A Tale of Two Cities

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About four years ago, two social studies teachers from these very different environments met through a chance encounter. Although they didn't know it at the time, they would soon join forces in an attempt to break down the barriers that separate their two schools.

In 1986, the Wayne County Intermediate School District, which oversees both the Highland Park and Grosse Ile districts, received a state telecommunications grant to pay for on-line computer time and teacher training. The district needed teachers who were willing to try out computers and modems in their classrooms. Although neither had much technological experience, Jerome Sullivan of Highland Park and John Maunu of Grosse Ile volunteered.

That first year, Sullivan says, his and Maunu's classes were "caught up in the glitz.'' They used the communications equipment to call such far-off places as Germany, Japan, and Saudi Arabia. "It was fun,'' he says, "but it was haphazard and very artificial.''

Although Sullivan and Maunu had no formal plans for jointly using the technology, their classes occasionally passed electronic notes back and forth.

Then, during Black History Month in 1987, the classes discovered they had a common subject to discuss. "Grosse Ile doesn't do much for Black History Month, and we do quite a bit,'' Sullivan says. So students from both schools held discussions, via modem, on black history. "John and I said to ourselves, 'When these kids have something to work on, they work well together,'' Sullivan says.

Out of that simple realization, "Connections'' was born. The teachers wanted to transform their students from passive electronic pen pals to enthusiastic participants in a stimulating dialogue, so they got together and developed a joint curriculum in history, critical thinking, and problem solving. There was one small problem: Because Maunu teaches 12th grade advanced placement European History and Sullivan teaches 10th grade honors World History, there wasn't much overlap in their lessons. They decided to focus Connections on the one point on which their classes did converge: the French Revolution, specifically the Charles Dickens classic A Tale of Two Cities. The program, while not designed to be technology driven, required students to use computers and modems to do their assignments.

The two teachers knew that their students enjoyed chatting with their counterparts in foreign countries, but they also knew that international telephone calls were expensive and not necessary to expose their classes to cultural diversity. "Jerry and John realized that the Grosse Ile kids and the Highland Park kids were as remote from each other as any of the foreign kids they talked to,'' says Keith Zook, computer coordinator at Grosse Ile, who was instrumental in getting the Connections program up and running. "And in Detroit, the chance that either group would ever get to know the other was slight.''

For Maunu, Connections gave him a way to fulfill one of his fundamental objectives as a teacher. "It's my duty to lift my kids out of the classroom and into the real world,'' he says. "And, in the real world, there are people of different backgrounds, different cultures. This project offered a chance for my students to get beyond the four walls of the classroom.''

To carry out the project they envisioned, the teachers realized they would need more than the single computer each class had; they would need fax machines, access to databases, and money to pay for phone lines, field trips, and on-line computer time. Over the next two years, Maunu, Sullivan, and Zook applied for, and received, $35,000 in state technology grants. The money was split equally between the two schools. They bought fax machines with built-in telephones, laser disc players, modems, computers, dot-matrix printers, televisions with built-in VCRs, video cameras, CD-ROM technology, and hard drives. The grant money also paid for phone lines for their classrooms and covered the cost of joint field trips.

The way the two classes managed their expensive equipment illustrates further the difference between the two schools. In Maunu's Grosse Ile classroom, the back wall was lined with an impressive array of high-tech gadgets worth well over $10,000. But when Sullivan's class met, a fax machine and a single computer, both stored in a locked room, were wheeled into the classroom on a utility cart. The rest of the Connections equipment was set up in the main library, where students from other classes could use it, as well.

Students at the two schools used the fax machines and computers with modems to communicate with each other and collaborate on joint research projects and reports. Although the students rarely met face to face, they communicated almost every day. In so doing, they learned how to interact more effectively with people of other races and economic backgrounds. And, despite the differences in race and class, many began to see that they were more alike than they had realized.

For the next two years, Maunu and Sullivan experimented with the Connections curriculum, fine-tuning it as they went along. During the second year of the program, things started "jelling,'' Sullivan says. He and Maunu developed a rhythm that enabled them to work all the disparate parts of the program into a single academic year. The classes spent the fall semester getting to know the technology and each other and spent the spring semester studying the Dickens novel and the tale of their own two cities.

In recognition of their efforts, Maunu, Sullivan, and Zook received a Christa McAuliffe Fellowship from the National Foundation for the Improvement of Education, an organization created by the National Education Association. The fellowship enabled the three educators to attend an intensive summer conference in 1989 on the theme of technology in education. The fellowship, they say, helped them "solidify'' the program. "It's difficult to explain how much [the fellowship] did to bond us,'' Sullivan says. "When we came back that next year, things just sort of took off.''

To break the ice, the two teachers had their students draw their impressions of their respective communities. Then they faxed the pictures to each other. On both sides, misconceptions abounded. The Highland Park students, for example, pictured Grosse Ile as a booming metropolis, not a sleepy suburb.

Moreover, many of the drawings were misconstrued by students. One drawing by a Grosse Ile student was completely misinterpreted by the Highland Park class. The student had taken a sheet of white paper and drawn a black circle in the middle. "My kids took one look at it and immediately thought [the artist] was talking about our blackness, or they thought it was a bullet hole,'' Sullivan says. "But when the two groups discussed the drawings, the Grosse Ile girl said her picture represented the strength of the black community in Highland Park holding up against the whiteness of the suburbs all around it. It was a thought-provoking experience for my kids.''

And it was the first of many to come.

