Belleville in the Web

Bob Gentile, History Teacher, Belleville Junior High School
Sue Zentner, Physical Education, Belleville School District
Bob Koechley, District Librarian, Belleville School District


The Internet is transforming Belleville School District. I believe the knowledge technologies now available in our school will create a new paradigm for transformation of education in its broadest sense.

In this case study, we report on some of the changes the Information Revolution has prompted in the Belleville School District. We report briefly on the history of our network usage in Belleville schools. Next, we examine five years of network-inspired changes in our school libraries. In the last section we explain two new types of learning experiences we are able to provide for our students because of the Internet.


Belleville is a beautiful rural village 15 miles south of Madison on the Sugar River in south-central Wisconsin, USA. We believe our school is a useful case study because, by many measures, the Belleville School District is a typical U.S. school district. Our successes integrating the new Internet-based assets have been achieved with very little funding. For these reasons, we hope many schools will find our example easy to follow.

Belleville School serves 800 students in three buildings. The school enjoys strong support in the community. A referendum to build a new high school passed with an almost 70 percent yes vote in October 1995.

Our school is fortunate to be located within the Madison local access telephone area (LATA). This has allowed us to connect to the Internet through the University of Wisconsin-Madison, commercial service providers, and UW-Extension without long-distance fees. It now seems odd that something random, like the boundaries of our LATA, would play such a large role in our school's development.

In 1991, when we first gained Internet access, all we needed to get started was a phone, a modem, and an Internet account. It seems odd to recall that in 1990, none of our libraries had phone lines. At first the services available on the Internet were difficult to use, training was hard to locate, and few people I knew in our field had e-mail addresses. Still, in 1992, with help from UW-Extension, some middle-school classes created a global newspaper. They sought and received submissions from classrooms in several countries using e-mail. Our students assembled the paper, which they then distributed widely on the Net.

The introduction of the multimedia-capable World Wide Web (WWW) in 1993 and the development of browser software such as Mosaic and, later, Netscape Navigator, changed our idea of how useful these new media could be. In 1994 Belleville became among the first schools in the United States to have a home page. Netscape is always available in all three of our libraries, as well as from other parts of our school. We are now working closely with the architects, engineers, cable TV providers, and our phone company to design the most advanced network we can imagine for our new high school.

School library revolution

The range of topics covered in our classes and the range of ability among students in those classes dictate that we seek a wide range of quality support materials. This collection development process is difficult and time-consuming. Until 1992, all the steps required to select, review, order, receive, inventory, process, and shelve new materials was done entirely by hand. Outcomes were terrible.

In 1992 I convinced one of the book vendors to connect to the Net. Now that I am in frequent, convenient communication with my vendors, there has been a major improvement in both my productivity and in the quality of the outcome. The new efficiencies in these library procedures have made time available, which has enabled me to study ways to apply the Web to our various school missions.

In another section of this paper, we describe in more detail how the Web has encouraged the creation of the Belleville School Digital Libraries, an entirely new type of collection development.

The most dramatic effect of the Internet in our libraries is in student and faculty reference work. The students seem almost enchanted by their work with Netscape. The fluid nature of their explorations of the Web seems to "pull" them rather than me having to "push " them, as was the case in a print-based library.

Building special digital libraries

With the explosion of useful material on the Web, it is quite easy to assemble wonderful collections of copyright-free material to support teaching units. Initially we had teachers and library staff assemble lists of bookmarks to Web sites for their students' use. Several technical developments have recently given us new options for using newly located material. The rapidly dropping costs associated with digital storage devices is driving these new options. The cost of large-capacity hard-drive storage is currently nearing $200 per gigabyte (1 gigabyte = 1,000 megabytes). We currently use large regular hard drives for mass storage, but we are now adding removable-cartridge hard drives, so we can fill up separate cartridges with libraries supporting specific curriculum areas. These removable cartridges are easily added to our school networks, so they can be widely used without the costs and challenges associated with live network connections.

Our next step will be to create custom-made CD-ROMs. The cost of a machine capable of recording 600 megabytes of materials on a CD-ROM has dropped 95 percent in the past two years. Currently the machines cost less than $1,000, and the price continues to drop. The cost of such a custom-made CD-ROM is about $12 each, and that also is dropping. We envision creating many custom-made local libraries, putting them on CD-ROMs, and lending them to classrooms or students with access to computers with CD-ROM drives. By this means teachers can assemble a wide variety of materials that support their teaching units and support the kind of interesting work from which students truly learn.

These digital assets may be used by the teachers to assign student tasks appropriate to that student's interests and ability. We are working toward the goal of encouraging students to create online reports using elements from the digital library of Civil War material we are creating. These reports themselves may someday be available for your inspection on our school's Web site. We believe that seeing one's work "published" is a great motivator of quality work.

What continues to amaze us is that the information we assemble now is effectively free, and it won't wear out, become lost, or be stolen. It will continue to grow deeper and richer as time goes on and more people discover the joy of sharing their knowledge through this amazing new medium.

