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Traveling the Digital Highway: Making Complex Connections Visible
Author: Beth Yeager and PJ Elder | January 18th, 2005
Communities: Literacy & Learning , Access,

Connectivity is complex, multi-layered, both spoken and "un-spoken," visible and invisible. It is not merely the 'flipping of a switch' to digitally connect one point with another. In two projects within the Center for Teaching for Social Justice, K-12 teachers, students, university faculty, technological support teams, families, and community members connected and built relationships in multiple ways and in multiple spaces, both virtual and local, across generations, through different kinds of experiences and experiential levels, school-defined achievement levels, linguistic, ethnic, geographic differences, and more.

Through these projects, Hidden Histories: The Henrietta Marie Slave Ship Project, and Understanding Ourselves in Our Own Communities: Family Stories as Resource Project, we have come to understand the ways in which multiple layers of connectivity enhanced the power of the complex, collaborative work of teachers and students. We have learned that this multi-layered connectivity, including videoconferencing, face2face meetings, internet and snail mail exchanges, provides new ways to enhance the opportunities for learning (Tuyay, Jennings & Dixon, 1995) for students as well as teachers, researchers, technology staff and community members.

We invite you to join us as we recreate our ‘travels over the CENIC ( and Internet2 digital highway’ that made it possible to connect diverse communities for collaborative projects within Center for Teaching for Social Justice (Gevirtz Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Santa Barbara). In sharing what occurred in two of the project ‘stops’ along the highway, we make visible the complex, multi-layered connections necessary to prepare for culminating, face-to-face research conferences in virtual space, in which participants communicated local findings (‘local stories’) from classroom and community-based investigations and worked with these to explore global implications of the issues investigated (‘to make global connections’).

On our first stop, we explore the work of 6th grade students and their teacher to create a virtual tour of the Henrietta Marie Exhibit in Santa Barbara (2002) for 4th, 5th, and 6th grade students in Sacramento, California (BC Morse Elementary School, Elk Grove).

Taking the Henrietta Marie to Others Along the Digital Highway: Students as Docents

Connectivity as opportunity for learning is illustrated in the first student-to-student videoconference project supported by the Center ( in 2002, in which students acted as docents to bring an exhibit, entitled Henrietta Marie: A Slave Ship Speaks, at a local Santa Barbara museum to students in Sacramento. From this initial videoconference, a model evolved for ongoing projects involving connectivity. The impact of this project on student learning is represented by Danielle’s comments at a community lunch a year after the project she undertook as a 6th grader.

“I didn’t really know all that much about slaves and how poorly African-Americans were treated, but once I experienced this whole slave ship idea, I realized how horrible it must have been for them and how they were discriminated against and I never really realized how bad it was for them and this changed my opinion … because in a lot of ways I think I had been not really around the African-American discrimination. But when I realized that this stuff was still going on, it really changed my feelings about it.”

-Speaking to the Dean’s Council, Gevirtz Graduate School of Education

Danielle, along with three of her classmates in Santa Barbara, worked with their teacher and the Center, to design and present a virtual tour to 4th, 5th, and 6th grade students of an exhibit of artifacts from the only known wreck of a slave ship found in the western hemisphere. Santa Barbara was the only California stop for this exhibit. In and through their work, local students and their teacher made this important historical resource available to Sacramento students through a live videoconference.

Although initially viewed as a one-time event, in actual practice, Danielle and her colleagues engaged in a broad range of work to prepare for the videoconference. They read both primary and secondary sources and historical fiction, trained as docents with adults for the actual Henrietta Marie exhibit, and then created a video record of the exhibit and selected segments they felt important for other students to know about with the help of Center researchers/technology experts. Teachers in both sites connected with each other on a regular basis by email/ telephone. The virtual tour, therefore, was grounded in complex layers of preparation and communication, enabling the student docents to take 4th, 5th, and 6th grade classes (each with approximately thirty students), on successive one-hour tours, using “green screen” technology.

