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Not the Same Old Story - Long Distance Collaboration to Increase Interpersonal Understanding

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John C. Rubisch

Guidance Counselor at Susquenita School District and Graduate Student at Penn State

Dr. Chad S. Carr

Northern Illinois University

Jer'en Breman

Graduate Student at Penn State

 

The socialmilieu is a prime component of the personal and social development of childrenwhen they attend schools with 20 to 30 students in a room. Yet feelings,emotions, morals and ethics are concepts that an objective educationalestablishment has never entirely accepted. However, recent tragic events inAmerican schools have led to the call for affective content in education.

Through the ages, societies have used stories to definehuman interaction for their citizens (Brewer 1980). Joseph Campbell (1968)stated that myths enabled people to live in harmony with aspects of theirenvironment and themselves, which were beyond their control. Similar to myths,fairy tales enabled children and adults of both genders to comprehend theirworld and the events in it (Zipes 1988). Modern storytellers, or advertisers,attempt to establish an identity with their products by selectively reinforcingcertain attitudes and values that appeal to consumers (Edel 1988). Schank(1990) asserts that stories embody the very nature of human intelligence.People use narratives and stories to communicate with each other. In doing so,memory structures are activated in both the speaker and listener.

Bibliotherapy, a branch of psychological counseling, hasexisted since the turn of the 20th century. It is defined as the guided use ofstories to gain understanding, or the ability to solve problems relevant to aperson’s needs (Riordan and Wilson 1989). The characters of stories provideyoungsters with a safe medium to collaborate, discuss conflicting feelings, andsolve problems (Olsen 1975).

The technology of today has thecapacity for students in diverse locales to collaborate in discussion ofstories and in doing so, come to a better understanding of each other. Couldstudents in different locations collaborate in solving age appropriate problemsthrough hypertext stories on the Internet?

Preparation

Twenty-four students between the ages of 12 and 15 from thestates of Pennsylvania and West Virginia were selected to participate in storyreading and collaborative discussion via e-mail. Students were given a partnerfrom the other state. While students from Pennsylvania were dispersedthroughout the Commonwealth, the students from West Virginia were from a singleschool.

The stimuli for discussion were a series of stories titled Mill River Junior High (Rubisch 1992).In its original text and audio tape format, MillRiver Junior High consisted of 30 serialized stories that followed fivefictional characters through a typical school year. The characters spanned thegamut of young adolescent subculture (jock, prep, delinquent, new kid in town,etc.). Stories each contained a topic relevant to this age group (e.g. drugsand alcohol, teasing, suicide). The text materials were designed with follow-upquestions for each story (or “episode”) to be answered and discussed bystudents in a classroom setting. Initial evaluations from students who read Mill River was positive, and revisionswere made based upon student recommendations. Subsequent evaluations of over1,000 students were also positive.

In moving Mill Riverto the Web, the text episodes that featured the two lead female characters,Mousey Brown and Holly Henry, were chosen. This choice was made for tworeasons: the reported success in the original series of the Peer Relationstheme, and the concise nature of the theme as it was largely developed in theepisodes that featured Mousey and Holly.

 

The Characters

Holly Henry is described as follows in the teacher’s guideof the original series: “Holly seems to have everything going for her. She ispretty and popular, earns straight A’s, and wears the right clothes. However,behind the facade, Holly is a very unhappy girl: she finds her ‘perfect’ imageis in conflict with what she really wants to be. Her parents are gettingdivorced. Although she has the ‘right’ friends, she has no one in whom she canconfide.”

The description of Mousey Brown from the same source is:“Mousey is new to Mill River, having moved in during the summer prior to thebeginning of the school year. Her mother died during the previous year and herfather has moved to Mill River looking for work. Unlike Holly, Mousey is ableto accept her life for what it is. She admires Holly and tries desperately towin her friendship, initially without success.”

 

The Internet Version of MillRiver

The Internet version consisted of seven dates during aschool year, the first (in chronological order) labeled September 25, the lastMay 7. As in the original text version, events in latter dates built uponcircumstances that occurred in earlier dates. Each date was subdivided intofour accounts of an event that happened in or around the school on that date.These four accounts were: (a) a narrative, (b) an entry in Holly Henry’s diary,(c) an e-mail from Mousey Brown to a friend, and (d) a perspective of one otherindividual involved in the event on that date. Each of the four accountscontained exclusive information.

Some of the original stories were rewritten and some wereextended in order to get the full advantage of the different perspectives andthe theme underlying the stories. For each story used, hypertext links to thedifferent perspectives of the characters involved in the story, as well aslinks to other stories, were provided. Students were instructed that they didnot have to read the material in chronological order or read all of theaccounts of one date. However, they were cautioned that in skipping accountsthey might miss important information.

 

Collaboration

Students were given three questions they were to answer foreach date. They were to collaborate with a partner until they reached agreementto each question. Students were instructed to send their answers to theirpartner, then read their partner’s answers to see where they agreed ordisagreed. The goal was to come up with an agreeable answer for all threequestions, even if that meant e-mailing each other a number of times. Studentswere to submit their final answers to a previously given e-mail address to berecorded.

 

An Example

The November 10 narrative tells of a lunch time encounterbetween Holly and Mousey. Mousey sees an unusual sight: the popular Hollyeating lunch by herself. Mousey decides to sit with Holly in an attempt to forma friendship. However, when Holly’s best friends finally arrive in thecafeteria, Holly leaves Mousey to join them. Upon questioning by her friends,Holly denies any interest in friendship with Mousey and states that Mousey“seems stupid.” Holly shortly regrets the remark and her decision to leaveMousey. Both girls conclude that they are “eating at the wrong table.”

