Mercer Island teachers embrace cyberspace

Podcast. Blog. Wiki. Hyperlink. It may sound like gibberish to some, but most Island students are fluent in this Internet language.

“This is their world,” Mercer Island School District Director of Technology Jennifer Wright told the School Board during a technology update earlier this month.

Indeed, the Internet has replaced television as the new “tube” of today’s youth.

But it’s not just about entertainment. Laptops are becoming the new spiral notebook, artistic canvass, science lab journal — you name it — for students, K-12. Over the past 10 years, online technology has taken the classroom.

Mercer Island teachers, in particular, are embracing the Internet — whether designing class blogs or assigning interactive iVideo projects — as a new medium of education without, they say, abandoning traditional values.


A recent essay in Atlantic Magazine on the popularity of blog journalism states, “Blogging is to writing what extreme sports are to athletics: more free-form, more accident-prone, less formal, more alive. It is, in many ways, writing out loud.”

And this is often what children need, educators say — creative encouragement. Island teachers have caught on to the trend and are using blogs to push individuality within the classroom.

“One of the best things about online blogging is that students can write anonymously [using blog aliases],” Wright said, citing a recent 9th-grade blog discussion about the book and film, “Ordinary People.”

“The students really liked this. They felt more comfortable expressing their individual identity.”

Blogging, which is essentially posting a journal or reflective writing online (the term “blog” is a combination of the words “Web” and “log”), enables the student to write in a public setting since others can visit the site and read all entries posted. Students can read their classmates’ blogs and respond immediately in a “comment.”

A blog facilitates peer discussion — as well as criticism, encouragement and idea sharing -- within a digital context.

At Mercer Island High School, blogging has been used in several forms. The MIHS band created a blog for their April 2008 trip to China.

Throughout the trip, music teachers Parker Bixby and David Bentley, along with several students, would sit down in front of a computer and journal their experiences. They uploaded photos — performing on the Great Wall, laughing with Chinese children; reflected on cultural differences, documented daily events and sent hellos home to family and friends.

Today, the blog still exists — a collective account of student perceptions from day one in Beijing to their departing flight home.

But there are also less exotic blogging assignments.

Most Island teachers use the blog format for what they call “threaded discussion,” a sequential list of student responses to a topic question. Depending on the class, students may either post under their real names or blogging aliases that only the teacher knows.

A recent MIHS psychology class blog discussion included candid and thoughtful answers from students named “Louis Lane,” “Hello Kitty” and “Axle Rose,” among others.

MISD teachers also use the blog format to post weekly homework assignments with links to downloadable reading material and online resources. Using the instant “comment” feature, students can post questions — with the date and time for accuracy — about the assignment for others to read. Both teachers and students can respond.


The Wiki is another popular option with MISD teachers. Similar to a blog page, Wikis enable students to post homework information, lecture notes and textbook discussions online. What distinguishes a Wiki from other Web pages, however, is that anyone can add to or edit the content, much like the ubiquitous Wikipedia.

Most Mercer Island High School teachers have a Wiki site so that students can post class notes for others to review. The page is especially helpful for students who may have missed a class. Rather than get the notes from a teacher or friend, the student can simply read what he missed on the teacher’s Wiki page.

“It really takes a load off,” said MIHS senior Annette Chung. “If you miss class, you can just check the Wiki for notes.”

Chung’s classmate, Henry Brockway, added that Wikis can also help students with course content.

“People post new terms, clarify homework questions and correct things on the Wiki. It’s really helpful in my calculus class,” Brockway said, adding that students earn participation points for offering to post such information.

Yet there is a flip side to the Wiki. One predominant concern among teachers is the need to monitor such sites for accuracy. Since students can edit the Wiki pages themselves, this allows for both inaccuracies and, in some cases, creative humor.

“Content management and social responsibility is a big area that needs to be looked at,” said School Board member Adair Dingle, who is on the faculty of Seattle University’s Computer Science and Software Engineering Department, in response to Wright’s update on Wiki use in the classroom.

Superintendent Gary Plano backed this concern, adding that he would discuss the subject with educators and was hopeful that solutions could be found.

The U.S. government is also looking for solutions. In an effort to police the tempting freedoms of online writing, the Senate recently passed a bill stating that any district that receives technology funding is required to teach Internet safety as part of the program.

Mercer Island is already there. A large part of the 2008 tech levy’s $6.7 million will go toward staff training.

This past August, every teacher in the district was required to attend a two-day technology training camp. Less formal training will continue throughout the school year.

The district has also used levy funds to hire two “technology teachers on special assignment,” educators with expert computer skills who help teachers set up and execute technology-based curricula.

Sarah Olson and Julie Hoven, both former MISD teachers, have taken on this new responsibility.

Olson, who has a background in computer science and a Master’s in English, works with grades six through 12 while Hoven focuses on the Island’s three elementary schools. Every day, the women move from classroom to classroom, helping teachers navigate their way through Web-page setup or working with individual students on iVideo projects.

“Teachers don’t always have the time to learn these new programs, so I step in and create lessons and then the teachers can take it from there,” Olson said. “In the past, without this position students and staff were left to figure out how programs worked on their own.”

Yet Olson was quick to emphasize that she is not simply a “techie.”

“Julie and I explain to teachers how to use the software to make their curriculum stronger and gain better understanding of their topics.”

Asked whether or not she thought the freedoms that come with online posting would pose problems for teachers, Olson voiced confidence in student discretion.

“Sure, it’s possible for kids to post something inappropriate or inaccurate, but I’ve not seen anything in that regard,” she said. “Kids police themselves. If something inaccurate is posted, a student is usually the first one to point this out.”

Brockway echoed this point. “If the Wiki is used as a supplement to class content, you can easily catch anything that looks wrong.”

More important in the broader sense, providing youth with such freedoms now prepares them for a future that demands Internet responsibility, Olson pointed out.

“If they’re going to be out on the Web all the time, it’s our job to teach that responsibility and teach them how to communicate through the Web,” the technology advisor said.

Olson added that computer education software has not — and most likely will not — replace the traditional methods of pencil and paper.

“I don’t think this is replacing the meat of the curriculum,” she said. “It’s just a new way to engage kids.”

For a full update on tech levy funds in the classroom, visit the district’s Web site:, look under “Staff Resources” for “Technology Integration Resources” and then click on “Wright.”

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