Cybermentoring: An Online Literacy Project in Teacher Education

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Many american universities are located in geographically isolated areas. Arranging and coordinating practicum experiences for teacher candidates, who must juggle course requirements and travel time to the practicum sites, may therefore pose a challenge (Boxie and Maring 2001). Not only are they faced with this challenge, but also with effectively integrating technology into literacy instruction. Thus, university faculty involved with the preparation of teachers will have to provide these candidates with additional opportunities to apply computer technology (Johnson 2002).

This case study looks at teacher candidates who were enrolled in a content-area literacy course and used online technologies and literacy strategies to promote meaningful learning among students at a remote elementary school some 45 miles away from the university campus. As they worked under the guidance of a classroom teacher, a professor and a doctoral candidate, they developed online writing assignments and served as writing “cybermentors” for students in a first- and second-grade classroom. They communicated with students through the use of a project database, then devised a holistic guide to judge and document the students’ overall performance.

The classroom teacher believed that such interactivity would enable her students to enter into a collaborative cyber project with university teacher candidates. Although she felt challenged and, at times, overwhelmed when integrating both literacy and technology, she saw the need to raise the standards of learning. She also saw the need to give students the opportunity to learn beyond the walls of the classroom and collaborate in cyberspace.

Collaborating in Cyberspace

The project, titled “Journeying into the Rain Forests,” demonstrated the ability to address several reading and writing strategies within a single online activity. It was a new, adventurous and very exciting experience for each of the teacher candidates because they didn’t have any prior hands-on experience with creating a Web site or conducting content literacy strategies online. They were very fortunate to have one group member with a vast amount of technological experience, which opened their eyes to a whole new world of technology. Not only did they learn more about the Internet, they also learned how to incorporate literacy and technology into a classroom curriculum.

The teacher candidates’ adventure began with a one-on-one correspondence with students online. The first- and second-grade students were studying the rain forests in their classroom, so they were asked to write a story about a rain forest animal or insect using story grammar elements (e.g., characters, plot, setting, conflict, resolution). Before the students began writing, they participated in semantic mapping to build conceptual vocabulary with their classroom teacher. “Semantic mapping is based on the premise that everything we learn must be related to something based on what we already understand” (May 1998).

This was a special part of the activity because it gave the students limited knowledge about the animal or insect as a starting point from which they could gather ideas to develop their stories. The students learned a lot from each other during the semantic map discussion because it teaches sharing, knowledge, understanding, cooperation and respect for other’s ideas. It also enabled the students to visualize relationships and categorize words accordingly. Teaching vocabulary through semantic mapping combines a student’s understanding of the word as well as a student’s ability to perceive similarities and differences in words.

After generating an idea for writing, the students would now go through the five-part writing process of prewriting, drafting, revising, editing and publishing. The students then posted their stories so that they were available to the cybermentors. The teacher candidates read their stories and sent responses back to the students. They were careful to give students lots of positive reinforcement for their efforts. The cybermentors focused on spelling, capitalization, punctuation and the content of the stories that students were writing.

Actively Engaging Students

Molly, one of the elementary students, worked hard to craft her first draft, which she entered into the project database. This database, created with FileMaker Pro software, was housed on the university server and was created so that the project could instantly reflect the children’s writing.

Molly’s cybermentor, Julie, played an important role by interacting with the young girl throughout the writing process. In responding to Molly’s first draft, Julie began by making a social acknowledgement (“Hi Molly, my name is Julie and I am your writing buddy”), then proceeded with feedback. The comments were friendly, positive and focused on the story’s strengths. Julie did not make suggestions for grammatical changes, but instead asked questions to encourage Molly to try new approaches. As students arrived at school the next morning, they anxiously awaited their turn to read their responses.

Molly revised her story, made corrections and posted the second version in the database. When Julie arrived in her methods class that afternoon, she gained access to the database and began to look at Molly’s revised work. Julie’s eyes immediately opened wide, her hands went up in the air as she turned to a classmate with excitement and said, “Oh look, she changed it; she really did a great job!” She continued rereading the story and provided Molly with positive feedback on the changes made.

The teacher candidates continued reading rain forest stories the students had written and sending responses. However, reading stories oftentimes could be challenging when the elementary students chose to use inventive spelling in their story writing. One teacher candidate wrote to the classroom teacher and asked if she could help him decipher the typed story before responding to the student. After interpreting the text, the teacher candidate responded to the student’s writing with a social acknowledgement, praise, questioning and suggestions.

Once the students’ assignments were completed, they were assessed using a holistic scoring rubric (see Table 1 on Page 34). The teacher commented on how amazing it was to see most of her students accomplish the task after only their second version. She saw her students becoming actively engaged in learning, especially those who had not been before.

Benefits and Barriers

The whole project was quite a success. The students seemed to be excited and motivated about their stories. When students would resubmit their stories after reading their responses, there was almost always a noticeable improvement. Most important, this activity integrated language arts with technology.

