Suffern Middle School in Virtual Worlds

A running account of the process of the proposal, acquisition, development and integration of a virtual presence for education at Suffern Middle School, Suffern, New York, USA.

Suffern Middle School in Virtual Worlds

Bringing Literature to (Second) Life

January 7, 2010 · No Comments · Musings

First of all, I must say I feel a bit like a renegade, one of those radio pirates of days past, stealing the airwaves of an unknowing station.  This is not Peg Sheehy, the beloved and revered Queen of Ramapo Islands, but one of her minions.  Some of you know me as Medina SMSTeacher, but I’m mostly called Liza Medina in these parts.

I write to you today about a project that introduces a brand new group of students to the Second Life grid.  I mentioned to Peg that I thought it would be good to have a practical, honest day to day look at our process.  She readily gave me the blog address, log in information and told me to have at it, so here I am.

I am a middle school teacher in my eleventh year at Ramapo Central School District (and my third year on the Ramapo Islands), and I have to admit that when I’m away from the islands too long, I do get a bit itchy.  Our district embraces many technologies, and my students have used Power Point, Webquests and Glogster to name a few this year, but nothing really even approaches the immersive experience they’re given through Second Life.  Below is my day to day blog for the week, detailing what was (and wasn’t) accomplished as my kiddos went “In World” for the first time.



As I prepare for this unit, I reflect upon why I’m bothering with such an undertaking. The answer really is simple—I am a storyteller. I love stories; intricately woven threads that produce a tapestry that in many times criticizes, imitates or reveals something profound about life. I am fortunate enough to teach in a place that allows me to be a storyteller, and supports my journey to show children the power of their own stories. At the end of the year, I know my students may not remember all of the prepositions in the English language, but they will walk away secure in the notion that their ideas, thoughts and perspectives are unique and worthy of sharing.

In the hopes of preparing my students for their lives as story tellers, I have to empower them with the tools they will need. Their stories are wildly different than my own—my students will one day live in a world where books may be memories, and all stories will be shared through some sort of digital medium. To pretend that digital communication is an “extra” and not an integral part of what they need to be taught is short-sighted and foolish. My students need exposure to as much technology as possible, not for the sake of technology, but for the purpose of preparing them for an adulthood as a digitally literate and expressive individual.

The students I work with this year have one common bond—they do not like to read. At the start of the year, as I get to know students, the vast majority of them told me they either do not read unless assigned work, and cannot recall a book they truly enjoyed. In order to make reading more manageable, I’ve been trying to embed solid reading strategy in our instruction this year. A large part of my work has been towards inferential thought and building visualization skills. Second Life seems to be the perfect tool to push my students to meet their maximum potential in terms of both of these skills.

When I announced the project at the start of December, I reminded students that in order to accomplish something in Second Life, they would have to read a book first. I gave them the freedom to choose any book they would like, as long as the book had a main character as a focal point. We have done several pre-writing activities, including creating character webs and journaling from the perspective of this character. This was to prepare them for the job at hand—they will need to create and become characters from their novels in Second Life.

DAY ONE: “The best laid plans of mice and men are oft put astray”– Robert Burns

As we returned from break, I was horrified to find that our entire building’s internet was down. Second Life will have to wait until tomorrow, which indeed throws off my calendar, but luckily gives me the luxury of conferencing with students about their novels. While I conference with individual students, the class discusses their characters with partners to try to find similarities between the novels. When I make my way around the room, I am shocked to find that for the first time this school year, only three of my ninety-seven students have not finished reading and pre-writing.  This number is usually substantially larger with my students this year.  When I asked very honestly why they all read, the answer was unanimous– Second Life.  They were so intrigued by the idea of Second Life that they did not want to risk missing out on the opportunity to log in (From past experience, my students know that if they don’t finish work, they are pulled from further activities until that work is done). I’m thrilled that I’ve finally got their interest with this project, and know that with this level of enthusiasm, there’s an opportunity for their best ideas to be brought forth.

