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Building a Web Site in an ABE Class

Building a Web Site in an ABE Class

Building a web site allowed everyone to demonstrate their skills

by Maura Donnelly
In the spring of 1999, my class and I created a web page ( The verb "create" is a bit misleading. We argued, designed, wrote, rewrote, and wrote again, fought, laughed, explored, compared, criticized, and finally gave birth to our web site, which some of us still fuss over like new parents and of which all of us are tremendously proud. I say this because I want to avoid giving the impression that this project was a breeze. I want to avoid generating in readers the feelings of self-doubt that I experience when I learn about innovative projects and best practices that seem to come off without a hitch. I find that that rarely happens. It is from hitches that I learn about my students and about myself as a teacher. So, while creating a web page was not easy, it was a memorable and creative learning experience for myself and for my students.

Who We Are

Our class was located at the Adult Learning Center, LaGuardia Community College, in Queens, NY. The students were members of the local community who came to the center to improve their reading, writing, math, and English skills and get their certificates of General Educational Development (GED). LaGuardia offers four levels of pre-GED classes that lead up to actual GED preparation classes. Our class was the second level within this four-level system. The overall pedagogical goal of the class was to provide opportunities for the learners to successfully interact with and create written texts. Our work focused on reading for meaning; tracing character development and motivation in fiction; identifying and understanding the roles of nouns, verbs, and adjectives; deconstructing and understanding sentence structure and consequential changes in meaning; creating sentences of varying length and structure; and writing descriptive, narrative, and personal stories. In addition to our web project, we were reading poetry and fiction and developed a relationship with an author.

At the beginning of the year we took a poll and discovered that 18 different languages were spoken in our class of 20 learners. The 17 students who had not been born in the United States had been here anywhere from six months to 20 years. The age range in the class was from 19 to 58. Some had child care issues, others had adult children and grandchildren. The class was composed of an equal mix of men and women, with most of the men younger than 30 while the women spanned the age range. Most of the students worked: as house cleaners, deliverymen, office assistants, janitors, textile workers, and hairdressers. A few students did not work because they were the primary caregivers in their families, were unable to find employment, or were supported by their families in their native countries. Most of the students cited attaining a GED as their goal. 

The class met for nine hours a week, of which one-and-a-half hours a week were spent in the computer lab. The first day of class, I polled my students on their expectations for the class, their personal goals, and their interests. The interest in "learning computers" was overwhelming. The students had widely varying levels of comfort and familiarity with computers and with the Internet. A few students had never used computers and were, in the beginning, almost paralyzed with fear that they would break the machines. Some students frequently used computers, already had e-mail accounts, and were adept at surfing the Web. I was very comfortable with computers, e-mail, and the Internet, and had been using them at work and at home for a number of years. 

The Project

The aim of our work in the lab was to motivate and encourage the students to write and write some more. Our first few weeks in the computer lab were spent reviewing the basic components of a computer and their functions. I paired the novices with the more proficient students. As everyone mastered basic computer techniques, we quickly moved on to word processing and writing. Students created first drafts of their personal stories on the computer, revised and edited them, and designed texts using various font styles, sizes and colors and clip art. Depending on the student, this process took one or many sessions. During this time, the students signed up for their own e-mail accounts and I began to e-mail their assignments to them each week.

Students were e-mailing each other and me at an alarming rate. I received numerous e-mails not related to assignments, and held many ongoing dialogues with students via e-mail. I wanted students to be engaged in writing and to write more: they were certainly doing just that. In the late winter, after we had been using the computer lab for four months, I introduced the idea of a virtual school visit project ( as a natural way to continue and extend this engagement in writing. In a virtual school visit, two classes come together to be key pals, the term used for electronic pen pals. Every type of class (adult literacy, English for speakers of other languages [ESOL], K-12, and GED) from anywhere in the world is invited to participate. The participating students exchange e-mails and eventually each class creates a web site that is framed as a tour of their school for their partner class.

The structure of this project was ideal for my students. First of all, to communicate across a distance using writing was new for them. They did not generally write letters. While some students were already using e-mail to communicate with people outside of our class, this gave every student the opportunity to develop a relationship with someone simply using words. They loved the idea of having key pals and immediately began to talk about what they wanted to learn from a class in California. Secondly, the prospect of creating a web site, while daunting at first, intrigued many of the students. We had been using the Internet to do research during the year and we had looked at some student-created sites. Students had expressed an interest in creating their own site, in getting their writing and voices out there.

As a group we discussed what would be involved in building a site, what we might want to have on our site, and any reservations we had about making the site. After a week we put the idea to a vote and the class decided to participate in the project.

