The Internet and Bilingual Bicultural Exchange: The Human Side of Multiculturalism and Technology

Margie Spaeth <mspaeth@forum.swarthmore.edu>
Modern Languages
Germantown Friends School
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
http://forum.swarthmore.edu/~mspaeth

Introduction

The academic year 1995-96 took the Germantown Friends School (GFS) Spanish V class on an adventure into two totally different and totally new worlds: the world of bilingual and bicultural students their own age and the electronic world of the Internet. This year I was given the opportunity to lead our class in an exciting program launched by Evelyn Bender at Edison/Fareira High School and Lisa Walker at WHYY, the public broadcasting station in Philadelphia. This has been a year of intense learning and teaching, in which I have learned as much as my students while at the same time sharing my areas of expertise with them. It has been a revolutionary period in terms of my ideas about teaching and learning.

Background

The program began on Monday, 18 September 1995, with a meeting at Edison, where WHYY administrators and staff, University of Pennsylvania Engineering School and English Department faculty and students, Edison High School administration and faculty, and I, representing Germantown Friends, met for an overview of the program, divided into teams, and began to envision each team's projects for the year. Most of the funding for the program (in the form of a grant to WHYY) was used to purchase and install high-speed multimedia equipment at Edison and to train participants to use it. This included all of the necessary equipment for Internet access, graphic design, and audio elements. The project was divided into five teams; ours was the Spanish Team.

The planning on that first day were crucial to giving shape to the project; however, we were to see many changes to our initial vision, and the time line would evolve considerably from the original. The following comparison of the two time lines reveals much about the process the course followed.

The vision versus the reality

Initial time line

September
Organizational period.
October
Teacher training.
November
Read and discuss Federico García Lorca's "La casa de Bernarda Alba."
December
Outline basic plan for a rewrite of Lorca's play in a contemporary setting. Several brain-storming sessions via video and Internet (with perhaps at least one face-to-face session to clarify ideas).
January
Take basic plan and begin writing, graphics, and photography.
February
Editing and revising period.
March
Put together and make "sound bites."
April
Panic period (for whatever we hadn't finished).

Actual time line

September
Students were introduced to the project and discussed the plan. Actual curriculum focus was on "pre-project" material: grammar review, related readings, etc.
October
GFS students met with Edison students at Edison to begin organizing research projects. Students worked in groups on four main topics. Individual students submitted project proposals to define their research project. Resources pulled together: traditional resources (books, periodicals) and Web searches. Additional issues arose and deflected the focus but enriched the program. (Cuban/Edison/publicity issue. Student social concerns.)
November
Research projects in full swing. Class time devoted to library work, peer editing, discussion of difficulties, preparing rough draft, sending e-mail messages to Edison, and some grammar review. Began reading "La casa de Bernarda Alba."
December
Final drafts of research projects completed by most students. Reading and discussion of "La casa de Bernarda Alba". In-class dramatization of parts of "Bernarda."
January
Final copy of research paper due by end of semester (mid-January). Completed reading, discussion, and dramatization of "Bernarda."
February
Began discussions (e-mail and in person) with Edison students and Legna about the original work to be written. Reconciled differences between the two schools' educational formats (scheduling limits, access issues, educational focus). GFS students read "Cuando era puertorriqueña". "Perfect" copy of research paper due. "Senioritis" set in. Oral and written quiz format instituted. Refined homepage.
March
Continued reading "Cuando era puertorriqueña." Began actual publishing process: Thursdays/computer room. Further refined homepage. Inserted research and graphics into HTML files. Grammar review.
April/May
Completed work on converting bookmarks into references accessible from our homepage. Completed publishing and refinement of research on homepage. Completed original drama for publication on homepage. Completed "Cuando era puertorriqueña." (Exam) Lay groundwork for creation of discussion group on the Internet. Gave considerable class time to reflection on this experience and evaluation of the project.

As the time line illustrates, the Spanish team undertook a multifaceted project, with 15 bilingual, bicultural students from Edison and the 15 GFS Spanish V students. We arranged for several visits to Edison and to GFS and began by sending alternating video and Internet communications to maintain contact with students at Edison.

The evaluation process

How closely were we able to adhere to the time line for the project? Where did we deviate from the plan?

