I. The Way We Teach Writing at Gilman
High school students must learn how to communicate effectively if they hope to compete in today's information economy. Students must learn how to express complicated ideas in clear language. They must learn how to shape a persuasive critical argument supported by telling evidence. Students must learn how to work effectively with each other, to respect differing opinions and to exploit differing talents. Facility with language enables young people to develop creative responses to complicated problems and to share their ideas with others. These are the basic facts of a good high school education. Increasingly, written compositions on standardized tests and college applications have become the most important measures of a student's ability and achievement. Good communication skills have become essential in the competition for entrance to the nation's top colleges.
At the heart of the high school adventure is the struggle of young minds to master essay form. One place where this hard work takes place is the Humanities classrooms where teachers use great literature to teach students the history of ideas. Students must grapple with dense language, digest large volumes of detail, discern important themes, devise provocative interpretations, and then commit themselves to the arduous process of expressing their thoughts in written form.
The teacher's job is to inspire students to engage rich ideas creatively and then persist in the writing process until their written response achieves clarity. For years and years great teachers have taught students good writing skills by bringing them into engaged and imaginative contact with the literature. Great teachers facilitate lively classroom debates about a text's potential meanings. They devise activities that exercise a variety of intelligences: verbal, but also visual, mathematical, musical, spatial, and kinetic intelligences. Great teachers inspire enthusiasm in the student to research critical sources and share their discoveries with their classmates. They finally send their students off on their own to do more close, imaginative reading and then draft their own compositions. At the end of an arduous process of writing, further discussion, re-reading, peer revision and proofreading, students submit completed essays for the teacher's careful scrutiny and prompt evaluation.
Good teachers not only correct spelling, grammar, and usage in these compositions, but they also offer constructive criticism about the essay's form, they prod students to delve deeper into the language, and they motivate students to go back and revise their work. Great teachers develop an intimate correspondence with their students over the course of a year. In ways not possible in the classroom, this private dialogue enables the teacher to nurture a student's confidence and challenge his intelligence. Teachers validate the student's development as an individual, thus inspiring him to raise the level of his effort, enthusiasm and achievement in a course. Student enthusiasm is the fuel of intellectual development.
How much of this process can be duplicated in an electronic environment? The rapid development of information technologies offers teachers new opportunities to reach beyond the traditional classroom to students interested in developing effective writing skills. Is it possible to reproduce in cyberspace the relationships between teacher and student, student and student, that exist in the Gilman classroom? Can the teacher inspire effective close reading of the text, enthusiastic peer discussions, and disciplined commitment to writing process? Can the same intimate correspondence between student and teacher be generated?
Daily personal interaction between teachers and students is, of course, essential to any excellent educational program. The power of the physical presence of teachers and peers is undeniable. The teacher can read many non-verbal signs in his interactions with the student. We can gauge moods and observe levels of concentration. We can offer reassurance and support through touch. Students, too, offer essential emotional support in the best classrooms. The intellectual electricity of the physical classroom is impossible to duplicate in cyberspace. So this prospectus should not be regarded as an argument for the replacement of the traditional classroom itself. Even so, any long distance program should strive to re-create the magical exchange of ideas and the emotional support that exists in the traditional classroom. The imaginative use of the computer's capabilities could help create a different and effective classroom environment. That ideal electronic classroom must still promote personal relationships between teacher and student and between peers themselves. The ideal electronic classrooms must strive to create exciting moments of intellectual fission that inspire the most dynamic exchange of ideas.
So, the electronic classroom must make use of the essential ingredients of an exciting learning experience: