In the aftermath of the biggest oil spill in American history last year, a group of teachers decided to provide a forum for students to record the devastating effects on their communities, environment, and culture. The following excerpt, from Spotlight on Digital Media and Learning, describes how educators used digital media to create an interactive, student-driven space called Voices on the Gulf.
By Josh Karp
“There’s not much of a teacher voice on the site. We begin with the students’ questions and not our questions,” explains Paul Allison, one of the project’s creators. “We work really hard in the background helping students come up with their own explorations. That’s an important part of our work.”
This has meant different things in different classrooms. Using a method known as i-search (as opposed to “research”) students came up with their own issues, found their own sources and did their own investigation of the topics they chose.
Kaylie Bonin, a 4th-grader in Margaret Simon’s class, wanted to write about the effects of the oil spill on birds. She used an interactive whiteboard to create an illustrated short story about a plover (a small coastal wading bird) named Clover who uses his smarts to “make a difference,” by rallying the dolphins to dive deep and stir up oil-eating micro-organisms to assist in the cleanup effort. (Read the story here.) The story generated such positive response that Bonin intends to self-publish her book using online tools and donate the proceeds from its sale to the National Audubon Society.
“Meeting” students from New York and other places far from rural Louisiana has motivated Bonin and exposed her to a larger world.
“It was exciting because you didn’t even know these people before,” Bonin, age 10, says. “But [through Voices on the Gulf] you get to meet new people and see what they think. I think it’s valuable to see the different perspectives of people who aren’t right there.”
Sixth-grader Alexis Babineaux, who posted a spare, powerful poem from the vantage point of an egret, didn’t realize how much of an impact she was making.
“I didn’t know how much it affected people. Some shared their personal stories,” says Babineaux, age 11. “I liked how they opened up to me. It feels good to have people that don’t even know you want you to write more and see what you have to offer.”
Simon says that the peer interaction has allowed her to push her students further in their work. When she thinks someone’s work needs improvement before it goes online, Simon says that they need only look at their classmates struggling to find better metaphors or push their writing – and the positive comments that come afterwards – for motivation.
“The site has inspired a lot of creativity, and the motivation of the feedback is very valuable,” says Simon. “When you are with a student and give them feedback, that’s one thing. But, if another student in New York or across the globe gives them feedback – that gives it weight.”
Allison believes this newfound passion is the result of providing real audiences for student work. That component, he says, creates work that reflects the student and his or her interests, rather than what’s expected of them by a teacher. The result is often more than simply the completion of a class assignment.
“It’s not just that you have three quotes in this thing that you’re writing,” Allison says. “It’s learning how to be real in your writing. That’s what’s most valuable.”