Class-home links get an upgrade

Internet: More teachers are creating Web sites to strengthen parent-school communication, as well as assist students.

September 19, 2000|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

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."

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