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Real World Classroom: Using Technology to Understand our National Crisis

December 2001

Irvine, California -- One of the promises of network technology in the classroom is that it connects students and their education with the real world. On September 11, the real world came into schools around the world. Teachers could hardly ignore the shattering events of the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.

Television and Internet access in schools provided real-time access to pictures and news as events unfolded. Did Internet technology help educators respond to students' needs? The NetDayCompass Newsletter went to a few schools around the country to find out.

The Human Touch
The Media and Technology Charter High School (MATCH School) in Brookline, Massachusetts, combines technology access with small classes and a personal touch to help inner-city youth achieve academic success. According to the Executive Director Michael Goldstein, their first reaction to the events of September 11th was to spend time talking about what was happening.

"The immediacy of news is not helpful to kids in a crisis," said Goldstein. "Kids need human mediation. Our students spent time talking through things with their teachers to make it a direct human experience, to share ideas."

Teachers went to the Web for lesson plans and information to integrate into their scheduled activities. One 10th grade class had been reading Cry the Beloved Country, a novel by Alan Paton about a Zulu pastor and his son in 1940 South Africa. Students had completed a traditional five-paragraph essay and were working on video documentaries, interviewing local professors, South African citizens, and conducting research. Goldstein used the book as a context for discussing some of the issues related to the terrorist attack.

According to Goldstein: "You can start the conversation with who did this, how do we know, what if we're wrong, what are they trying to achieve, are they going to get what they want. Suddenly the book and project comes to life. You are talking about the issue of how to change what you perceive as injustice. You have a powerful example of intolerance."

The MATCH school web site,, summarizes their thinking about technology in the classroom: invest in humanware over hardware and software, push kids to be content creators rather than consumers, and integrate technology projects into the core curriculum. By using technology to promote human interaction and communication, the MATCH school elevated discussions above quick judgments to more thoughtful analysis.

A Real World Social Study
At Stanwood Middle School ( in Stanwood, Washington, Lara Brown assigned her 7th grade students a project shortly after September 11th to research Osama Bin Laden, the Al Qaeda network, or another related topic. The Internet provided them with immediate access to in-depth materials about what might have been obscure topics in August.

Brown pointed them to research sites and search engines such as AskJeeves that use natural language questions. They found a variety of sources with different takes on the subject. When students shared their research projects, they compared what they had learned and contrasted their sources. Brown discussed the difference between sites that end in .com, .edu, and .gov. They decided that with the exception of CNN, most of the commercial sites weren't as useful as education and government sites. They discussed fact vs. opinion and how to distinguish the two.

The lessons would have been lost if the research had been limited to school library materials. According to Brown: "It would have been very difficult to do any research. We don't have the means to access world and country events that are happening right now if we don't have the Internet."

Global Learning
Kaye Porter, a 7th and 8th grade teacher at Wanganui Park Secondary College in Shepparton, Victoria, Australia, posted a request on for pen pals to share perspectives with her class.

"From the other side of the world, which is where we are, it was difficult for my students (especially the younger ones) to gain an understanding of the reality of the incident," she wrote in an email. It seemed too unreal for them to comprehend, which is why I was looking for pen pals."

Porter's students accessed the CNN web site to watch the events unfold, and she encouraged them to open up and talk about what they were seeing. The geography web site provided up-to-date maps to help Year 7 and 8 students locate Afghanistan in the world. They also looked up information and pictures about the Muslim religion and the Taliban. She is still in search of pen pals to offer share perspectives on world events (if you are interested, contact her at

Home Study
Gwen Jackson, a parent in Saskatchewan, Canada, moved her family's wall map to a more central location. Together, they went to the Internet to find more maps and look up Muslim faith, Taliban information, Afghanistan, resources, and living conditions. She found the Internet helpful in learning with her children, but she also expressed concern about the increasing role of technology in her family's life: the Internet, computers, Nintendo, and TV.

"I feel that it is a challenge to not allow the computer/Internet and other video technology to fill the spaces in our lives," she said. "I feel that it is taking away our ability to be creative; think of things to do should the electricity go off!"

The Media Literacy Challenge
Technology seems to create two forces: one bringing us together with immediate footage and real-time interviews of people on the street, while it pulls us apart, making us feel alienated or insecure. Educators and parents face the challenge of balancing access to information with literacy--the ability to understand what students see, hear, and read. The people interviewed for this story encourage others to provide guidance and support to students; fit information into a larger context related to history, social studies, literature, or other core curriculum areas; and to give students a means of communicating what they have learned.

Teachers looking for guidance or classroom resources on how to discuss national tragedies with children will find research and news articles, support groups, charitable organizations, and other materials on in the special section: Children in Crisis Web Resources.

"We don't live in a black and white world," said Michael Goldstein. "Your job as a student is not to find one explanation, but to accept that a lot of issues are murky. Fight as best you can to become as informed as you can."