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Focus On Basics

Volume 1, Issue D :: December 1997

Hooked on Learning: The Internet Project

The Internet Poetry Project Changes Teacher and Students

by Linda W. Parrish
The Adult Education program at Swainsboro Technical Institute, Swainsboro, Georgia, started with one instructor, a trailer for an office, and an old grocery store shopping cart in which to trundle our books from borrowed classroom to classroom. We now have two full-time instructors, an intake specialist, our own classrooms and offices, and a 25-station networked computer lab. I have been teaching English and reading here since 1990. Gail Ward, the math instructor, and I work closely together. She runs the computer lab while I teach classes in the morning. After lunch we switch places; she teaches math while I run the lab.

A while ago, a walk through our new computer lab started me thinking: could I use technology as a hook to interest students in writing? Soon after that, I read a case study of a high school teacher's " English" class (Brandjes, 1997). The teacher, Ted Nellen, states that because of the non-traditional focus and structure of his computer- writing class, it worked well for his at- learners. Perhaps it would for mine. In this article, I will share what I found as I tried approaches in content-based instruction and technology that were new to me.

Our Situation

Most learners in our adult education program are in their 20's and 30's and have dropped out of school before completing ninth grade. Some are young single mothers; most have few marketable skills. Our classes also contain women with years of work experience who have lost their jobs due to plant closings. A large percentage of the students are studying to pass the GED examination.

Nancy Bailes, our intake specialist, assesses new students' reading, language, and math abilities with the Test of Adult Basic Education (TABE), and we group them into English and reading classes by reading ability. The pre- level readers are scheduled into the writing class, which usually has ten to 12 students and meets five hours a week for ten weeks. The Introduction to Poetry unit lasts for three weeks.

As I gained experience teaching these students, a question arose: How can I help them prepare for the Literature and Arts part of the GED? Their answers to reading surveys revealed that they read little outside of class. Students said that the Literature and Arts test was difficult. I suspected that they were not reading literature and did not understand its symbolism and imagery. Most had dropped out of school before they had taken an English literature class.

I had always conducted classes the traditional way: as the instructor, I had answers and knowledge which I imparted to the students, they in turn echoed that knowledge by their performance on tests. The educational agenda was mine. I asked the questions and provided the answers, using lecture, demonstration via overhead transparencies, and some small group work. I could not help noticing that my students were often passive learners. They were polite, they usually did what I assigned, but they exhibited little excitement about their learning.

New Thoughts

Networking and reading during a variety of projects exposed me to other thoughts about teaching and learning. I read about diverse learning and assessment models, and my teaching vision began to alter. A second question arose: How can I help learners to ask their own questions about literature and make poetry fun?

Some of the reading that influenced me included the work of Paulo Freire (1986), who wrote that just as it is impossible to teach without content, it is impossible to teach intellectual discipline unless learners can become increasingly active and critical thinkers.

Andrea Herrmann (1989) advised that the dynamics of peer collaboration and feedback in classrooms where computers are used to teach writing differ from that in traditional classrooms. Various classroom studies suggest real benefits for students who can interact effectively with their peers. - as writing tools appear to promote a collaborative environment, both in learning to write and in learning to use the technology." She seemed to be emphasizing that computers in the writing class, if used effectively, could promote active and collaborative learning.

Rena Soifer and her colleagues seemed to sum it up when they wrote, " be literate in today's world, people must also feel comfortable using technology," and, " engaging in a range of communication activities about a topic of interest, learners gain confidence in listening, speaking, and participating in groups as well as reading and writing " (Rena Soifer, et. al., p. 3, (eds) 1990).

As a practitioner researcher in a project sponsored by the University of Georgia, I was to pose questions based on problems I encountered in my teaching practice, propose and carry out a plan to solve the problems, collect data based on my classroom experiences, and, finally, analyze the data and draw conclusions. As my thinking shifted, my original questions evolved. Now they were: 1) How can I help students to be participatory, cooperative learners instead of passive learners? 2) In what ways will using computer technology prepare them for the GED?


My hunch was that many adults are attracted to computers because they present information in a new, fun way and because the Internet is a status symbol. I believed that if I could get my students asking questions in class and then finding answers to those questions on the Internet, and if I could also get students writing to me via e-, that they would become eager participants in the learning process. In addition, by having students use the literature module of PLATO software as well as do online research about poetry and classroom writing projects, I expected them to be prepared for the Literature and Arts component of the GED examination.

The Project

I began the writing class by asking them if they would like to be in an experimental class where we would use our own questions and the computers to learn. They readily agreed. We started with an introduction to poetry. I gave them a diverse sample, from Alan Seeger's &334I Have a Rendezvous with Death" to Shel Silverstein's " In." I read some poems aloud, and they took the rest home to investigate on their own. The students and I generated seven questions about poetry: Why do people write poetry? What kinds of people write poetry? Why doesn't it always rhyme? What's the secret to writing poetry? What's the difference between a poem and a paragraph? Where does poetry come from? Where do titles come from? I was trying to spark student interest, and I wanted their questions to give direction to class discussions that would come later.

I had previously researched poetry on the Internet and had found ten web sites for the students to investigate during their lab hours. Their first assignment was to go to these sites and find five poems that spoke to them, to print out the poems, and to e-mail the list of poems and authors to me. We had poetry anthologies in the classroom they could use, and I suggested they visit the public library if they could not find poetry they liked on the Internet.

by Sylvia Brown

Out of bed, husband sound asleep
Whitney getting on a yellow bus
Walking out the door to find
Half moon in a hazy ring, with a star bedside.

