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Teacher, Alias Telementor

Voice of ExperienceOpportunity is often difficult to recognize and it frequently takes the form of an interruption or additional work. This week, Brenda Dyck shares a teaching opportunity that opened her eyes to the potential we have to influence students via the Internet.

telementor -- conduct a mentoring relationship via a medium of telecommunications (such as e-mail)

As a teacher, you get used to knocks at the door.

Can we work in your room?
Can I use the phone?
Is one of your computers free?
Have you seen my binder?

Last month, I heard a different knock. This one didn't come from the hall, however. It came from Argentina via the Internet.

Hello! My name is Gonzalo. I am 16 and live in Mendoza, Argentina. I read about your Beyond Wild Justice project. I would like to join your group. Please tell me what I have to do to start. Thanks for trusting me!
More Voices of Experience!

Have you seen these Voice of Experience essays on technology topics by Brenda Dyck?
* Seeing is Believing -- Harnessing Online Video Clips to Enhance Learning
* In Classroom, Computers Often Yield More Glitz Than Guts
* Telecollaborative Project Develops Compassion, Global Awareness
* Becoming a Wired Teacher
* Stand By Me: Using Teacher Listservs to Collaborate With Other Educators
* Learning in the Dark: Building My First Web Project and Web Page

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Opportunity is often difficult to recognize and it frequently takes the form of an interruption or additional work. Because of that, I almost turned down Gonzalo's request. After all, he didn't have a teacher working with him. Who would answer his questions? Who would guide him through the project? Who would grade his work?

Captivated by Gonzalo's sincere desire to learn, however, I agreed to lead him through my telecollaborative project Beyond Wild Justice.


During the next few weeks, a barrage of questions played in my mind. How do you set the stage for a writing assignment when the student is on the other side of the world? How do you establish a relationship when written words are the only vehicle of communication?

Once again, the same tool that introduced me to Gonzalo came to my aid. Frequent e-mails, Internet resources, scanners, and Web page publishing tools filled in the communication gap created by physical distance.

Through our e-mail correspondence I learned about a part of the world I had no knowledge of. I learned that Gonzalo lived at the foot of the Andes Mountains in Argentina. He explained that extreme weather conditions prevail there - very cold winters, very hot summers, intense dry spells, and lengthy rainstorms. In his characteristic descriptive style, Gonzalo told me that Mendoza, the province where he lives, is a "desert turned into an oasis by God's hands." As we exchanged Internet-based information about our respective cities, I found myself starting to get a clearer understanding of the background this boy was bringing to my "class."


In joining the Beyond Wild Justice project, Gonzalo became part of a larger group of learners examining the groundbreaking legal case in which middle school bullies were charged in a case of a 14-year-old student who committed suicide. The activities and resources exposed him to the concept of restorative justice, a form of justice that seeks healing for both the victim and the perpetrator.

Throughout our e-mails I posed to Gonzalo the same soul-searching questions I would have offered my own students. The responses from Argentina often caught me off guard:

In your last e-mail, you told me to think about people who have returned good for evil. Since I read your email this morning, I cannot stop thinking about how hard it is for someone who has received evil to turn it into good. Then I realized [that] most important of all is to think further than the question. Do I know anyone who has returned good for evil? For me, the real question would be, am I able to return good for evil? I'm still thinking about the answer.


My questions about whether a student could maintain his learning zeal without the daily monitoring of a teacher came to a standstill when Gonzalo started submitting his work. Realizing that I wouldn't be there to watch him do the Power of Words assignment, Gonzalo created a response-style Web page to communicate his thoughts. His idea was amazing -- one I had never even considered.

Later, Gonzalo submitted a Quilt of Forgiveness square that demonstrated his ability to turn ideas of peace, forgiveness, and restoration into abstract symbols.

As I posted Gonzalo's last writing assignment -- As I See It -- on a Web page, I was astounded by this boy's depth of thought and how he had connected to the thinking behind the restorative justice movement. I could tell he really understood that when we make the effort to extend restitution to a perpetrator, the result may be a change of heart in that person -- something so much more powerful than punitive justice. In Gonzalo's words:

As I was working on the different project assignments, I was feeling like I really had been there when all this happened. In the beginning, I felt like an intruder, but now I feel I was there because I did work on this project with all my soul, head, and heart.

It was now clear to me that my role as telementor had much more to do with being a navigator and encourager than being part of the watch guard!


Brenda Dyck teaches at Master's Academy and College in Calgary, Alberta (Canada). In addition to teaching sixth grade math, Brenda works with her staff in the area of technology integration. Her "Electronic Thread" column is a regular feature in the National Middle School Association's Journal, Middle Ground. Brenda is a teacher-editor for Midlink magazine.

Article by Brenda Dyck
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