The average score for the elementary students, based on the holistic rubric, was 3.8 out of 4, or 95%. This meant that they did well meeting the criteria based on the holistic rubric. In the holistic scoring guide, adapted to the state standards for writing, a single score represented the entire performance task (Stiggins 1997). The students were assigned a score ranging from 1 (far below standards) to 4 (above standards) on their final piece.

The effects and benefits were far-reaching because the students not only improved their reading skills, but also enhanced the intrinsic motivation to read and write. The students chose a topic, were coached through the writing process and received positive feedback from their cybermentor. Despite their remote location, the cybermentors provided the scaffolding students needed to promote meaningful learning.

Barriers that the cybermentors encountered were a lack of classroom computers and individual help for each student in the classroom. Even though the students were working diligently on their stories, sometimes the cybermentors had to wait at the university to receive new stories from the students. Therefore, it is highly recommended that more help in the classroom be provided to keep the project going.


The Work of a Cybermentor

The following provides two examples of students' stories and interactions with the cybermentors.

Example 1: Molly & Julie

Molly, an elementary student, worked hard to craft her first draft, which she entered into the project database. She wrote:

Insekt story Ones upon a time in the rain forest their lived a Butterfly his name was flutter he had a friend his name was fred they had fun together one day the tow friends went to get a drink but their was no water show they dug and dug but their was nun left show they whent to adifrent pond but their was still nun left fred said i give up no dont give up we stil one mor plac to go they whent their they look and look and a srprising thing hapend they fond som wotr they drunk and put som in their botls to tak home as they went home they talked about the best time they had.When they got home they went to bed.

Molly's cybermentor, Julie, played an important role by interacting with Molly throughout the writing process. In responding to Molly's first draft, Julie began by making a social acknowledgement then proceeded with feedback. Julie wrote:

Hi Molly, my name is Julie and I am your writing buddy. I was very glad to read that Flutter and Fred didn't give up and finally found some water. You might want to check your story and be sure to put period (.) marks at the end of each sentence and don't forget to check the book spelling on all the words that you're not sure of. Keep working on it, it is a very good story!
Your new friend, Julie.

After Molly read her responses, she revised her story, made corrections and posted the second version in the database:

Insect story. Once upon a time in the rain forest there lived a Butterfly. His name was Flutter. He had a friend his name was Fred. They had fun together. One day the two friends went to get a drink. But there was no water. So they dug and dug. But there was none left. So they whent to a different pond. But there was still none left. Fred said I give up. No, don't give up .We stil have one more place to go. They went there. They looked and looked, and a surprising thing happend. They found some water. They drunk and put some in their bottels to take home. As they went home they talked about the best time they had. When they got home they went to bed.

Julie reread the story and commented on the changes made. She wrote:

You did a great job of editing your story! I like how you capitalized the beginning of the sentence and put periods at the end and use book spellings. Keep up the great work!
Your friend, Julie

Example 2: Deciphering a Story

Oftentimes reading stories could be challenging, especially when the elementary students chose to use inventive spelling in their story writing. One student wrote:

THE COLUNEEY.One day a lef cutter ant and her cuollun oh did I mention.Thet her nam was cristeey her was a werueey his and but her coullnueey was loucing for a home. But they coud find. one vene vey crtistee pekt drouwne the booshis. Her s'ee a bragin fly and a anvv and vou how wat I men. Wel vats was htaptin.van vay toct ti ot wint the reag it flys. Ven the bragnflys sod vem a home.

Immediately, the teacher candidate wrote to the classroom teacher and asked if she could help him decipher the typed story. This was her interpretation of the child's story:

The Colony. One day a leaf cutter ant and her colony, oh did I mention that her name was Christy? She was a warrior and her colony was looking for home. But they couldn't find it. One evening Christy peeked around the bushes. She saw a dragon fly and another dragon fly and you know what I mean. Well what was happening. Then the dragonflies showed them the way home.

Now, the teacher candidate was ready to respond to the student's writing. The response included social acknowledgement, praise, questioning and suggestions.


References

Boxie, P., and G.H. Maring. 2001. "Cybermentoring: The Relationship Between Preservice Teachers' Use of Online Literacy Strategies and Student Achievement." Reading Online 4 (10). Online: www.readingonline.org/articles/art_index.asp?HREF=/articles/boxie/index.html.

Johnson, D. 2002. "Electronic Dialoguing in a Preservice Reading Methods Course: A Yearlong Study." Reading Online 6 (1). Online: www.readingonline.org/articles/art_index.asp?HREF=johnson/index.html.

May, F. 1998. Reading as Communication: To Help Children Write and Read. Upper Saddle River, N.J: Merrill.

Stiggins, R. 1997. Student-Centered Classroom assessment. New York: Macmillian.

This article originally appeared in the 09/01/2004 issue of THE Journal.

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