Getting Started

We started with key pals. Our partner was a class of six ESOL students in California who spoke Spanish as their first language. Much of our work was done in the classroom. We brainstormed what we wanted to know about our Californian key pal class and what we wanted to tell them about us. Because of the disparity in class size, groups of my students each partnered with one of the California students. My students wrote their first e-mail as groups in class and the next time we went to the computer lab one from each group typed it in and sent it off.  The students, who earlier in the year had rejected letter writing, were excited about crafting good letters and anxiously awaited their partners' responses. By the next week, the California students had responded and the communication was underway.


Hello! My name is Nazeela Hafeez. I am from Guyana and I attend LaGuardia Community college. I am going to this college to get my GED and go to college. Last year I was in Maura Donnelly's class. She brought up the idea to our class of making a web site. She asked us how we felt and what we thought about building our web site. It was a great idea because not everyone knows what a web site is and how important it is. 

The main idea of this web site was to share our writing on the web. I was very horrified because I knew that my writing was not that good and I didn't have much confidence in myself. Anyway we started doing some research about how to build a web site. It was not much fun in the beginning because not everyone knew how to do research about building a web site. With the help of Maura and the computer teacher, Nina, we were very successful in our research about building this site.

From building this web site I can say that I learned a lot of important things. For example, I now know what a web site is and what it means. It lets you share your story, thoughts and experience. It helps you get whatever information you need. The most important thing I would like to say is that fear stops people from doing things. My advice to people out there is don't let fear take you over. At first it was very hard for me. I did not have any confidence in myself at the beginning. But as I went on and put my mind to it, it got easier. I feel much better about building this site and sharing my thoughts and my experiences.

About the Author
Nazeela Hafeez is a student at La Guardia Community College's Adult Learning Center in Queens, NY. Once she attains her GED, she plans to continue her education.

We began to explore the possibilities of creating our own web site. We used a focusing question to guide us: "If our key pals were coming to visit, what would we show them?" First we talked about the level of detail we would show. Were we talking about a visit to our school, our class, our city, our borough, or our homes? Some students wanted to get personal and show their homes, family, friends, and workplaces. Other students wanted to show pictures of our class, our computer lab, and fellow students and include examples of our writing. Still others wanted to show the visitors New York City and especially our borough, Queens. We had much discussion about this; the students' individual pages reflect this diversity of thought.

As with the writing of the key pal correspondence, much of the actual work for the web site took place in our classroom, not in the computer lab. We wrote about and discussed what we wanted on our site and then worked on particular pages. Once we had decided on some basic components of the site - a first page, individual pages, e-mail with our key pals, local landmarks, and our school and class - we set about designing the site. This design work included the aesthetics of the site as well as its navigation and flow. This last component, the flow, was possibly the most difficult aspect for students. We placed ourselves in the mind of the visitor and, with all of the components of the site on the black board, we asked: "Where would I go next?"

A large part of this design process was critiquing other web sites; mostly those made by or for adult learners ( com/ansongreen/tour.htm,

I e-mailed URLs to the students and asked them to review the web sites based for the strengths of their design. We used these questions to frame their analysis:

Working individually or in pairs, students reviewed the sites with one of these questions in mind and e-mailed their thoughts to me. Students were generally able to assess and critique other sites, given these focus questions. Without any such guiding questions, students often wrote back that they liked or did not like a site or that they thought a site was nice. 

From the beginning of the project, students were adamant about having pictures on the site. We could get access to a digital camera through the college but opted instead to supply the students with their own disposable cameras. A digital camera would have been easier from a production point of view: it would allow us to simply download the images directly into the computer. But disposable cameras allowed the students to carry cameras with them and snap pictures as they went about their lives. I applied for and received a mini-grant to cover the cost of the disposable cameras and processing. The students had to pick four or five shots each to put on their individual pages and write captions for their pictures. This short writing task proved to be relatively easy: it was writing about something with which they were connected. The captions were a fun break from the longer pieces of writing they were creating for the site.

A Hitch

We had all of the raw stock for the site: student photos, photos of class events and trips, original student writing in the form of captions, introductions, short pieces created during the year, each student's end of the year writing celebration piece, and our e-mail conversations with our key pals. We were ready to put together our site. My vision was that after a brief tutorial on Front Page, a web editor that allows the user to simply drag and drop images and text onto a page and easily arrange them, each student and I would work together and create each student's page. I blocked out two computer lab sessions, or a total of three hours, to do this work. This did work with students who had all of their components ready, but it took much longer than I planned. In the end, only a few students were able to lay out their own pages. The remainder of the layout I did myself after the end of the term. Students were still handing in their chosen photographs and their final writing on the last days of class. This led to hours of extra work for me scanning photographs and laying out pages. 

I was a bit disappointed because not only did I not enjoy doing this extra work but I also wanted the site to be up and finished by the end of the term so we could celebrate it as a class. Although I notified all of the students when the site went up, I feel there was no true group closure on the project. And because some of the layout occurred without their involvement, I questioned, to some degree, the students' true ownership of the project.


