The Freedom Web: A Middle School Language Arts Project

Hypertext. People have different reactions to the word. For some it's wonderfully high tech. Very '90's. For others, it sounds like a word they should know, but they don't. And they're a little embarrassed. But hypertext, the electronic linking of text, images, and sounds, is an exciting classroom tool that can actively draw students into meaningful interaction with a piece of literature. And while this sounds like a radical new development, it is really something we have always been able to do in everyday life and learning. Michael Joyce (1995) reminds us that some scholars see "hypertextual" thinking in Ancient Greek texts. And he also reminds us that Vannevar Bush, in 1945, as director of the United States Office of Scientific Research and Development, foresaw a digital and electronic information-accessing system that would mimic the association processes carried out by the human brain.

In a traditional language arts setting, students are usually given a piece of literature to read. They may be asked to respond orally or in a journal. Often the teacher asks a number of questions designed to get students thinking. Students may have to fill out a study guide, or take a few quizzes. At some point students are formally assessed either on a test, or through an essay.
Hypertext can add a dynamic element to this rather staid learning environment.
Joseph A. Feustle (1991) compares hypertext to a piece of woven cloth. "...hypertext is as new as computers yet as traditional as the etymology of the word text itself: a texture of threads that reach out by means of the computer program and connect original works, critical studies, bibliographies, and historical backgrounds" (p.299).

The term hypertext was coined in the 1960's by Theodore Nelson. The highlighted words you find on the internet are hypertext links. Click on the different colored word where the little hand appears and you access a different document. These are called lexias.

Ok. So hypertext is interesting and not so new to human experience. What does that have to do with classroom instruction? A lot.

As teachers we know that students learn best when they make connections between what they already know and what they are learning. In reading we call that accessing prior knowledge. The wonderful thing about hypertext is that it provides the vehicle for making those connections.

Here's how it works in my rural middle school classroom.

The Freedom Web
I wanted to present Rita Dove's poem "Lady Freedom Among Us," written for the re-dedication of the Statue of Liberty. As I pulled my thoughts together regarding the poem, I realized it would provide the perfect context for teaching my students about hypertext webs. I read the poem over and over and tried to anticipate how my 8th graders would interpret it, what images they would find significant. I then scoured our school library for resources on immigration, the Statue of Liberty, westward expansion, homelessness, and the Emma Lazarus poem "The New Colossus," which was written when the Statue of Liberty was originally dedicated. I also checked out some internet sites and found biographical information about Dove, information about the poem, and more information about some of the issues I thought students would see in the poem. Then I talked to one of our history teachers who recommended a couple more sources including a video about immigrants' experiences on Ellis Island.

The next day I presented "Lady Freedom Among Us" and asked students to speculate on the meaning of the poem. I did not give them any background information, however. I wanted to see where they would go with it. In a heterogeneous classroom that included gifted as well as special education students, the discussion began to swirl. Students picked up on the allusions to the Statue of Liberty without any prompting from me. From there they launched into a discussion about immigration. One group picked up on the phrase "all of you, even the least of you," and thought it came from the Bible. A student called a local minister who helped her find the specific Biblical reference. Gradually the students identified themes they found in the poem and began looking at some of the reference materials I had gathered. In small groups they searched through the materials and focused on aspects of the poem that interested them. They even looked through dictionaries to find out the meanings of unfamiliar terms like "potter's field," and "plumage." Through negotiation, the groups settled on individual topics and continued researching. One group, for example, learned more about the Statue of Liberty. Another group chose to learn more about Rita Dove.

I asked each group to write up a report of their findings and present the information to the class.
Prior to this I had taken students to the computer lab and let them experiment with Storyspace, a hypertext writing program. After students completed their research summaries, I appointed two students who felt comfortable with Storyspace to act as webmasters. I then allowed the research groups to go to the computer lab with the webmasters to begin constructing the hypertext web, what I called "The Freedom Web."

The webmasters typed the poem into the program first and decided it should be the anchor point for the web. Individuals who accessed the web later would begin with the poem and then navigate through the web as they chose. With the help of each research group, the webmasters entered the reports into the web and decided which word or phrase in the poem would link to the information provided by the group. For example, the line "not another one" links to information about homelessness. Another line, "all of you, even the least of you," links to the Biblical passage.