Two new educational models

School librarians often collaborate with classroom teachers to create effective lessons that achieve the teacher's content goals while teaching productive information skills. We have recently focused this collaborative work on two types of projects: student reenactment of historical events and the coordination of several classes to conduct multi-subject, multi-age thematic teaching units.

The American Civil War Reenactment, A Case Study: 8th Grade Social Studies/Physical Education/Library Collaboration

Last year Bob Koechley, the school librarian and Bob Gentile, a junior high social studies teacher, began working together to create an Internet-based teaching tool. We felt that in order to motivate all the students, we needed to assemble a wide range of materials that would support the various learning styles and ability levels we see in our classes. We used our Internet connections to search the World Wide Web for information files related to the Civil War.

We began by visiting the established Civil War sites such as the comprehensive Civil War Center at Louisiana State University. We prowled their 800(!) links, creating a bookmark file of the items we felt would be helpful to the whole range of our students' abilities. (Bookmarks are a simple means to record where on the World Wide Web a particular item may be found.)

At first we located items that were analogous to resources we might find in a library: maps, diaries, articles, photos. Soon we realized that after we selected the files we felt would be most helpful to our goals, it would take no additional time to save the files we selected on a hard drive at our school. With the files stored locally, they are available for student use without the expense of live Internet connections.

This project sprang to life when we discovered that there are many expert Civil War reenactors who are happy to exchange mail with our students. It was only after several weeks that we came to realize that we could expand our vision of this media to include the possibility of interaction through the Internet.

Our objective as we designed this new teaching unit was to integrate social studies Civil War curriculum with the physical education/health classes.

With the use of the Civil War Internet Library created by Bob Gentile, our students will be able to access a wealth of customized information. Having this information on disk and on the school's hard drive allows students to access it without the need to be online. This is helpful as the school has only five Internet-capable terminals. After thoroughly searching the Web, Bob selected files that would be pertinent to the wide range of abilities in his classes. He sorted, organized, and downloaded these selected files onto his computer and created what is now referred to as the Civil War Digital Library.

The digital library is the primary reference source for the students during this unit. Included in this project is the expectation that students will contact various reenactors, historians, and educators via e-mail. Bob feels it's important that 8th grade students become involved in aspects of the Civil War that they can relate to their own experience. Subjects that are highlighted in our digital library include the daily life of a soldier, slang and songs of the Civil War, diseases, first aid, flags and uniforms, and, especially, diary and journal entries from Civil War soldiers and nurses.

Our library is unique in the fact that it was essentially free to create (it cost the district nothing), it is easily and always available to students, it addresses the needs and capabilities of the full intellectual range of class members, and it allows the students to pursue further research.

Some links from the American Civil War Homepage allowed our students to communicate directly (talk online) with the reenactors. It was through these numerous contacts that we were able to arrange for Civil War reenactors to come to our school and assist us with our reenactment. Without these Web-based contacts, we would probably have never contacted these reenactors, let alone successfully arranged for their assistance.

The students are divided into two forces and choose one of the following roles to assume during the reenactment: doctors, nurses, stretcher bearers, infantry (majority of students), photographers, and reporters.

Students are expected to research their assigned role in the reenactment via the Internet (including e-mail) and present it to the class. A student assigned the role of doctor seeks information on how a Civil War doctor would have treated a fever, wounds, dysentery, etc. We organized these student-developed files and put them on disks and the school hard drive, along with scanned pictures, to create a scrapbook that will be transferred to our Belleville School Homepages for others to use by accessing our Web site.

The physical education/health component encompasses the many skills soldiers and support personnel needed for survival: marching, campcraft, personal hygiene, and physical conditioning

We're all thrilled to see the students' enthusiasm and cleverness as they push their team to higher levels of effort. The students are motivated and interested and are learning, and so are we.

Outline of Battle of Gettysburg Reenactment, Bob Gentile's Eighth Grade

I. North vs. South, 62 kids (31 per side)

II. The March

III. Camp

IV. The Battle

V. The Gettysburg Address

The Iditarod, the Alaskan Sled Dog Race

In 1994 the librarian at our school and several classroom teachers agreed to try to organize a thematic unit based on the Iditarod Race. We felt there would be strong student benefit if several classes could use the same theme to unify their teaching. We believed that the integrated approach to instruction would build a higher level of student involvement and learning. It was necessary to have all the teachers involved coordinate their teaching units so as to be free to teach this new unit at the time of the actual running of the race. Using various Internet sources, it was possible to receive daily updates from the race organizers, the National Weather Service, and several schools and libraries in Alaska.

We planned for the science teachers to cover the necessary weather skills and terminology. The English class students were assigned the job of keeping a journal as if they were a specific actual musher. Math classes used the daily reports of the race results to create problems of distance, weight, team size, and other factors. Finally, students used various computer skills to record all of the results.

We feel that the excitement this type of real life learning provides for our students is tremendous in its potential for future refinement.

Our schools will never be the same.