Special Report

The Kids and I Learned Together

By Andrew Trotter — September 23, 1999 6 min read

Technology can provide a fertile medium for learning, but it is still the teacher who plants the seed. That’s a lesson that comes across vividly in Florence McGinn’s classroom.

“Fascination is the key,” the Chinese-American high school teacher says of her teaching philosophy. “You can establish the wonder, and once you do that, everything else follow’.”

McGinn has learned this both as a published poet and as an English teacher for 20 years, the past dozen of which she has spent at Hunterdon Central Regional High School in this affluent small town north of Trenton, N.J.

At 52, she has a joyous intensity about poetry and English literature, and her classes draw on students’ reflective and creative impulses.

“I want them to internalize their learning,” she says. “Because of that, I want them to create, to mirror their experience.”

McGinn relies heavily on technology to put her teaching philosophy into practice, using everything from CDROMs and Web sites to HyperStudio and a digital video camera.

Her efforts have received national recognition: last spring, U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley named McGinn as one of his three appointees to a new congressional commission on Web content.

To spend a day in her class is to understand how a teacher can u e technology to enhance her subject without overwhelming it.

Intensifying the Learning Process

McGinn is fortunate to have the resources to make her goals possible. Hunterdon Central offers an educational setting in which technology approaches the saturation point-with 1,200 computers for 2,400 students, and a network powered by 39 file servers.

McGinn’s specially designed classroom has 16 late-model computers-more than one for every two students-loaded with creative tools for producing multimedia and other types of publishing projects. In the room’s center is a tall portico-like structure with black columns, inside of which run computer cables. Underneath is an open space for student presentations-"our theater in the round,” McGinn says. Small work tables around it are arranged either for individual or group work.

In McGinn’s Honors Imaginative Process class, for 11th and 12th graders, students examine artistic creativity through literary works, including Oedipus Rex and the stories of Henry James. Students’ own creative projects, both poems and “free writes,” are a key element of the course.

But these writing projects rarely stop there. Students in “Cyberlit” –as the class is informally called-often use their writings in elaborate HyperStudio presentations. They add their best work to a class Web site and their student portfolios.

Creating and publishing their work “intensifies the learning process,” McGinn says. “The learning is not isolated-that’s very important to me.”

Technology also assists in class discussions. One morning last spring, for example, students started a discussion of Oedipus Rex by watching a video of an excerpt of the play read by a student, Ju tin Pope. The three-minute passage, plus Pope’s explanation of why it was intriguing, was recorded the day before by the digital camera trained on the theater in the round.

Not only is his presentation a permanent resource for the class, it can be made available on the Web to students who were absent, or to anyone else.

Taking the Leap With Students

In the fall semester, students practiced the literary skills of observation and description by digitizing pictures of themselves as preschoolers along with current portraits, and writing about how their 4-year-old features compare with the way they look now. Drawing on interviews with family members, they wrote poems or essays to use in multimedia collages about their childhoods.

“They personalize it, they interpret it, focusing on mood, image, symbolism, audience,” McGinn says, ticking off literary elements.

She also oversees the staff of Electric Soup, a Web-based literary magazine that publishers work by many of her students, community members, and students from other countries.

In fact, McGinn first learned about the Web in 1995 when a student approached her with the idea of an online literary magazine. She took the leap and explored the Web alongside her students. That first year, the fledgling Electric Soup site won a state award.

More awards, grants, and partnerships have followed-most recently the participation of McGinn and her students in a pilot project with Tegrity Corp., based in Yehud, Israel. The company, which has its U.S. headquarters in San Jose, Cali£, wanted to see how the class, would use an array of new software and equipment, such as the digital video camera that records student presentations.

“They gave us the equipment and said, ‘Go play,’ ” says Bob Zaino, a senior in McGinn’s independent study class.

Another collaborative project is with the honors English class at Asbury Park High School, a resource-poor inner-city school that has a broader partnership with Hunterdon Central High. Students regularly exchange and critique each other’s writings, and they write collaborative pieces almost every week.

Notably missing from these technologies are educational CD-ROMS that are designed for instruction. “We use tools in here more to create our own content,” says Emily Judson, a junior in one of McGinn’s classes.

McGinn prefers CD-ROM archives of music or photographs, which students can select and manipulate before combining them with words. She also does not subscribe to any online educational service ; instead, her students u e the Web to access information, communicate with others, and present their work.

Technology Replaces Tradition

McGinn was a traditional English teacher, administrators say, before she took a sabbatical in the 1993-94 school year, during which she earned her master’s degree and completed a book of poems, Blood Trail.

She also worked at SRI International in Menlo Park, Cali£, visiting high-tech schools. She returned to Hunterdon convinced that computer tools could help students tap their experiences.

“Technology seemed to me to be virtually ideal, because of the concept of having students experience things,” she says.

By that time, after several years of investments, Hunterdon Central had a lot of technology to offer. And the school soon switched to block scheduling, which allowed more uninterrupted time for student projects.

Electric Soup and other special projects kept her after school to work with students and use technology. “The kids and I learned together,” she says. “We’d sit down around the table and talk about the software.”

In fact, she says, her students have been her best source of technology training. “Students can model for us, because of the natural affinity they have for technology.”

Hunterdon’ administrators say McGinn has made the most of technology because she has been willing to step out onto a professional limb.

“Teachers are not risk-takers, but Florence is,” says technology director Ron Pare. “She has gotten past the fear that she’ll do something in front of the class, and it’ll fail.”

Once the congressional commission on the Web is fully assembled, possibly by this fall, it will hold hearings around the country and recommend ways of helping schools acquire high-quality online content. When she meets with the commission, McGinn says she will share her view that students should be using the Web in ways that are “interactive, collaborative, and global.”

Such uses involve turning over to students a lot of control of the curriculum-an approach that doesn’t necessarily jibe with the trend toward specific academic standards.

“You’ve got to be willing to let the kids contribute,” McGinn says.

A version of this article appeared in the September 23, 1999 edition of Education Week