Bill Burrall, 1993 National Teacher of the Year, Uses E-Mail to Help Students Explore Society's Most Difficult Problems

By Coburn, Janet | Technology & Learning, September 1993 | Go to article overview

Bill Burrall, 1993 National Teacher of the Year, Uses E-Mail to Help Students Explore Society's Most Difficult Problems


Coburn, Janet, Technology & Learning


The phrase "pen pals" acquires a whole new meaning when it describes this West Virginia teacher's award-winning project--linking students electronically with inmates at a nearby state prison. who learned more? The benefits flowed in both directions.

The concept was simple: A junior high computer literacy clas could learn about telecommunications by corresponding with pen pals across town. But the pen pals that Bill Burral of Moundsville Junior High School selected for his ninth-grade students were not kids at a nearby junior high, or local businesspeople, or members of a civic club. They were inmates at the West Virginia State Penitentiary, a maximum-security prison located in a fortress-like building literally within walking distance of the school. And what the students and prisoners learned from each other turned out to be far more important then information about baud rates and file compression: Their interchange may have changed student's lives.

Learning Circles and Prison Bars

"I was one of the computer-phobics," admits Burrall, a 21-year veteran teacher of computer literacy and French. "Now I'm an information junkie. I have run full speed just to stay behind." Burrall's interest in computers--he he has one IBM PS/ Model 30 with a modem for telecommunications and six IBM PS/2 Model 25s which his students use for word processing--led him to become a mentor teacher with the AT&T Learning Network, a commercial telecommunications project that links classrooms around the world.

He came up with the idea for his project after his students' electronic-mail pen pals expressed avid interest in the capture of some escapees from the prison, a local news item that he'd mentioned in passing. When he learned that the prison's education department was set up to telecommunicate (their BBS is called the "WV Playpen"), he realized that the prison could be "an untapped resource" for kids. And so he began the long process of connecting his own students and their e-mail pen pals with the inmates at the prison.

"It took lots of commitment on everyone's part," Burrall observes. In fact, he had to get approval from an exhausting range of local, district, prison, and state officials, a process that took about a year. Once the necessary permissions had been secured, he began to work with the eight schools in his AT&T "learning circle"--including an inner-city middle school in Cleveland; a tiny rural school in Alaska with a total enrollment of only 25; and schools in Canada, England, Bermuda, and the Netherlands--to explore the curriculum topic "society's problems." While his own students focused on the issue of prisons and prisoners, the other schools selected topics including gangs, graffiti, AIDS, and guns. Finally, each of the schools was matched with an inmate pen pal, drafted a series of questions for the inmates to answer, and telecommunicated their questions to the prison. …

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