The time line became more of a guideline and goal-setting vehicle than something that governed our activities. This probably depends somewhat on the teaching style of the individual teacher (something to take into consideration when looking for a co-teacher in another school). During September and October we actually spent considerable classroom time with some general curriculum while the program was in the startup stage. While we read various Latin American masters of the short story in the light of the duality of perception and existence. My hope was to help the students develop a stronger sense of perspective in viewing the various aspects of reality.

Meanwhile, we teachers were engaged in some essential training at Swarthmore College's Math Forum. This aspect of the project was a total joy. The expert teaching taking place there is awe-inspiring and gave me and my Edison colleague a huge boost into the world of the Internet.

In October, the Spanish V class began to meet with the Edison students in person before any of us had access to the technology. This was extremely important because then, from the start, they were concrete, real people, not just some Latino kids we chatted with over the Internet. We then inserted the research work on Federico García Lorca into the plan and thus moved the time frame for the original production back several months. By the end of December, the research was organized and mostly done. We then read and discussed the Spanish play by Federico García Lorca, "La casa de Bernarda Alba," while working on rewrites and refinements of the research paper. By the end of the first semester (late January) the final copy of the research paper was turned in by all students. These research papers can be found on our homepage at http://forum.swarthmore.edu/~mspaeth.

The original dramatic production was difficult to pull together; a number of issues came into play. In some ways, however, this situation provided some of our greatest learning about the process of working with two different school cultures and systems.

How did the kids take to working with students from another school and culture?

The kids from both schools loved the opportunity to be together and to communicate with each other over the Internet. This was a major motivating factor. It was fascinating to watch small groups of my students grouped around a computer helping each other with a message. So many kinds of learning were taking place. They helped each other with correct expression, joked with each other in Spanish, and reflected growing understanding of the differences between the two schools and their populations. They became very conscious of the possible social interpretations of comments they might make. (This came as part of the process too, after one Internet session in which an inappropriate message was sent and then frantically retrieved before the other kids read it.)

The in-person meetings were equally rewarding and challenging. We all felt a bit awkward on our first group visit to Edison. A rather formal tour of the school by the vice principal helped the GFS kids understand the incredible physical and human resources available to students at Edison. The actual time with students was wonderful, mostly thanks to the kids themselves and their strong desire to get to know one another and to build bridges, but also largely thanks to my colleague and now friend Legna Meléndez Hanna, who was totally prepared with some social activities around which the kids could interact. All of this was in Spanish. We spent about two hours with Legna and the kids and then proceeded to the Taller Puertorriqueño, the Puerto Rican cultural center at 5th and Logan. There we briefly browsed the bookstore and toured the art gallery upstairs. We then proceeded to a small restaurant nearby where the kids were plunged into Latin America--neither the waitresses nor the owner spoke English. The menu was entirely in Spanish and the kids had a wonderful time figuring out their meal, ordering, and paying for it. It was an ideal way to end our first adventure as a class into another world.

Subsequent visits to Edison and GFS also went very well. Activities ranged from going through a typical day with a partner from the other school, to discussion of student indignation over an inaccurate portrayal of Edison in the media after the Cuban soccer team visit, to HTML training with Lisa Walker and Rich Parker from WHYY, to Latin American dance lessons in the GFS Stokes Library, to discussions of the mutually shared literature, to a baby shower for one of the group members who has just given birth. The range of activities tells much about the kind of learning that has taken place. As I write this, we are working on plans for a joint trip to New York City to see a play together at the Repertorio Español. These activities take place almost exclusively in Spanish. As our students came to learn, not only is Spanish the first language of the Edison students, for some, it is the only language they speak with any degree of comfort.

Where did we deviate from the plan? What worked? What didn't work?

The writing of the original play, which was the centerpiece of the original plan, became less important as the feasibility of the process came into question. Many aspects of difference between the two groups and our educational institutions emerged in the process. In addition, the difficulty of working within a traditional academic schedule and structure and wanting to visit another school frequently became very problematic. Other difficulties stemmed from the fact that the two groups were created as different entities: My Spanish V class meets five days a week; Legna Meléndez Hanna had to form her Edison group of interested, motivated students as a Spanish Club that could meet only twice a week after school.

