finding the similarities and differences between their lives
in a Southern California suburb and those of their new friends in a more
agricultural stretch of Australia.
"Mostly they have talked about things all kids seem to enjoy - sports,
pets, friends, music, etc.," she says. And these dialogues prompt lessons
in everything from how they can have autumn while we have spring to the
international variations of English. "In our respective classrooms, I'm
sure there are conversations about differences in spelling, words, seasons,
temperature. We're learning that chooks are chickens, budgies are
parakeets, and netball is very similar to basketball."
The project has been extremely rewarding, Graves says. "I have the luxury
of being able to write to the teacher all year long. We have really enjoyed
our correspondence. It has been a low-maintenance project and very
easy to implement."
Given the demands on teachers' time, she recognizes that ease of use
is key to fitting such projects into a classroom's schedule. "I would tell
any teacher interested in doing this to jump right in," she says. "However,
in this age of heightened concern, I would want to know who was coordinating
the project and that the students were monitored. The other teacher
and I do not permit the students to exchange any contact information unless
we have signed permission from their parents."
This simple e-mail project isn't Graves' only venture into online collaboration,
however. She has been participating in the JASON project for several
years. The project, guided by Dr. Robert Ballard, famous for discovering
the wreck of the Titanic and making many advances in deep-sea research,
is an integrated science curriculum that engages the students in current
"The curriculum is expedition-based, and this year's expedition was
to California's Channel Islands," she says. "The curriculum is well-written
and meaty, but one of the best features of JASON is their Web site.
My students have online accounts that allow them to login to the JASON
Web site. From there they have access to interactive labs that reinforce
Students participate in chats, ask questions of researchers, post messages
and write in online journals. JASON is in its 15th year, and the
project site contains resources from previous years.
"This year my class has built models to show plate tectonic movement,
analyzed 'stomach contents' to determine if they came from a sea lion or
elephant seal, researched and summarized the decline of the endangered
island fox, learned characteristics of pinnipeds, and read several literature
titles related to the project," she said. "They've also learned about sampling
methods and how radio telemetry is used to track animals."
It's a full load of fascinating material, she says, and something that
could never be accomplished within the four walls of the classroom.
A Sense of Virtual Place
The gardening project was an early jump into technology for Marcia
Russell. "I'd just received $8,000 in computer equipment for my classroom,"she explains, "so obviously I felt obliged to use them."
Turned out to be a good career move. Within a couple years, Russell
was her school's tech coordinator. That's when she hooked up with third-grade
teacher Ruth Nathan for a project that involved collaborating with college
students. Nathan knew a professor at the University of North Carolina,
Charlotte. Dr. Sam Walton was working with his students on the concept
of "sense of place," discussing how people identify with the towns or regions
in which they live.
"I had been working on a project with Dr. Watson about sense of place,
and asked whether we could work collaboratively with my third-graders,"Nathan says. Soon college students on the east coast were exchanging email
with eight-year-olds in Northern California. Not only did the college students
get to talk to the youngsters about their senses of place, but they also
had to look at themselves, thanks to the unflinching curiosity of the elementary-school
students. "Dr. Watson felt his students got a better idea of why they were
studying sense of place from having to articulate it to eight-year-olds."
In contemplating sense of place, the children began looking at the Iron
Horse Trail, a marathon-length stretch of bike paths and walking trails
snaking through Contra Costa County in the eastern suburbs of San Francisco.
As shown on <www.cccoe.net/ironhorse/index.html>, the class Web site,
they studied the trail's history, from railroad days to contemporary efforts
to save the recreational route from neglect. They spoke to longtime neighbors
of the trail and, through the Internet, to some unusual guests.
A poet in Michigan was one virtual collaborator, and a folk singer in
Virginia was another. Both had made understanding sense of place central
to their creative work. Through the Internet, telephone and a CD of the
singer's songs, the children were able to enjoy the poetry and music, and
talk to the artists. Suddenly people with no connection to the classroom
were helping students learn. This, Nathan said, really underscored the
power of digital collaboration.
"It means," she said, "a lot more people in this world become teachers."