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Published in Print: November 1, 2001, as Computer Confidants

Computer Confidants

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A growing number of teachers are connecting in virtual staff rooms.

Just about the only time 1st grade teacher Cheryl Ristow doesn't like being online is when SNERTs appear on her favorite Web site. SNERTs, in Internet speak, are "snot-nosed, egotistical, raunchy teens." Occasionally, these kids show up in live chat rooms—places where Internet users trade instant messages in a public forum—and attempt to engage someone, anyone, in sex talk. And, from time to time, they infiltrate Ristow's hangout,

They're a minor nuisance, however, and the affable Californian isn't deterred. (Chat rooms generally have moderators monitoring the conversation, and those at kick SNERTs off.) In fact, during the summer and other school breaks, Ristow, 50, spends about six hours a day logged on to the Internet from her living room computer, and most of that time, she's on When school's in session, the 16-year veteran educator cuts back to three hours a day. "It's a terrible addiction," she laughs. "I'd be lost without it." Teachers, Ristow explains, "have such a limited amount of time to interact with other adults during the day that we are hungry for it during our off hours."

Apparently so. The popularity of and other Web sites that offer chat rooms for educators is soaring. "Early in 1998, when I scheduled the first professional-development chats, I was happy to be able to say we were logging more than 3,000 user sessions a day," recalls Kathleen Carpenter, director of promotions and professional development for "During the first quarter of 2001, we were easily exceeding 14,000 per day. Real-time chats with guests such as Howard Gardner, Harry Wong, and Alfie Kohn are so popular that they practically blow out the server." Tapped In, a site that connects individual teachers and offers organizations the technical support to host chats, has seen its membership grow from less than 500 users in 1997 to more than 3,500 now. co-founder Tony Bott, a former teacher whose doctoral research focused on virtual communities, believes educators are more likely than other professionals to benefit from online interaction. "Teachers are starving for opportunities to network with other teachers," he says. "Typically, when teachers leave work, they no longer have access to other teachers with new ideas, advice, or an ear for support."

The popularity of and other Web sites that offer chat rooms for educators is soaring. visitors—the majority of whom are elementary school teachers around age 40—echo this sentiment. Ristow, for example, found her cyberfriends a huge help when she was diagnosed with leukemia last year. Once, when she made a nervous call to a cancer center, her friend Kim Tracy kept her company in a chat room, lending virtual support from a computer 2,500 miles away. Some teachers even have claimed that without the emotional help they receive through the site, they'd have left the profession by now.

Teachers have several options for online interaction. One way is to post queries and responses on a message board, a list of e-mails split up by topic on a Web page. On the message board, for example, there are more than 70 subject areas, including "Earth Day projects," "substitute teaching," and "high school English." Web sites for teachers also may offer mailing lists, which are similar to message boards, except that responses to posted questions go to personal e-mail inboxes instead of a public page. Then there are the chat rooms—the live, supervised discussions available on only a small number of sites—that Ristow enjoys.

The chatting on is usually a casual, staff room-type discussion. Because it's live, with messages popping up from several sources almost at once, the conversation can be frenetic and disjointed. For example:

Cher/2/ca - Well, was on here late last night . . . and as usual dog and kitty wanted to be fed EARLY this am . . . LOL [laughing out loud]

Cher/2/ca - HI Wanni!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

wanni - im 29 male teacher from a rural village in sri lanka

fran - could be hi wanni seen you in here but don't think we've met

fran - wanni that must be quite different from here what do you teach

wanni - i'm new to this room

Cher/2/ca - wanni . . . welcome to the chatroom . . . I teach 2nd grade near San Diego, Calif. . . . and am old enough to be your mom . . . but with a "young" heart!

To chat room neophytes, this kind of exchange can be quite confusing. Chatters say that "newbies" sometimes leave frustrated because either the messages appear on their screens too quickly or the discussion is less professional than they were expecting. "The chat room has so many people coming and going that it is difficult to maintain lengthy professional discussions," admits Leslie Bowman, a former teacher in Richmond, Virginia.

But Web aficionados hasten to point out that valuable professional information does get traded in discussion forums. For example, Ristow learned about a literacy program called Four-Blocks online. After she tried it and posted comments about her experiences on, the program's creator asked her to write a chapter for the upcoming book True Stories From Four-Blocks Classrooms. Says Paul Heller, who moderates mailing lists on Classroom Connect, a site with a focus on online learning: "I think the type of work [teachers do] lends itself well to communicating via cyberspace. Lesson plans and project ideas are easily shared across e-mail."

Teachers who visit chat rooms say they do so because the sites are helpful and convenient—not because they're social misfits in their personal lives. In fact, offline gatherings have become something of a summer tradition for users across the country. Ristow, who has met chatters face to face several times, hosted a party at her home in Placentia, California, last summer. It wasn't long, however, before she and her guests were logged onto the Internet, taking turns swapping instant messages with teacher friends who couldn't make it to the gathering.

—Katharine Dunn

Vol. 13, Issue 3, Pages 6,8

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:: Web Resources

  • The Chat Center on gives teachers a way to communicate and network throughout the day. The site also hosts a place to share lesson plans, as well as mailrings devoted to specific subjects or grade levels.
  • Classroom Connect specializes in providing online resources for teachers who are members of the site. The company's neighborhoods section hosts discussion groups and weekly e-mail newsletters.
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