Because LaGuardia operates on a three-term system, seven new students were introduced into the class in April, 1999. We had to stop our process for two class meetings and focus on welcoming these students and introducing them to the project. To be truthful, this makes me feel a bit dishonest in touting this a project as truly student-centered. The new students did not really have a choice as to whether or not they would like to create a web site. The class was invested in the project: we never considered reassessing and perhaps scuttling the project to generate a new one. Of course, once they were involved, the newer students had as much influence on the course of the project as anyone else in the room.

This brings up another point about the potential tension between a classroom project of any length and the often transient nature of the adult literacy classroom. Looking at the site, you can see that students were participating in the class and consequently in this project to varying degrees. Some students have completed individual pages with their own captioned photographs, original writing, and a link to their reading in our end of the year writing celebration. Other students only have a picture of themselves with an introduction of a few sentences. Some students appear in the pictures of all of our field trips and events and others may only be in one picture. This does not undermine the value of the site nor the students' individual pages. Their pages reflect their abilities, during that time period, to participate in the class and in this project.

The purpose of this project was not to make my students into web designers but rather to encourage them to write and give them a vehicle for publishing this writing. This said, many students were also interested in learning about computers in general and wanted to be involved in all aspects of the project, including the more technical ones. Therefore, some of my time was spent exploring technology for technology's sake with interested students while the other students worked on their personal writing or design aspects of the site. I was highly conscious during this time to not let the allure of technology overwhelm the true goal of writing but rather to use this allure to motivate students to read, research, and write. 


One of the goals of this class was to give students successful and engaging experiences with text. Many of the students did not view themselves as effective readers and writers. They saw interacting with text as a hard struggle and certainly not something that could be fun and rewarding. During this project, students read and assessed other web sites, read and peer-revised each other's writing, and used writing and e-mail to communicate their ideas and thoughts. All of this literacy work was done for a purpose the students had decided upon, designed, and implemented.


Hi! This is Fatma. I'm in a pre-GED at LCC. It was my first day in class. I felt like a stranger and I was very shy until I met my pre-GED teacher, Ms. Donnelly. During the first month in the class, I became very confident because of her.

We did a lot of activities and also we made a really cool web page. I was very happy because I've never made a web site before, not even in high school. I was excited. We took pictures, wrote about ourselves, and put them into the homepage. The purpose of doing it was so when we finish the program and we go to college, we will have a chance to keep in touch with our former classmates and we will remember the memories of what we did in these days.

It was such a good idea to make a web site. I really enjoyed it. I show the web page to my family, my fiance, and friends. Whenever I show this WebPages to others I feel good about it. 

Nowadays, I am really involved with computers. I learned how to make a web page, search for information for my homework and to type with ten fingers. I am proud of myself and I'm thankful to my teacher, Ms. Donnelly.

About the Author
Fatma Karakas is a student at LaGuardia Community College's Adult Learning Center. She is originally from Turkey and has been in the United States for nine years. She is interested in working in the travel and tourism field in the future.

The creation of this web site is, for me, an example of a project-based learning activity. In project based learning, students and teacher work together to explore a topic and create a product. The complexity of this project demanded various skills and strengths: writing, humor, linear and nonlinear thinking, leadership, research, an understanding of the World Wide Web, consensus building, e-mail, critical thinking, photography, and all aspects of design; and students were given the opportunity to share their talents. One student who understood how to use the cameras demonstrated this for the others. A student who was very efficient and personable was able to effectively lead the class through some decision-making sessions. Some students were diligent and resourceful about gathering various types of information about New York City landmarks. Students who had a strong sense of the navigation and flow of web sites were able to explain and illustrate this for the students who were not so web savvy. We all took on the roles of expert and novice, apprentice and master.

This collaborative and dynamic environment allowed students to use their strengths as a foundation for their learning. They had demonstrated to the class, and perhaps to themselves, that they had a skill or a talent and this made the exposing of any weaknesses easier. Students were comfortable sharing their writing with the class and participating in peer revision and critique. This environment also allowed me to truly take on the role of facilitator. I was not the keeper of all of the knowledge in the room; I became one of a rotating group of teachers. 

The site, while not a current project, is still a fluid, changing entity, which continues to act as a catalyst for student writing and pride. Once the site was up and the students were able to take a look at it, many wanted to make changes. Some did not like their photographs and planned to bring in a new one or they wanted to add captions to their pictures. Students often contact me at school or via e-mail about the site. In addition to my pedagogical goals of having my students successfully interact with text and engage in more writing, one unexpected outcome of this site is that it allowed the community of our class to continue. This community now has a life that is not bound by our classroom nor by our student-teacher relationship. We are a group of people who struggled to create something of which we are proud and that will continue to connect us. 

About the Author

Maura J. Donnelly is an adult literacy practitioner at LaGuardia Community College in Queens, NY. In addition, she has been a program development assistant at the Adult Literacy Media Alliance (ALMA) for the past three years.