Sun gleaming down between the fog
Mist dropping on the moist grass
Fog like smoke high in the trees

Bright red roses as if smiling
A rose kissed by a dewdrop...

Gail and I guided them, step by step, in learning how to get on the Internet, navigate the web sites, and send e-mail correctly. We encouraged them to help one another. Students who had been in lab the previous quarter mentored the new ones as they learned how to use the technology. The students' comments to Gail and me in the lab were positive. One young man was surprised that many poems did not rhyme; another student asked where the poets got all their words. I was pleased to observe their enthusiasm.

The five poems were to be the start of each student's poetry notebook. I was surprised to find that several students were writing their own poetry; they put original pieces in their notebooks and sometimes shared them with us in class. Surprising, too, were their choices of poems. I had expected the love poems, the modern, profane language, but they also chose classics such as " Charge of the Light Brigade," " Raven," and " Wandered Lonely as a Cloud."

Back in the classroom, I divided the class questions into three and gave the three groups a section of questions each to answer and report to the class. They used encyclopedias, the PLATO software, and the Internet poetry sites for their research. I observed cooperative learning. Small group work was not new to my students; they always enjoyed it. However, the focus this time was on their questions, not mine.

A local poet came to class to read his poems and answer questions about the creative process of writing poetry. As he spoke, the students listened attentively and made interested comments. They asked questions: Does your work - as a correctional officer - affect your poetry? When you wrote the poem about your mama, were you upset or angry? Do you think anybody can write poetry? How long have you been writing poetry? One student commented, " notice the words he uses are simple words." She added that hearing him read his poetry encouraged her to try to write. After class students said that they enjoyed his visit.

I Got the Blues

by Shirlene Bush

While walking down the sidewalk
Feeling like I got the blues,
A bird flew in front of me
Singing, as if it was saying, "Be happy!"

But my mind was so foggy
That if I was driving a car,
I was sure to run off the road.
The State Trooper would come along
Wanting to give me a ticket for speeding.
"I wasn't speeding," I would say to him.

The fog of my mind was so deep,
If a big yellow bus came by I
wouldn't have seen that.

Then I looked up.
I saw the sun gleaming down
between the fog.
I looked down and what did I see?
A bright red rose being kissed by a

For a moment I smiled; then I
The deep fog of my mind.

I got the blues all over again.

The highlight of the project for me was the final assignment. The students and I jotted down the first three things that we noticed each morning on three successive days. Next, we made a class list of everyones' observations. We each took a copy of the list home and used it to help generate an original poem, then read some of our poems in class. Those who wished to further share their poems typed them on computers and posted them on the class bulletin board. It was a successful exercise in collaboration. Every student - and I - wrote a poem. Speaking as both struggling poet and instructor, composing poetry as we did is easier than inventing it all by yourself because you can draw from the whole group's observations that are shared on paper. A student remarked, "'s cool to walk by (the bulletin board) and see your list of stuff in somebody else's poem."


David, a young man who would not volunteer to go to the store for snacks at work because he could not spell the words on a grocery list, wrote four more original poems about people in his life. Janice, who has problems with reading, found other Internet poetry sites, printed many pages for her collection, and read her original poem beautifully in front of the class. For Janice, poetry seems to have been a breakthrough in her reading process. It quickened her interest in reading as nothing else had.

By the end of the unit on poetry, I had a lot of data to analyze: typed assignment sheets, class questions, e-mailed correspondence, and original poems. In addition, I had kept an electronic journal during the class and had taped interviews with three of the students. In reviewing the data, judging by their comments and enthusiasm, using computers and the Internet did help spark studentsí interest in poetry. I believe they were better prepared for the GED test after they completed the poetry unit; however, there are so many variables that my conclusion would be difficult to prove. One limitation of the project is that it was not set up to compare groups of students.

Members of the class have suggested innovations such as creating individual notebooks of their original poetry and printing their poems on fancy paper. I would like to publish student poetry on our Adult Ed Home Page or in a printed anthology.

From my perspective, I have always wanted the study of language and literature to be fun, not dry or boring. Using a participatory approach to teach poetry, having students ask and answer their own questions using computers, became a joy for me.


Brandjes, L.C. (1997). " Writing in a Web Based Classroom: A Case Study of Ted Nellen's " English" Class." UR. cybereng/lizcyber.html

Herrmann, A.W. (1989).  Reaction Seems to Work in Computer-Assisted Instruction." ERIC Digest. UR.

Shor, I. (ed.) (1987). Freire for the Classroom: A Sourcebook for Liberatory Teaching. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook Publishers.

Soifer, R., Irwin, M., Crumrine, B., Honzaki, E., Simmons, B., Young, D. (1990). In Strickland, D.S. & Genishi, C. (eds.), The Complete Theory-- Handbook of Adult Literacy. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

About the Authors

After rearing two children, Linda Parrish returned to teaching in 1989. She became a Literacy Volunteers of America (LVA) reading tutor and trainer and was hired by Swainsboro Technical Institute, Swainsboro, Georgia, as its first Adult Education instructor. She now teaches reading, English, and writing with technology classes and directs the skills lab for part of the day.

Sylvia Brown and Shirlene Bush were both students in Linda Parrish's technology writing class.

Updated 7/27/07 :: Copyright © 2005 NCSALL