Within this context, the Internet was essential. It filled many gaps, but again the issue was access to technology. In my group, all but one student had a computer at home and all but four had Internet access at the beginning of the fall. Legna's students were dependent on the school computers and thus questions of access and time were major issues. This brings to the forefront a concern with which all of us must struggle: the question of access to technology and the inherent class distinctions that come into stark relief with it. The Internet has the potential to be a great equalizer and a powerful bridge between people and communities that normally would remain isolated. However, if this is to happen, there must be a means of ensuring that all students have the same access to the technology and the training needed for the use of that technology. This issue is much bigger than this project, but the awareness of this inequity is vital to all projects of this nature and to the steps we take in the development of technology in the future.

In the actual writing process, we found that our group's view of creative dramatic writing differed considerably from that of the Edison group. My students, meeting five days a week and discussing "Bernarda" in depth, felt a need to move on to new material. They also had considerable experience in more experimental dramatic technique, satire, and comedy, and had diverse talents they wanted to showcase. This led them to want to create something less traditional: a kind of dramatic anthology that would center on a central thematic thread. The Edison kids were still discussing "Bernarda" with great interest and were thinking in terms of a more traditional three-act play. The solution we arrived at was for the Edison students to write the first act, sending us scenes via the Internet, as they completed them, so that we could read and begin to think through the second act. The third act is a joint effort of the two groups.

Meanwhile, GFS Spanish V students engaged in reading Esmeralda Santiago's "Cuando era puertorriqueña" and reviewing some of the more complex grammar elements that showed as weaknesses in their writing. Grammar has been embraced by many students as they have grown to appreciate the need for such study. Esmeralda Santiago's novel is a perfect literary interface for this experience. We spent considerable time discussing the aspects of her life that we can compare with the lives we are coming to know through the kids at Edison. The fact that many, though not all, of the students we are working with are Puerto Rican is a direct link to the author's experience. We also had the opportunity to meet with the author in the fall and to discuss her life and her work with her.

The newly equipped computer classroom at GFS, which has dual platform Mac 6200 machines, has been very helpful in our work to put the research papers into HTML. With this accomplished, the texts are currently being put on the Internet via our homepage on the Swarthmore Math Forum's server. This is another source of learning, both for me and for the students. They must be very clear on the absolute necessity to be prepared for class. Without appropriate preparation and materials in place, they cannot use the time or the technology as planned. For me, it means considerable preparation to be sure the computers are set up appropriately and that all of the software is in place. However, this is not a deterrent. The thrill of seeing the growth of a totally new means of teaching, of learning, and of approaching life, literature, and language from so many different perspectives is highly energizing. The work is well worth the time.

Conclusion

During this project we have all been equally challenged, each on his or her own level. All of us can contribute to it with our own unique talents. It is an opportunity for real cooperative learning. I am often more an experienced resource than "the teacher" and, at our best, we work as a real team. This requires an atmosphere of sincere trust. Paradoxically, it also helps to foster that same atmosphere, as teacher and students come to work together and share knowledge and expertise. It requires educators to give up their traditional position as the authority on everything in the classroom and conversely requires students to take greater responsibility as co-learners. This can seem threatening at first, but with that first step, the teacher is quickly reinforced by the realization that the excitement generated by the new areas of learning emerging in such a project erase many of the old classroom challenges. The sense of intellectual democracy and personal challenge for all creates a brand new dynamic in the classroom that is exhilarating and very healthy. It also gives us all a more natural forum in which to interact and forge real friendships with students from another culture. The same excitement and sense of trust and equality present in our individual classrooms is transmitted between the groups. We are all discovering new things at the same time. The gap in technological training and access need not be a major problem, because each group has its own area of strength. The bilingual students have language and culture to teach our kids and the GFS students have areas of expertise in technology that they can share with their Edison counterparts. This was an area of challenge our students discussed in class: the vital need for the appropriate sensitivity to feelings of the other students as we all came to terms with the inherent differences between our two groups. It was not always easy, but the kids grew tremendously in their perspective on the often stereotyped and misconstrued world of Latino youth in large cities. One indicator of the students' view of the relationship comes from a student named Niquita. As we left Edison one spring day, after a party to celebrate the birth of an Edison girl's first child, Niki said, "It reminds me of one of those family reunions, where everyone wants you to take home some of the leftovers from the party." It made me think also of other aspects of family reunions, where you feel you should know these people well because you have been through so much with them, and yet everyone is a bit shy at first. You have made a real and solid commitment to these people and to the institutions that hold you all together. This is what makes a family. At its best, the Internet can function like a cultural family tree. Our responsibility and challenge for the future is to be sure that it serves all of the human family as equally as possible.