Although the technology was new to the students, they quickly learned how to use it effectively. They were able to engage their audience in a productive tour, as evidenced in the ways they presented the information; oriented to their audience rather than to the technology; and responded to the directions of teachers in both spaces, creating opportunities for interactions among participants across the two sites. Analyses of the three presentations showed few content-related corrections and decreasing interventions from teachers from the first to the third tour, along with high audience orientation to and questioning of the docents (Tomlinson, H., Green, J., Grace, E. & Ho, H.Z., unpublished paper presentation, 2004). Across the tours, the student docents gained competence in their role as docents, and demonstrated their ability to respond to requests for information. The student docents also incorporated information requested in one tour in their next tour, increasing the information presented, and making visible the depth of their knowledge and their growing awareness of audience needs.

Looking deeply at the Henrietta Marie videoconference and the contexts in which it was embedded made visible four layers of learning. The first layer reflected what was learned from the students who gave the tours and what they needed in order to successfully take up the role of docent. The second layer made visible what students on the tour needed to know and do to successfully participate in the opportunities created for them in the actual videoconference. The third layer led to the identifications of principles of practice that, combined with the Center’s classroom-based research, served as a model for future collaborative projects in multiple spaces ( involving complex connectivity and collaborations:

• Preparing the mind for (doing the work, accessing the content, and so on)
• Engaging in and with (the content, process, technology, event)
• Taking action on and/or from (using what is learned)
• Going public (sharing what has been learned)

Students were not the only learners. Educators learned to ask complex questions and how to talk technologically. At the same time, the technology team members learned to talk ‘education’ in order to support the use of multi-media in this new context. This new knowledge became a resource for our next trips on the digital highway. Since 2002, we have built on this initial work, creating new projects for collaborative work with students and teachers in multiple spaces that have expanded this model, providing a systematic basis for integrating the work into the ongoing curriculum, and providing new opportunities for students to engage with complex literacies, to meet communicative and technology standards, and to learn complex academic literacy practices. In order to understand the ways in which this fully integrated model has been taken up by teachers and students, we continue our journey by exploring the Understanding Ourselves in Our Own Communities Project.

Understanding Ourselves in Our Own Communities: Family Stories as Resource Project

The next stop on the digital highway focuses on an ongoing project: Understanding Ourselves in Our Own Communities. The project, which connected 7th grade students in a private school classroom in Santa Barbara with high school students in an English as a Second Language classroom in Georgia, began as a way for students to work with the oral histories of their families. The teachers in this projected wanted to connect with another classroom so their work could be imbedded in a global discussion, using technology of videoconferencing.

Initially, the teachers envisioned that students at each site would engage separately in collecting local oral histories, and that groups would share their completed oral histories via live videoconferencing in an effort to draw out the global connections. What became visible over time was that a much more complex and multi-layered series of connections was necessary. Rather than being projects undertaken at one point in time, the study of classrooms and communities as cultures, the connections being made among students over time, and the oral histories of family members became the curriculum in the two classrooms.

After meeting during a Center face2face Summer Institute, the teachers, working with Center directors, began conceptualizing this work via a videoconference connecting Athens, GA with Santa Barbara. Also participating in this videoconference were teachers and faculty who had experience with family stories from South Coast (SB) and Red Clay (GA) Writing Projects, groups that would not be part of the student-to-student videoconference. During this virtual planning session next steps were planned. Over time, an inter-connected community was created in which co-expertise was developed, shared, and taken up in multiple ways and spaces-- through exchanging emails, connecting via phone conferencing, and sharing published resources and student work. These interactions across time in these multiple spaces, served as ways for teachers and Center staff to create a common understanding of the complex nature of the work in which they were involved and to ‘prepare their minds’ for engaging in that work.

Together, the team expanded their understandings of oral history research and family stories, constructed new ‘possibilities ’ for future work, framed parameters for how this work could occur and established how different forms of connectivity would be used, leading to the final face-to-face videoconference. What became evident to all was that each of us, teacher and Center staff alike, had to go through the process of learning about the work necessary, in order to create the new spaces for both teachers and students; in other words, each of the teachers had to reformulate the project for themselves and their students, leading to locally situated projects that fit the needs of their curriculum and students.