DAY TWO: “Welcome to the jungle!” — W. Axl Rose

I am an admitted control freak, so prior to this day, I spent time over vacation logging into each student account to make sure that it worked. I compiled a list of those accounts that weren’t functional and sent it to Peg Sheehy, the Queen of the Ramapo Islands and resident Second Life svengali. Once those accounts were in order, I knew we were ready to go.

On our first day “In World” my students were extremely enthusiastic. However, I couldn’t let them near a computer until the ground rules were established. I made them aware that all school rules and policies still apply in Second Life, and that the virtual world is still our classroom. Everyone is expected to behave in a way that is respectful and productive.  I think a part of my job here is to point out to students that all things digital live on forever.  Simply put, if you commit it to writing on a computer– whether it’s a hand held device, a text message sent via cell phone, an email or a blog, it becomes part of your digital signature.  I want my students to know that their behavior on the web defines their character and people’s perceptions of them just as much as their actions and words in person.

After enduring my monologue, the students were basically frothing at the mouth with anticipation, so I let them log in.  With their pre-writing sheets and novels in hand, my students got their first glimpse of their digital alter egos. I allowed them a few minutes to log in and get acclimated. I encouraged them to practice walking, flying and moving with their avatars. For some of my economically disadvantaged students, this was a truly new experience. For others who have played in virtual worlds thanks to the people at Build A Bear Workshop and Webkins, this was a variation on a familiar theme. Regardless, all of my students adjusted rather quickly.

After five minutes, they were ready to be directed in how to communicate via local chat and instant message. Since this is still my classroom, it is critical to me that students know how to ask for and receive help whenever they need it. Today’s agenda had to be about how to communicate properly, or the entire project would not succeed.  We practiced communicating using Instant Message, as well as Local Chat, then got into the business of creating “Friend Lists.”

This again was familiar to most students because of their time on instant messaging technologies and social networking sites. What amazed me, however, was their eagerness to “friend” everyone in the class. There was no social stigma based upon clothing or group or intellect. It seems none of the regular “cliques” in our building made the transfer into the virtual world. It was much like being with Kindergarten children—everyone was open to the idea that anyone could be a friend or a helping hand.

As has been my past observation, many of my special education, ESL and otherwise classified students took very readily to Second Life. One student in particular, who I will call “Pete,” is a learning disabled young man without a confident word to say in class. However, in Second Life on the very first day, he hit the ground running. He added friends and then bounced to other computers to help those who struggled with the task. He clicked around avidly and found amazing capabilities. “HEY! My avatar can laugh!” he announced. He was suddenly the center of attention, but in the most positive light. Envious peers lined up next to his computer to see how their avatars could also be made to laugh.

Overall, it was a wonderful first day. Sure, there were glitches– this one couldn’t log in (“What do you mean I have to capitalize my log in name?”), that one didn’t know where she was (“OH, those numbers are COORDINATES!  HOW CUTE!”)– but they were far outweighed by the excitement and enthusiasm of my students. As we immerse deeper into the virtual world, I’m intrigued by what they will be able to do.

DAY THREE: “Vile fiend!”– William Shakespeare

Alas, technology. Thou art a fickle mistress. No Second Life today due to those ever possible technology issues. My kids are deflated as they enter the classroom and realize we’re working with pencils and paper today.  It struck me so plainly in that moment how foreign these school tools really are to their real life selves.

When I was in middle school, I took comfort in writing in my journal (Hello Kitty with a little metal lock, to keep a nosy older brother from knowing my true thoughts) and reading Sweet Valley High books.  Paper, books, pencils– I used them in every facet of my life.  However, these kids go home and unload their innermost thoughts and feelings on a computer screen– livejournal, saywire, facebook, myspace.  If they aren’t literally plugged in to technology, they don’t feel “plugged in” to life at all.  So, sadly, today’s class was “Unplugged,” but the promise of technology is just around the corner…

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