E-mail from teacher bypasses the kids


WHEN YOU ARE in middle school, it is important to keep your parents hidden behind a giant curtain, like the Wizard of Oz.

You want your friends and your teachers to believe that you materialize on the school steps each day like the condensation of morning fog, and that you drift away each afternoon like a breeze across the grass.

You want the world to think you are an independent operator, self-sustaining and without anybody at home to whom you must report or who governs your movements.

"I'm clinging to the idea that I am a test-tube baby," says Joe, my middle-school son.

Middle-schoolers disable their parental units by keeping them in the dark. They never tell you anything, unless it is delivered in a mumble. And when you ask them to repeat it, they do not, but instead demand to know if you are deaf, or what?

That part of a middle-schooler's day he never shares is spent tormenting his teachers, a quixotic group of professionals who have never been able to explain their career choice to friends or family.

The most challenging part of a middle-schooler's life is to keep the worlds of home and school apart. If his parents don't know what the teacher wants, they can't keep after him until he does it. And if his teachers think his parents don't exist, that he sprang full-grown from the head of Zeus, there is no one to phone with complaints.

You can imagine, therefore, the panic that seized my son when he learned that his teachers and I had exchanged e-mail addresses.

Worse for him, we are actually "chat buddies" on America Online. The computer lets me know when his teachers are online, and we can exchange messages in real time.

Joe doesn't want me to chaperon on field trips. He doesn't want me to volunteer at school. He doesn't even want me to take his forgotten lunch to the office. He would, literally, rather starve than have me on school property. And he wouldn't identify one of his teachers to me if she lay bleeding in the street.

Can you imagine his dismay when he learned that the two groups he works so hard to isolate can now conduct what amounts to a 180-day parent-teacher conference?

This home-school connection is happenstance. Joe's teachers and I just happen to subscribe to Internet services. But at Logan Elementary School in Dundalk, they set out to do it.

At Logan, computers were placed in the homes of almost 100 students and their teachers and in their classrooms, in an experiment paid for by Bell Atlantic, Microsoft and Xerox, among others.

The students, who are fourth-graders now, received the computers last year and will keep them through fifth grade. Their parents and teachers are quite comfortable with the instant communication that has replaced lost notes home and days of telephone tag.

"I have been overwhelmed by the joy of having e-mail," said Kathy Fagan, a veteran Baltimore County teacher in her first year at Logan. She has been e-mailing students and their parents since this summer. "You can get in touch with the parents. The immediacy is wonderful."

Fagan sends spelling lists and requests for field trip permission slips via e-mail. But she finds that e-mail works best in dealing with behavior issues.

Fagan will bring a student having a bad day -- or a particularly good one -- to her terminal as she sends a message to mom and dad.

"Now, my saying that I will be in touch with their parents pulls them up short," she says.

Parents, too, send e-mail asking for her support on behavior issues.

"At fourth grade, children start pulling away from their parents. I get messages from parents asking me to step in. 'He's not listening to me anymore,' they will say."

In the San Francisco area, they're not stopping with e-mail. A consortium of high-tech companies and schools, which came together at the urging of Vice President Gore, is developing a much broader software link between home and school called "Dashboard."

Parents will be able to log on to find their child's schedule, daily attendance record and homework assignments. Interactive bar graphs show the child's grade progress in each subject, and parents can calculate what the child must do to improve the grade. The software also will link parents to resource sites on the 'Net, to teachers and to other parents. It is expected to be available to schools nationwide within a year.

The Dashboard project is trying to address the one issue that keeps technology from being a force in education: access.

"For technology to have a meaningful role, it has to be free or very close to free and you don't have to know a whole lot about technology to use it," says Beth Johnson, spokesman for Marimba, one of the Silicon Valley companies involved in Dashboard.

"You won't have to have a computer at home to run Dashboard. You will be able to use it on your TV. And every home in the country has 2.1 of those."

The flaw in computer technology is that to be effective, it must be there for the poorest students. It must be operating in the most troubled homes.

It is estimated that about 30 percent of U.S. households have a computer; the majority of those households cite their children's education as the reason for purchasing a PC.

Parents who are willing to sink a couple of grand into an electronic box they can barely operate themselves because they believe it will benefit their child's learning are probably just as likely to keep in touch with that child's teacher no matter how many phone calls it takes. For lots of reasons not related to the fact that I can e-mail them, my son's teachers are not beyond my reach despite Joe's best efforts to keep us apart.

This technology would benefit every child in every school, but it must be there for the children who need it most. It is clear to me that if the computer is going to work for education, everybody is going to have to be able to e-mail everybody else.

Until we can, the computer is just another toy rich kids have and poor kids don't.

Pub Date: 9/23/97

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