The teachers decided to use an ethnographic approach to oral histories and classroom and community research that they explored in the summer institute, creating a common inquiry stance and a new way of looking at the research projects and oral history work being done in classrooms and communities (Yeager, Floriani & Green, 1998). Using this stance, the teachers developed a common set of questions:

• What structures were in place in the community and the school, why were they there and who placed them there?
• Who are the participants in the communities, what counts in the communities?
• How does one become a member of the differing and intersecting communities?

The common set of questions enabled the students (and teachers) to communicate and collaborate, while engaging in local projects. The common ethnographic approach to observing and interpreting data became one layer of connectivity and afforded members of the classes a common language they used to talk about their communities. This approach also gave students a common set of experiences as ethnographers, creating academic merit for their work in both classroom and community. In developing a common language and approach, the teachers and students were able to construct spaces for the convergence of ideas and for learning from the experiences of others.

The students in Georgia explored what it meant to take an ethnographic stance to the study of community, while the students in Santa Barbara were discussing complex issues of culture and community. Both began collecting oral histories from family members. During this time, the two communities of students exchanged pen pal letters, artifacts representing their communities, artistic representations and writing, and videos of their local community. These varying levels of connectivity led to the discussion of serious issues (e.g., teen pregnancy), questions of language heritage, culture, and the nature of work. These topics became ways for students to learn about and with one another. When students met in an introductory videoconference at the beginning of the second semester, they had already discovered many different strands of connectivity on which to build. They came together in virtual space to “see” one another, to hear each others’ voices, to ask questions and to build more potentiality for the work that would take place over the next few months, locally and globally.

In April 2004, the teachers had an opportunity to meet face-to-face in Philadelphia and to share with other teachers the work of their students. During this conference, the teachers had the opportunity to create new interactional spaces (Heras, 1993) to discuss and make connections between what was happening in each of their classrooms on a day-to-day basis, further solidifying and enhancing the layers of connectivity and enabling them to explore what their students were learning from each other.

For example, the teachers identified a common theme that influenced what the students were exploring. The topic, tops, was initiated by Luis, a student from Georgia, when he included a top in the artifact box that he and his colleagues sent to Santa Barbara. He explained that in Mexico children make tops for fun:

The spinning top represents us, the Hispanic people. It represents us a lot because
almost all Hispanic people play with a spinning top when they were little.
This spinning top represents us a lot because it says that we can make them.
-Luis, 9th grader, Georgia

On the other side of the country, in Santa Barbara, two 7th grade students, Janet and Julia, were making connections with their “hidden histories” as young Latinas. Janet wrote in response to the top:
The artifact that I got was the spinning top. It represents the Hispanic people.
Most Hispanic people play with a spinning top and most people can make one.
When I was little I used to play with a spinning top.
-Janet, 7th grader, California
Through their interactions with Luis’ writing and the artifact, Janet’s and Julia’s teachers observed ways in which their roles in the classroom were changing. Before interacting with these artifacts and writings, Janet and Julia had not discussed their Hispanic heritage; it had been hidden and definitely not seen as any sort of expertise. In this more complex learning space, Janet and Julia were using their expertise as ‘insiders’ of the Hispanic community; they were now the cultural docents for their local classroom community. In the classroom, this took many forms, from the obvious reference to the top, to being language consultants. These and related observations led us to think about connectivity as creating layers of potentiality and opportunities for learning. We learned that the introductory videoconference, and the exchange of artifacts and emails, provided students with points where their work and connections could converge and develop, where they (and their teachers) could build on common experiences (e.g., the common experiences of Janet, Julia, and Luis), and how inter- and intra-personal connections were outcomes created by this type of work over time.

Opportunities for Re-Connecting the Silent and/or Disconnected Student: Sammy’s Story

Not all students function most productively, or even comfortably, in the classroom environment. Many times, silent or withdrawn students have little opportunity in the classroom to break their pattern of silence or learn new ways of interacting with other students. We have learned that another direct result of this highly motivating work is the creation of new spaces for academic engagement in different contexts.