After the students had become comfortable using the basic technology, they used the computers and fax machines to exchange questions on current affairs, seeking perspectives different from their own. One day, for example, a white student at Grosse Ile typed, "What do you think of Jesse Jackson?'' on an Apple II computer and sent it by modem to Highland Park. And a black student from Highland Park asked a Grosse Ile student: "Do you consider yourself a racist?''

Because they communicated computer-to-computer rather than face to face, many students found it easier to ask tough questions. Also, because on-line computer time costs money, the students were forced to drop conversational niceties and get straight to the point.

A month after the school year began, the two classes met for the first time on a field trip to examine the University of Michigan's computerized library system. Although the two classes rode in the same bus for the hour-long trip to Ann Arbor, few students were bold enough to mix with those from the other school. "They were shy,'' Maunu says. "A couple of kids mingled, but basically everyone stayed with their own class.''

In the afternoon, the students were divided into mixed-school teams and sent off on a scavenger hunt, armed with a list of questions, such as "What building is on the corner of South University and Church Street?'' The teams had to work together to track down the answers. The first squad back to the bus with the correct answers won tickets to see a University of Michigan basketball game.

"The lesson involved communicating and working cooperatively,'' Maunu says. "The teams that came back last or with the wrong answers were the teams that split up and did not work together. The successful teams got down to it and communicated. They were open and willing to compromise. And that's really the focus of our program--getting diverse kids together and communicating.''

After this exercise in team building and communication, the students began working on joint school projects. And, in January, both classes began the unit on Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, the focal point of the Connections curriculum.

As the teachers taught the book, the students discussed the novel together via computer and fax machine. Joint papers were assigned, so the students kept busy faxing drafts back and forth and querying one another on the computers. At the end of the unit, the students took the same test. "Scores came out about the same,'' Sullivan says, proud of the performance of his 10th grade class.

In the spring, the classes gathered for a day of activities at Grosse Ile (the host school for this spring meeting has alternated each year since then). The day began with a panel discussion on racism. The panel included Grosse Ile's few Asian and Arab students, as well as visiting exchange students from Argentina and the Netherlands. After the panel members related the experiences they'd had as non-white or foreign students in a predominantly white, American environment, the audience was free to ask questions.

"The Grosse Ile kids discovered some things about racism that went on in their own school district that they weren't aware of,'' Zook says. "And the Highland Park kids discovered that racism is not only against blacks.''

That afternoon, the students began to work on another assignment: They were to write, produce, and videotape a dramatic presentation comparing a modernday revolutionary figure with a character from A Tale of Two Cities. Again, the students were divided into mixed-school teams; they were given two weeks to work on the scripts before meeting again for the taping. Of course, that meant they had to confer by modem and fax to work out the details. The final projects included some imaginative concepts, such as Arsenio Hall hosting Madame DeFarge and Nelson and Winnie Mandela on his talk show.

"The thing that touched me most about the whole project was what happened with one girl in my class,'' Sullivan says. "This girl did not have a good attendance record; she did not do her work. She even got a 34 on the A Tale of Two Cities test because she never read the book. In her group project, she was chosen to play Madame DeFarge. In the two-week period she had to prepare, she read the book--even though she couldn't make up the test or improve her grade on it--and she became Madame DeFarge. She learned all her lines. She was perfect.''

This year, Connections has become a tale of four cities: Two more high schools have been added--Fordson High School, a predominantly Arab-American school in Dearborn, and Detroit Western High School, which has a large Hispanic population. Sullivan and Maunu are still jointly teaching the French Revolution, but the four high schools focus together on global issues. Students have been assigned to mixed-school groups and told to come up with solutions to a world problem--anything from poverty to illiteracy to pollution. The teams must formulate their own solutions, not just reiterate those offered by others.

On a recent day at Grosse Ile, students work in groups of three and four, discussing ways to narrow down the problems to a manageable size. When they get stuck, they scurry to the fax machine and send off a query to team members across town. Others search CD-ROM databases to see what solutions have already been proposed.

"I think this is a great class,'' says senior Derrick Barnstale. "You're automatically looking up things. Information isn't just being hand-fed to you.''

His groupmate Mark Schnake chimes in: "It's good for preparing for the future because you're talking to other cultures. It's teaching us to work with other people.''

In the back of the room, waiting to use the telephone to call Highland Park, student Cheryl Rockwell says she likes having the opportunity to speak out. "There are not a lot of classes where you can speak up and say exactly what you think,'' she explains. "We've had some hot discussions in here.''

At Highland Park the next day, a group of girls discussing teen problems such as pregnancy, drug abuse, and suicide take a break to talk about Connections. "I like this class because it prepares you better for what's going to be out there,'' Cherrita Perry says. "I'm doing things that I have never even thought about doing or thought I could do.'' Although all the girls like working with the high-tech tools in their classroom, they say the best part of the program is communicating with the other schools.

"I really enjoy working with the other students,'' Stacey Moseley says. "I met a girl and her name was Stacey, too. We seemed so much alike, but I'm black and she's white. We got along really well. These are people you wouldn't meet otherwise.''

Although the program generally receives good reviews, it's not without glitches. Maunu and Sullivan both report that it can be difficult to get on-line and that there aren't enough computers for all the students to use. The two new classes added this year aren't as well-equipped as Grosse Ile and Highland Park, so the communication network sometimes breaks down.

And when the classes do meet face-to-face, cultural barriers do not immediately dissolve. "Whenever we meet people who are different than us, there are tensions,'' Maunu says. "It takes dialogue to break down the stereotypes.'' That's what this project is trying to do.

Vol. 02, Issue 08, Page 1-24

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