Tapped In Member Perspectives: Meet Paul Allison

Paul is a high school writing teacher who has evolved over the past several years into a technology teacher, although his students say that he's a "wanna be humanities teacher." He has worked in alternative schools in New York City for over 15 years. He taught interdisciplinary classes with a focus on writing and the humanities at University Heights High School (UHHS) which was a small (450 students) secondary school in the one of the poorest sections of the Bronx for a dozen years. Then he taught students who were recent immigrants at The International High School (IHS) in Queens. After three years of working with these English Language Learners, he returned to a small, high school in a poor neighborhood, this time on the East Side of Manhattan, at the East Side Community High School (ESCHS).

Paul's Perspective

I began experimenting with TAPPED IN about a year ago, trying different types of forums with some of my students at IHS. To get some idea of what this looked like, take a look at this transcript: Chatting in a Virtual World

In addition to teaching secondary school students, I'm also the Technology Liaison for the New York City Writing Project. This summer I introduced TAPPED IN to the 15 teachers who were participating in a 3-week "Technology and Language" workshop that I co-facilitated at the New York City Writing Project, Lehman College, CUNY. And I've expanded my TAPPED IN adventures with the students at ESCHS this year.

My work in technology began at UHHS seven or eight years ago when I began building multi-media projects with students (see David R.'s Portfolio) with the help of David Niguidula and The Digital Portfolio Project. This project to develop a prototype of a digital portfolio was a significant one for me, and its shadow can still be seen in the Web sites I build for my classes. Niguidula introduced me to hypermedia several years ago and now with the links between student work and the assignments that led to that work on this site, I think that I'm making my way back to the vision of digital portfolios that started me on this hypermedia journey in the first place. To see much of this work go to MyClassSite.org.

Portfolio assessment animated my work with colleagues, students, parents and critical friends for many years at University Heights Secondary School. [See an account of this work that I wrote for Assessing Student Learning, edited by David Allen.] As support for this work began to dry up, I moved on to the International High School at LaGuardia Community College in Queens New York.

After two years, I'm finding that the drought can't be escaped by going to a school where support for alternative assessment is clear and loud. Choked by state imposed tests, we are struggling to maintain our focus on projects and portfolios. It's not easy.

Even while paying "tribute to... our teachers and counselors" for helping "most of our candidates for graduation" to "pass all requirements," the principal of IHS, Eric Nadelstern, wrote (in the Spring 2001) the following lament to our staff: "The need to prepare students for high stakes Regents examinations has taken its toll. As I walk around the school, students' voices have been replaced by teachers' voices; at times students appear bored and disengaged in ways that I have not seen in years; and, in many of our classrooms, there is scant evidence of student product." I think the possibilities represented in the Web sites that I have helped students to create over the past few years provide many answers to the "scant evidence of student product" problem.

I'm pointing to the anti-portfolio, high-stakes testing environment in which we all work because I'm beginning to see how we might be able to use multi-media projects displayed on a Web-site to continue building a culture for alternative assessment that keeps student work central even in these difficult days.

At the very least, I can say that this hope of using the Web as a place of resistance to testing has been one of my biggest personal motivations for working with technology. The World Wide Web is a place where students and teachers can collect both curriculum and student work, including sound, images (still and moving), links, and texts.

Creating high school classes with a variety of connections to cyberspace (Web, bulletin boards, MOO's) hasn't been easy, but the benefits far outweigh the costs involved. I find that I'm constantly in need to learn new software (often only a step in front of my students). I have to keep organized a dizzying array of folders, and documents, and on a weekly, sometimes daily basis I have to correct, upgrade, modify, and re-invent this the pages on this site. So, why do I do it?

My original motivation had three parts. I wanted to create a space on the Web where students could publish their work. I also wanted to model for students this new "hybrid literacy of visual and verbal authorship on the Web." (Craig Stroupe, College English, Volume 62, Number 5, May 2000, p. 607.) Third, in the back of my mind I thought that it would be useful for students to be able to reference (make links to) the assignments that related to the work that they would be posting.

Although these motivations remain important reasons for doing this work, other thoughts about why a teacher might engage in Internet-based teaching have evolved as my work has grown from the Web to bulletin boards (such as Nicenet), then to chatting in TAPPED IN. First, I'm not sure that we have much of a choice.... Computer-mediated communication, which includes everything from chatting in TAPPED IN to posting a well-crafted Web site, has become one of the basic literacies. If we aren't helping our students work with this media, then we aren't teaching them to be literate. I agree with Jeff Wilhelm, who paraphrases J. David Bolter to make this same point in an article in Voices from the Middle (Volume 7, Number 3, March 2000, p. 4). Wilhelm says that this "renowned classics scholar and ... author of Writing Space (1991), argues that if our students are not reading and composing with various electronic technologies, then they are illiterate. They are not just unprepared for the future, they are illiterate right now, in our current time and context." We can't allow our students to be on the wrong side of the digital divide. For me the sites my students create are more than an interesting collection of work; they are points on the road that I believe all teachers need to begin to walk. Computer-mediated communication is a basic literacy.

A second new motivation for doing this work and one that feels like less of a burden that the one I sketched out above has to do with control of the materials we use on our classrooms. I have come to understand that Web design can be a very powerful source for teachers who want to develop their own rich resources for their students. My work this year helped me understand the vision that Andrea A. diSessa lays out in his book Changing Minds: Computers, Learning, and Literacy (2000 Massachusetts Institute of Technology.) These paragraphs from pages 41-43 summarize his vision and, for me, state clearly what motivates my work with the Internet.

"I believe computational media and associated new literacies may be exactly the infrastructural change that can support converting schools... into vital communities of tool building and sharing. The new genre of software I have in mind is a set of open, reconfigurable, repurposeable tools for student tasks, tasks that are more like design and student research than conventional activities such as exercises and short problem solving. Such a shift in student activity is consistent with much that is recommended in many current educational reform documents. Nevertheless, I believe those reform efforts could be immensely aided with suitable material support, a point that is almost never taken to heart. Reform needs implements, not just implementation plans. ...I believe we can revitalize teachers' professional experience by fostering their central participation in the production of such tools as well as their roles as a coach and mentor to students. We would be making a fairly radical departure from current assumptions and practice in which teachers are barely trusted to copy worksheets, let alone create (or even modify!) substantial new materials."

All of this may sound lofty, but it gets my juices stirred up, and more importantly, it reminds me why I spend so much time maintaining and re-creating my class Web sites. Yes, you will find syllabi in these Web sites, and you'll find a curriculum archive. You will also find a rich trove of student work in many different disciplines and media. But what keeps me going is the potential to use the Internet to remake school by putting me at the center of creating "open, reconfigurable, repurposeable tools for student tasks." When I'm in that central, creative place with my teaching, I can help students find that place as well. And that is ultimately why I think teaching with Internet tools like TAPPED IN is important.