The story of Sammy, a student from Georgia, illustrates how students who do not take up the spaces in classrooms for developing and sharing expertise, claim roles in the new virtual interactional space. Sammy did not like being in ESOL classes and purposefully separated himself from the other students. He rarely, if ever, spoke in class and sat as far away from the other students as physically possible. However, when the students from Santa Barbara asked a class of thirteen high school students about the concept of ethnography during their first videoconference, Sammy found the space he needed to explore the role of expert in order to develop the expertise of others. When all the other students fell silent, Sammy seized the opportunity that the videoconference provided for him.

Ethnography is like the...collecting, and observe and write what you see. Like in this case, you’re seeing me do some stuff with my face, you write whatever I do, what are my movements, how I’m acting, all that stuff. And, uh, ethnography is like I said, it’s you write everything, it’s like an observation.
-Sammy, 9th grader, Georgia

With candidness and vigor, he responded to the question, demonstrating the depth of his understanding of the complex process, and illustrating his skills in listening and analyzing in the moment (part of the state standards). In responding in this way, he showed that he was able to use the multiple layers of work he had been negotiating in the previous months to provide both the Santa Barbara students and his peers in Georgia with a concept that they could use to inform their own cultural work.

Sammy’s story, along with similar stories of other students like him across the projects supported by the Center, including the Henrietta Marie, make visible what can happen when silent or disconnected students take up interactional spaces for learning that are not traditionally available in public school settings. Similarly, when different types of knowledge count in a classroom, as in Janet’s and Julia’s case with cultural knowledge, we see students taking up roles that are traditionally not available or accessible to them. The invisible power of connectivity and the multiple ways of looking at the work done in these classrooms afforded different students different opportunities for learning and new spaces for building and sharing expertise.


Particular projects across all of our Center work in multiple spaces has enabled a view of connectivity that is multi-dimensional and that creates new potential opportunities for learning for multiple actors; to connect on multiple levels, make visible what is needed, and bring to the moment as well as take from it. From the work of interacting communities in multiple spaces there is a rich, expanded model for collaborative work in which participants prepare their minds, engage in and with the content and process, take action on what they have learned, and go public in and through the opportunities afforded by the interactive videoconference.

Each stop, each intersection, along the digital highway becomes a potential rich point (Agar, 1994) for multiple layers of learning about what is in front, what is behind, and what is often hidden from view in what would otherwise appear to be a seamless journey from one point to another. These projects reveal that traveling the digital highway is, instead, a complex, ongoing journey.


The authors would like to thank Dr. Judith Green, Co-Director of the Center for Teaching for Social Justice, for her contributions to this paper. We would also like to acknowledge Edie Lanphar and Ann Gott, and their students, for writing the Understanding Ourselves in Our Own Communities project into being with PJ and her students. Finally, we thank the other members of the Center, as well as Gail Desler, Northern California Coordinator, the technology team at the Gevirtz Graduate School of Education, and the South Coast and Red Clay Writing Projects for their contributions as well.

Agar, M. (1994). Language Shock: Understanding the culture of conversation. New
York: William Morrow and Company, Inc.
Heras, A. (1993). The construction of understanding in a sixth-grade bilingual classroom.
Linguistics and Education 5(3 & 4), 275-300.
Tomlinson, H., Green, J., Grace, E. & Ho, H.Z (2004). Discourse as material resource for learning how students reformulate audience, self and content across common
events, unpublished paper, American Educational Research Association Annual
Meeting, San Diego, CA.
Tuyay, S., Jennings, L., & Dixon, C. (1995). Classroom discourse and opportunities to
learn: An ethnographic study of knowledge construction in a bilingual third grade
classroom. Discourse Processes 19, 75-110.
Yeager, B., Floriani, A., & Green, J. (1998). Learning to see learning in the classroom:
Developing an ethnographic perspective. In A. Egan-Robertson & D. Bloome (Eds.),
Students as Researchers of Culture and Language in Their Own Communities. Cresskill:
Hampton Press, Inc., 115 – 139.

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