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Internet changes way students learn in Tuscaloosa


If you’ve got an American History class at Northridge High School, you can forget about waiting until the last minute to finish your assignments.

That’s the only downside to teacher Elizabeth Kincaid’s Internet-heavy approach to education, as far as former student Garret Cain is concerned.

“I didn’t like the way she made things due at, like, 9 p.m.,” Cain, now 17 and a senior, said of the American history class he had with Kincaid last spring. “But I hate textbooks, and it was definitely a lot better than textbooks. So I guess it was good, overall.”

Kincaid’s current students say they barely use their textbooks at all, and do most of their research through the Alabama Virtual Library or other preapproved sites. And they’re not the only ones who see it as a positive change.

The Alabama Best Practices Center, which works to highlight innovative educational practices, recognized Kincaid’s advanced American history class along with Scarlett Gaddy’s AP Government Class at Hillcrest High in the summer edition of its journal, “Working Toward Excellence.”

The publication lauded Kincaid for the way she “weaves blogs and wikis into a purposeful tapestry for her American history students.”

It included the class on a list of the “Classroom 2.0” projects it considers the best in the state, and Kincaid’s students say she certainly makes use of the Internet. Her current American History students recently used the Internet to research, create and present “Certificates of achievement” to historic inventors like Alexander Graham Bell and George Eastman as part of their own personal class blogs, for example.

The “certificates” were presented on SMART Board, an interactive, oversized computer screen at the front of the class, where Kincaid was able to highlight and expand on each student’s findings and they say the whole assignment was an example of what makes her class so different from others.

“My computer class is the only other class I have that makes this much use of computers,” said Egerton Harris, 17 and one of the juniors who presented a certificate as part of the assignment. “And more should, because it’s better than looking at a textbook for an hour and a half every day.”

Kincaid starts each class period with an assignment or “starter” that students begin on their own.

She also fills the class blog with notes on upcoming assignments and events and has an interactive calendar where students can make comments or ask questions about their work.

But the best thing about the Internet, from a teacher’ perspective, is that it’s public. Kincaid says this lets parents see their child’s assignments and keep up with their progress.

It also lets parents and classmates critique each students’ work, and those involved say it really is a good thing. For the most part.

“It’s not a plus for me. I don’t like getting critiqued,” Joseph Petitt, 15, admitted. “Not by my dad, anyway.”

He’s one of several students who say their parents keep track of their class blogs and assignments.

And although he doesn’t much like the idea that his parents are looking at his class work, he loves getting feedback from friends. So do his classmates.

“Getting criticism from other kids and feedback was good, because it helped improve my writing skills,” explained former student Amber Wilson, 17. “And I could get help when I didn’t understand an assignment.”

Other former students also liked the collaborative aspect of “blogging” their homework, and some said it helped them get more from a lesson.

“You can compare what you are doing to what everyone else is doing before its due, and you can help each other,” said Elizabeth Eaton, 17, who took the class last year. “And you’ve got the whole Internet at your hands to help you figure things out, so it’s good.”

Kincaid says that teachers have to realize today’s high school students grew up on the Internet, and she thinks it’s where they function best.

“If you take these kids to a library and ask them to use the encyclopedias, it’s like they’re in a foreign country,” she said. “But if you ask them to do research online, they’re there. Because it’s part of their culture.”

Former students, like 17-year-old Liza Fletcher, say the information online is simply more accessible.

“We probably learned more in Mrs. Kincaid’s class than we would have in another class, because you have more sources to use,” she said. “And you can find more information by going on the Internet than you can in a textbook.”

Brandon Wilson, 17 and a senior, said he believes the class was very much like what he and his friends will find next year at college, and he appreciates that. But like Garret Cain he had a tough time adjusting to the 24-hour access Kincaid had to his work.

He and Cain both said she often made assignments due in the early evening and could view their progress as well as the finished product at any time. And she did.

“In a way, it kind of got us ready for college,” Wilson said. “But there’s none of that last minute business in there.”

Hillcrest High School senior Thaddeus Fitzgerald looks back on his campaign and brief stint as, “president of the United States” with a little bit of embarrassment and a lot of pride.

He only had to hug one tree and make friends with a goat to get there, after all.

And those accusations against his campaign? Completely bogus.

“Our campaign came under fire,” said Fitzgerald, 17, recently, recalling the botched comedy attempt that caused a minor uproar in Scarlett Gaddy’s advanced placement government class at the end of his junior year. “We were accused of mudslinging and slander, but we turned it around and made fun of ourselves, so it may have helped us out in the end.”

Last year, Gaddy’s students began posting their party platforms online and using the Internet’s many resources to create campaign songs, commercials and even “surprise appearances” on “talk shows.”

Like other students running candidates and campaigns in the classroom’s mock elections, Fitzgerald and his team spent six weeks creating signs, pins, campaign songs and a platform stating his official position on serious issues like abortion, Social Security, terrorism and health care.

His team also used its communal resources to commission a life-sized cardboard cutout in his likeness, document their candidate’s devotion to environmental issues by photographing him hugging both trees and donkeys, and create the opportunity for Fitzgerald’s “surprise appearance” on “The Tara Show” as part of their winning campaign.

And although the project is over for that class, all involved say they still feel its impact.

“Some of my friends are already 18 and haven’t had Ms. Gaddy’s class, and a lot of them say they’re not even going to vote,” Tara Bullock, 17, said. “And I just can’t believe it, because I can’t wait until I turn 18.”

–Associated Press

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