In Mousey’s e-mail to her friend at her former school, shewrites of Holly’s rejection and superior attitude. She reports that Holly saidlittle during their brief encounter and “just got up and left without saying aword when her friends showed up” (although the account in the narrative revealsthat Holly did make an apology before leaving). Still, Mousey tells of envyingHolly for her appearance, intelligence and popularity.

Holly’s entry in her diary reveals another side of theencounter. She is lost in the thought of her parents’ impending divorce whenMousey arrives and is startled by the latter’s sudden appearance. Knowing thatshe can not confide in her friends, Holly is ready to broach the subject withMousey when her friends arrive. She writes that they were “cruel” to Mousey,“forcing” her to leave, but she felt her status would be threatened if sheremained. Holly concludes that she’d rather be Mousey than herself, due to theimage she feels forced to maintain at school.

Finally, a fourth account of the day’s events comes fromHolly’s friend, Tammy King. Tammy explains why Holly’s friends arrived laterthan usual for lunch. She also reveals a jealousy of Holly and a desire todevelop a closer friendship with a mutual friend, Gina, at Holly’s expense.These thoughts foreshadow events in future dates.

Collaborative questions to be answered for November 10 are:

 

1. The situation is Holly and Mousey at lunch.How do the girls’ views of what happened differ?

 

2. What have you noticed about Holly’s friendshipwith Gina and Tammy?

 

3. Mousey believes that she would rather be Hollythan herself. Holly says that she’d rather be Mousey than herself. Who isright? Both? Neither?

 

Reactions

Students were surveyed at the end of their collaborativestory reading experience. The first questions were asked to determine if thestories were sufficiently appealing to engender interest and subsequentcollaborative discussion. When asked if they liked the stories, all of thestudents responded favorably. They also found the characters to be realistic.“Very similar to kids I know,” and “exactly the same as real people,” weretypical remarks.

Asked if they would change the stories, most studentsresponded that they would not. One responded that she would add a large fight,have someone die, and include drug usage. (This comment is interesting to noteas the episodes from the original text series, which were omitted from the Webversion, did contain these plot developments.) Students were unanimous inliking the four different perspectives for each story.

When students were asked what they learned, most studentsresponded that they had learned something. Many students said that theydiscovered that they shared similarities with others. One student responded: “Ilearned that everybody has problems, not just me.” Another finding that wassupported strongly by many students was the value of friendship. One studentwrote, “I think I learned a little bit more about how valuable a true friendis.” Of the minority of students who responded that they failed to learn fromthe experience, a typical comment was “[I did] not really [learn] because mostof the lessons taught I already [knew].”

Surprisingly, the only negative comments came in regards tocommunication with the partner. One student stated, “I heard from [my partner]and exchanged answers.” However, this response was in the minority. Moretypical comments were: “My pen pal relation was not a success. I didn’t getmany answers from her on the subject of the stories,” and “I didn’t get manyresponses. I only heard from her two times.”

Reasons for the lack of communication varied. Some studentsfelt that schoolwork with impending deadlines, such as science fair projects,should take priority. “Reading the stories and discussing answers was fun, butI don’t get a grade for it,” one student offered. Some students had difficultyaccessing their e-mail accounts at school due to the unavailability of theirteachers. Others became exasperated with technological malfunctions and gaveup.

 

Conclusion

Despite a breakdown in the communication process that led tocollaboration, early adolescents learned affective information about themselvesand others. Perhaps the task of continuous e-mail was too much to expect fromthis age group. Some students suggested chat as an alternative. As one studentsaid, “you can see what the other thinks immediately.” Chat would offer theimmediate reward of a response. It would also allow multiple contributors.However, it remains to be seen if students would stay focused on the desiredtopic, or veer into other areas.

The fact that students still believed that they learned fromthe experience speaks well of the use of stories in general. Stories have along and rich tradition of communicating the feelings and emotions ofindividuals, and the morals and ethics of societies. Modern technology in theform of hypertext and the Internet has a vast potential to build upon thistradition by allowing collaboration in the resolution of problems. Thus, moreopportunities for a shared understanding of individuals of diverse backgroundsare created.

 

References

 

Brewer, D.S. 1980. Symbolic Stories: Traditional Narratives of theFamily Drama in English Literature. Cambridge:Rowman & Littlefield.

 

Campbell, J. 1968. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. 2nd Ed. New York: Bollingen.

 

Edel, R. 1988. American Dream Vendors, Advertising Age. 11/9/88. 152-156.

 

Olsen, H.D. 1975. “Bibliotherapy to Help Children Solve Problems.” ElementarySchool Journal 75, 423-429.

 

Riordan, R.J., and Wilson, L.S. 1989. “Bibliotherapy: D'es it Work?” Journal ofCounseling and Development 67, 506-508.

 

Rubisch, J.C. 1992. Mill River Junior High. CirclePines, Minn.: AGS.

 

Schank, R.C. 1990. Tell Me a Story. Evanston,Illinois: Northwestern University Press.

 

Zipes, J. 1988. The Brother Grimm: From Enchanted Forests to theModern World. New York: Routledge.

This article originally appeared in the 10/01/2000 issue of THE Journal.

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