"The dog is brown." Does this sound like your students' idea of a descriptive sentence? The MindsEye Monster Exchange Project is ready to change all of that! A unique activity that has students writing descriptive paragraphs, this project is fast becoming an integral part of the language arts curriculum of many classrooms. What is the best part? Students get to use their imagination to design their very own monsters! Included: Comments from teachers across the grades who have seen the educational value in this well-thought-out online project.
In 1995, Brian Maguire, a teacher at Gilbertsville-Mount Upton Central School District, was studying the writing process with his fourth-grade students. Finding that he was vying with the spring weather for his students' attention, an idea came to him when he found one student doodling monster pictures in a notebook. The MindsEye Monster Exchange Project was born!
"I made a posting in a CompuServe Education forum requesting a partner class that would participate in an email monster description exchange," Maguire told Education World. "The next morning, a parent, John Thompson from Scotch Plains, New Jersey, replied and said he would love to have his kids participate in this activity, and he was determined to contact and help his child's teacher participate. He also mentioned that he had learned how to write Web pages recently on the World Wide Web and posting the pictures and descriptions online would be amazing as well."
This was the beginning of a beautiful friendship!
The next step required technological expertise. "Both classes scanned their drawings and emailed them to John Thompson, and the first monster gallery was published on the WWW," Maguire said. "All the kids got a printout and got to see the results of their reading and writing assessed by their peers in an authentic writing performance."
The Monster Exchange Project quickly grew, and a second posting led to the enrollment of over 100 classrooms. "Everyone wanted to participate it seemed, and John and I had very few resources to manage the project," explained Maguire. "We literally laid out the emails of participants and put them in piles based on who would be good partners and emailed them each individually. We gave them the directions, tips, and sent them off."
"What ended up happening," Maguire adds, "is that only about 5 percent [of the participants] completed the project. That made sense because in 1995 there were not many teachers who knew how to write Web pages, had access to a scanner, and owned the hardware to complete the project. The process of participation and management needed to be easier."
Automation was the key to allowing the project to grow. "Inspired by Gary Markovits, an owner of a small Internet company, I quickly hit the programming books and started writing code that automated the steps of participation such as signing up, finding a partner, and building a gallery," Maguire said. "That way a participant would only have to type in their information, choose a partner from the database, and copy and paste their students descriptions into the gallery builder. Those steps of automation removed the need for a high level of technical skill in writing web pages, decreased the time required to participate, and made it easier for more classes to participate without John Thompson or myself as a bottle-neck. Teachers were able to focus more on teaching and less on trying to be Web designers."
Finally, the project expanded through the contributions of sponsors. "The project quickly grew with resources donated by Community School Networks and WinStar," Maquire explained. "The project which started with two schools quickly grew to over 1,000 a year, with more than half of them completing the entire project."
"The Monster Project has monster pictures and descriptions from kids all over the world," adds Maguire. "The names [of the monsters] range from Creative Coke Man to Karate Chicken. They are just so funny to read!"
A former participant, Susy Calvert is now coordinator of the Monster Exchange Project. Her responsibilities include answering questions, editing mistakes, sending forgotten passwords, and handling any other problems that occur. For teachers and students looking for an interesting and enriching Internet project, she says that the Monster Project is THE one!
"The project's greatest benefits to teachers and students are providing a so-called 'real' audience for children's work including their original art work and creative expression," Calvert explained. "When students describe a monster they have drawn, they must see the need for exact descriptions to allow someone who has never seen their monster to redraw the original as closely as possible to their artistic creation. Students should also be taught sequencing skills in describing their monster to make the original monster easier to see in another student's imagination so the drawing becomes as close a picture to the original as possible."
"If students participate in both the fall and spring sessions," Calvert adds, "the teacher can see progress the student has made. When students see their original monster and description with a redrawing that is so different from their original, it helps them see where they need to improve in the descriptive and sequencing process. The real difficulty is putting into words what the student can see with their own eyes so that another person can draw a close duplicate."
The third-grade class of Tryna Morton at Murphy Ranch School, in Whittier, California, has enjoyed the Monster Exchange Project since its start.
"My goal in participating in the Monster Exchange was to help my children understand why describing things well in their writing pieces was important to their readers," said Morton. "Young children have a tendency to state the facts without any description to embellish their piece."
Morton is the author of the lesson Shapo on the Monster Exchange Web site. "Prior to having my children draw their own creatures, I created a creature called Shapo and wrote a description of him," she explained. "I printed a copy for each child and had them draw my creature. We compared drawings and discussed how the piece about Shapo was written and how he was drawn. I then had the children create their own creature with a partner and write a description. We exchanged descriptions within our class and drew someone else's creature. Each pair of students then made suggestions on how the description could be improved. Finally, each group refined their creature description prior to sending to our partner class."
Students in Morton's class finish their descriptions and are ready to try again! "The students love doing this project and get a kick out of seeing their creatures on the Internet," she said. "They are very disappointed if their creature redraw doesn't look right but often realize what they did wrong with their description or what they left out. They are very congratulatory to classmates whose redraws looked like the real thing. I remember one student saying, 'Boy! They must have really taken their time with their description because their partner redraw looks so close to the original.' The students always want to do the project again right away because they think they know what they would do to make their descriptions better a second time."
Kevin Hoole's seventh-grade English students from Northcote High School in Northcote, Victoria, Australia, also joined in the project. Hoole learned about the activity through a mailing list, and he knew that his students would benefit from the opportunity to exchange information with kids from another country. What impressed him most about this project is that the exchange of information was purposeful and more meaningful than the usual banter about preferences in music or television programs.
Even the older students enjoyed the activity. "The students react very positively. The fact that they make contact with a group of kids in another country automatically engages them," said Hoole. "The provision of a real audience for their writing pieces and the fact that the audience is of their own age means that they feel a need to deliver their best work. Also, the students are still young enough to enjoy and be creative in making and describing their monsters and drawing those of their partners."
Paula A. Wykle, a veteran third-grade teacher at Maxwell Hill Elementary School in Beckley, West Virginia, wanted the Monster Exchange Project to help her students improve their ability to be specific in their writing. She wasn't disappointed!
"The project allowed children to enhance their deductive and inductive reasoning ability," said Wykle. "The project also promoted the use of language skills, such as adjectives, explicit sentences, and ordering of thought processes. The students were challenged both artistically and cognitively. Many were astonished at the lack of detail in their initial descriptions. The project also encouraged the children to edit and enhance their assignment before it was faxed to the recipient."
A fascinating facet of the project for students was the technology that allowed their pictures to be sent via email to California. "The thrill of waiting for their descriptions from the project partner and the receiving of their monsters that were drawn by the other partner was fun," Wykle explained. "Many of the monsters that were drawn from their descriptions had quite a resemblance of the monster they drew."
"My two third-grade classes that have experienced the Monster Project have been very excited," adds Wykle. "The project allowed them time to stretch their imaginations and test their abilities to communicate with others. The Monster Project is a worthy project that breaks from the traditional classroom with great results."
The once small project has taken the Net by storm! "In reflection, I must say that it is really special to see how far a simple idea and tools that allow others to share in the experience can produce such a huge effect on some many kids and teachers," said Monster Exchange creator Brian Maguire. "It has been wonderful to hear how schools actually wrote participation in the project into their curriculum or how teachers have won grant money to buy equipment to participate."
Article by Cara Bafile
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