The Teen Grid: Bringing Your School into Second Life


Second Life, which offers an virtual world complete with avatars to represent human visitors, has intrigued some educators. The popular graphical online world, with land, commerce, buildings, and social networking, seems to offer educational potential, but how to get started?

Teachers, media specialists, and others who want to explore the learning potential of Second Life in the classroom might benefit from a conversation with Peggy Sheehy, library media specialist at Suffern Middle School, a high-performing school in Suffern, NY, about 30 miles northwest of New York City.

Sheehy is the originator of Ramapo Islands, Suffern Middle School's presence in the Teen Grid area of Second Life. Suffern has maintained a private learning environment there since August 2006. Teachers who want help developing curricula for Second Life, help convincing administrators of the benefits of the virtual world, or simply an understanding of how to get started, might benefit from Sheehy's experience.

At Suffern, 800 students and 15 eighth-grade teachers participated in Second Life this year, with projects that covered subjects ranging from math to family consumer science to art, health, and social studies.

Middle Schoolers in Second Life
Suffern began the Second Life project late in 2006, after Sheehy became convinced of its educational potential, spent six months on a proposal, got administrative buyin, then purchased virtual "land" from Second Life at an educational discount. She then developed Ramapo Islands, which is located within an age-restricted area of Second Life called the Teen Grid. To protect visitors, users of the Teen Grid must be between the ages of 13 and 17. Suffern students can visit only the private estate that is Ramapo Islands; they cannot enter the Teen Grid at large or communicate with anyone outside it. For further safety, any adult allowed in the Suffern area, Sheehy said, has passed an FBI background check.

Suffern teachers, working with Sheehy, are integrating Second Life into the curriculum in a variety of ways. For example, in working with an eighth-grade English teacher who was teaching John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, Sheehy brought students into Second Life to conduct a mock trial. "They did research on the American judicial system; they took on roles and then responded according to an assigned characters from the book.... They were so much more invested in the book, and they came away with such a richer experience."

Although the courtroom scenes could have been conducted in the classroom, Sheehy said she thinks that staging it in Second Life engaged the students more. She said she finds that the level of discourse in the virtual world is somehow often richer than in a classroom. Group identities often fall away; fashion is unimportant, since everyone is represented by an avatar they created themselves; and students tend to be more honest in their comments, Sheehy said.

Also, she pointed out, electronic communication is a natural for today's students, who reach for a cell phones as soon as the school day is over, and who routinely study or play with multiple Internet sites open.

Getting up and Running
Suffern was the first middle school in Second Life, Sheehy said, and she has lately been inundated with questions from other schools who are interested.

Getting initial funding wasn't a challenge at Suffern because of a receptive administration. For schools that might not be as fortunate, Sheehy suggested anticipating common questions with prepared answers: How will student safety be addressed, for example, what will students learn, and what sort of bandwidth will be needed.

For schools concerned about the computers needed to run Second Life, Sheehy said that the Second Life client itself is quite small. Bandwidth, however, can be an issue with schools that don't have access to broadband connectivity. In preparing proposals and working to convince administrators, it helps that Second Life is increasingly being recognized for its potential as a serious learning environment, Sheehy said, rather than a game.

Sheehy initially purchased three private islands. Having exhausted her budget on the land purchase, Sheey "shamelessly" asked volunteers within Second Life for help building structures and services for the islands. Some 175 people eventually pitched in; structures were built outside the island and then moved, since volunteers can't access the Suffern area. Sheehy also successfully moved about Second Life from time to time looking for items that the islands could use, then asked owners to donate.

For teachers interested in getting started, Sheehy said, projects such as Global Kids' Digital Media Initiative are starting to offer curriculum ideas specific to Second Life. And once a teacher joins Second Life, which is free, there are lists available specifically for educators, such as a teenage educator list, a math educator list, and much more.

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About the author: Linda L. Briggs is a freelance writer based in San Diego, CA.

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About the Author

Linda Briggs is a freelance writer based in San Diego, Calif. She can be reached at [email protected].