At Hawthorne Elementary School, a large urban school in Oakland, California, teachers Gail Whang and Sonja Ebel had a class of fifth and sixth graders who spoke six different languages. Rather than focusing on the widely varying levels of achievement in English and the cultural differences as impediments, these teachers saw the cultural diversity of their students as a resource. They used technology--specifically a system for building a communal database and sharing knowledge across a local area network--to support the DIG Project, a long-term project on the meaning of culture.
The DIG Project is an extended activity in which each participating class constructs its own hypothetical culture. In outline, the DIG curriculum has students work in small groups to develop different aspects of a hypothetical culture (such as housing, language, and food). Students produce artifacts for their culture, and then each class buries their artifacts for the other class to excavate. After excavating the materials, each class reasons about the culture that would have produced those artifacts. The students at Hawthorne Elementary School chose the rain forest culture for their project.
The teachers were attracted to the DIG Project because of its curricular content, the way in which it built on cooperative learning skills, and its power to give students a conceptual framework for thinking about their own and other cultures. Although the DIG Project originally was not designed as a technology project, the teachers discovered that the Computer-Supported Intentional Learning Environment (CSILE) would provide students with the opportunity to document their work and share their notes on a communal database. In this way, students could keep abreast of each others' activities.
Students examined each other's work, provided assistance, and gave feedback in the form of helpful and thoughtful comments. Reading the computer record of student exchanges, the teachers could see that the students were helping each other advance their thinking.
Many of the Spanish-speaking students entered their notes in their primary language, which they then linked to an English translation. Students who were struggling with English and with the mechanics of spelling and grammar were able to use writing in extended discussions about important curricular concepts.
The teachers noted that such technology motivates students to do more writing and draws into the group discussion those students who normally say little in class. Working at a computer, students who need more time to state their arguments in English can take the time they need and still be part of the group discourse. Peers can help a student translate an argument from Spanish to English, or correct spelling and punctuation in situations where language mechanics are a concern. The teachers believe that an incomplete grasp of these skills should not preclude students from engaging in meaning intellectual activity or from experiencing writing as a powerful means of communication.
Other technology tools were incorporated into the project when appropriate. Early on, students studied images of animal and plant life on a videodisc about the rain forest to make sure that the flora and fauna incorporated into their clothing, food, and artwork would be compatible with a rain forest habitat. The students videotaped the rituals they developed for the rites of passage, marriage, and burial. The videotape was buried along with the artifacts made of clay and plant materials in the plot outside the classroom for the other class to excavate and interpret.
For more information, refer to Hawthorne Elementary School.