Each afternoon, when her 8-year-old daughter, Courtney, comes home from school, Mary Ann McHenry asks that age-old question, "What did you do at school today?" And, in the tradition of schoolchildren through the generations, Courtney generally doesn't have much of an answer.
So if McHenry wants more details, she logs on to the Web site set up by her daughter's third-grade teacher at Severna Park Elementary School.
There, she'll learn that the class is studying nouns, verbs, pronouns and adverbs, and reading the story "Gila Monsters Meet You at the Airport." A scientific vocabulary quiz is coming up, and Courtney's homework is to write nine sentences using the first nine spelling words.
"I have a daughter who sometimes has trouble telling me what's going on at school," McHenry said. "Now I can just put in one click and you can actually see what they're doing in school that week."
Like Courtney's teacher, Jennie Tyler, a growing group of teachers is creating classroom Web sites - outside of those sanctioned by school systems - where they post lessons, homework assignments and general class information to strengthen communications between school and home.
During the past two years, a handful of Internet education companies has offered free sites so that teachers can easily set up classroom sites like Tyler's. Educators say the practice is spreading, mainly through word of mouth, as technology-savvy teachers introduce colleagues to uses for the Internet.
"They are certainly a burgeoning resource for teachers," said Cheryl Williams, president-elect of the International Society for Technology Education, a nonprofit organization that promotes appropriate uses of technology to improve learning.
"There's a lot more use of the Web, not only to gather information and curriculum materials, but as a place to report information or provide links between home and school," said Williams, also the director of educational technology programs with the National School Board Association.
Nationwide, more than 60,000 teachers are registered with SchoolNotes.com, part of EdGate, an Internet education company.
Although area school system officials are aware that more teachers are creating Web sites, they say it's difficult to track the numbers. In Anne Arundel County, 52 teachers have set up active Web sites through School- Notes.com; the county has about 5,000 teachers. Once teachers have registered a site, it is accessible by entering the ZIP code of the school. MySchoolOnline offers a similar service.
"It's become a big thing as the Internet becomes more pervasive," said Richard Weisenhoff, coordinator for technology and media with Howard County schools. He said he does not know how many Howard County teachers use such sites.
Baltimore County school officials said they are unaware whether teachers are creating individual sites. The practice has not caught on in Baltimore City schools because of the small number of students who have Internet access at home, said Michael Pitroff, director of instructional technology services with city schools.
Although the number of teachers using the sites is relatively small, the ones who do are usually passionate about the new technology and want to pass it on.
"It's still sort of the innovative teachers who are using the Web medium," Williams said, "but more are getting on the bandwagon."
Teachers say the sites cut down on phone tag with parents who seek answers to basic questions. The sites also allow absent students to retrieve missed homework assignments and give parents a window into the classroom, as well as a way to check the accuracy of the claim, "There's no homework tonight."
"It gives me a good overview of what's going on in the classroom," McHenry said. "It's a really good tool for parents and teachers to communicate."
Tyler, who started using a class Web site last year, said parents appreciate her efforts.
"I'm big on parent information, because I am one, and it drives me crazy not to know what's going on," said Tyler. In Anne Arundel County, George Fox Middle School has 12 teachers with classroom Web sites. The idea caught on last year after a couple of technologically advanced teachers at the Pasadena school spread the word.
The contents on the Web sites range from just-the-facts homework assignments to class newsletters to a virtual classroom with examples of the teacher's photography.
Carol Jarboe, a seventh-grade science teacher at George Fox, started her Web site last year. She takes 10 minutes each morning before her pupils arrive to update the page, which lists homework assignments, science-related links and school system-defined goals.
Jarboe said her site has been particularly helpful for parents who ask her for advice about how to keep better tabs on their children.
"My first question to them is, 'Do you have Internet?'" she said. "They can double check on what the kids are telling them."
Inevitably, teachers' use of services such as SchoolNotes.com raises questions of equity. Schools' technology capabilities vary widely, and not all families have computers at home.
But nearly all of the state's public schools have Internet access from at least one location in the school, and county libraries also provide access. Other teachers note that many parents are able to sign on to the Internet at the office to check homework assignments before they leave for home.
Based on a "hand-raising" survey of her class, Jarboe said at least 75 percent of her pupils have access to the Internet at home, compared with about 50 percent last year. Most of the pupils who attend George Fox come from working- and middle-class families.
Although many Anne Arundel schools have a Web presence on the official school system Web site, the technology is not interactive and doesn't allow for daily postings. The teachers who create individual classroom sites are expected to follow established guidelines for Web site design, said Nancy Jane Brown, a staff writer with Anne Arundel County schools and the system's Web page content editor.
"There is an obligation there to a certain extent to make sure that the links are not taking kids to inappropriate sites," said Brown.
She added that the service is useful for teachers who are comfortable with the technology.
Eventually, Brown said, school technology officials hope to have interactive Internet service with a secure server, which requires use of a password to enter the site. Under such an arrangement, teachers could post students' grades and attendance records on the site.
Although area teachers said security has not been an issue with classroom sites, the potential for problems exists. Last year, a Rhode Island high school student entered a teacher's School- Notes.com site and used his e-mail to send a message in which the teacher appeared to admit that he molested dogs and children.
Robert Maglocci, the instrumental music teacher at George Fox and one of the first teachers at the school to create classroom sites, said he tells pupils that any inappropriate e-mail will be printed and given to the principal. And some teachers elect not to include the e-mail feature on their sites because of security concerns.
"Technology has kind of bypassed normal mores and laws," Maglocci said, "and that's something we have to deal with."
Despite the potential for misuse, backers of classroom sites focus on the pluses.
"When I come in, I don't have as many phone calls to make to parents," Jarboe said, "and I'm not writing notes home all the time and wondering if they ever got to the parent."
Updating her site is part of her daily routine, but other teachers find it more difficult to incorporate the extra work into their schedule. A review of Anne Arundel teachers' classroom sites on School- Notes.com shows that some haven't been updated in months.
Margaret Turnblacer, a language arts teacher at Corkran Middle School in Glen Burnie, started her site last year with homework postings but wants to include more information this year about lessons and class goals.
"Once you get it started it's very easy to use," said Turnblacer, one of 11 teachers at her school with sites. "It's a great link to home, and that's where success comes in, when parents feel like they're part of the school and know what's going on."