Within a few days the groups and the webmasters had created the initial links from the poem to the explanatory pieces of text. It would have been easy to stop there, but if we had, we would not have been making use of hypertext's full power. These single-directional links would not differ from any linear notations explicating a particular text. But because hypertext allows for multi-directional linking, the real work began after the initial links were established.

Students now had to link their explanatory texts to others. To do this, they had to read what other groups had written, and establish a relationship, an intertextuality, between their pages, or lexias, and others. This type of linking allows students to enter the world of literary interpretation, something that is often denied middle and high school students. In order to link their lexias to others, students had to think about the relationship between their text and the ideas of other writers (see web). In a sense, then, they had to establish a dialogue between themselves and other writers, in and out of the classroom. In the next phase of the project, the Freedom Web became much more dimensional. Unlike a piece of writing in which groups simply collaborate, the Freedom Web became what George Landow and Paul Delany(1992) call a "centrifugal movement of interpretation" (p. 35). With this "movement of interpretation" in mind, I asked students to add another element to the growing web-their own group responses to the poem. Once again students not only worked within their groups to write a response, they worked with the webmasters and created links between their group response and other texts in the web. And in this process, they sometimes they had to change their group response. As they continued to think and make connections, they realized they had to continue to revise their thinking. It was an English teacher's dream.

And the dream isn't over. The web currently has 16 lexias and at least 55 links, and it continues to grow.

Reading the Web
Not only does hypertext provide new ways to appraoch writing, it challneges us to think about how we read. In order to respond to any text, we must constantly shift our stance or perspective. We must rely on our knowledge of text, and our sense of place within the text itself (Beach 1990). Reading hypertext requires nothing new from us. Since hypertext readers have many choices to make during a reading, their sense of orientation within the text is challenged. Students accessing the poem in the Freedom Web, for example, may click on a word or phrase that takes them away from the poem to a document that deals with immigration laws. From there they may link to a page about Michigan immigration issues. Obviously, hypertext reading, as any reading, does not happen in a linear fashion. George Landow, in his book Hypertext 2.0 (1997) stresses that the electronic linking of text effectively moves us away from the false idea that reading is a linear process. Jane Yellowlees Douglas agrees. She argues that since the advent of modern novels, for example, readers are challenged to negotiate plots much like a hypertext reader negotiates a webbed document like the Freedom Web (1994).

Along with this non-linear or multi-linear reading goes the notion of closure. Students who access the Freedom Web may begin reading the poem, but they may never finish it. Or they may have to suspend their reading as they navigate through some of the other links. Think of it as a narrative with many flashbacks and point-of-view changes. Readers suspend their involvement with one part of the text, only to become involved in another.

This is an important aspect of hypertext. Since hypertext permits readers to choose their own paths through a particular web, or docuverse, it challenges our notion that text is an entity that contains a definable beginning, middle, and end. The Freedom Web has a starting place, the Rita Dove poem. But it really has no middle or end. When the Freedom Web is published on the World Wide Web it will link to other documents and truly become endless. It is possible that no two readers will ever read the same text, even before the Freedom Web becomes part of a larger web. But that concept already fits with our knowledge of readers and their role in reading more "traditional" book bound texts. Louise Rosenblatt's work (1978) has shown us that each reader brings a body of knowledge to a text that differs from another reader's, and therefore each reader constructs a somewhat different meaning from the text. He or she reads a slightly different text. Hypertext, with its choices, then, offers more opportunities to explore multi-linear text, but it does not truly alter the reading process.

No computers? No Problem
So what do you do if you don't have computer access? The kind of thinking that happens during the creation of hypertext webs is really just good thinking that interconnects one concept with another. Students can make webs without the use of computers. One way to do this is to use a large wall. Put the piece of literature your students are investigating in the center, and then let the individual reports and responses become "satellites" around it. Use highlighters and string to show the links. This format may not be as easy for the uninitiated to read, but your student writers/readers will still experience the process and the thinking that goes into creating hypertext webs.

Where Do We Go Next?
Throughout the year we will add to the Freedom Web. As students discover other issues that remind them of Rita Dove's poem, they will enlarge the web and continue to make it more complex and dimensional. I would like to see students write their own poetry and add it to the web. I'd also like to see them add other poems by other authors. Whatever they do, I must continue to remind myself that this web belongs to students. It is their creation and I must resist taking over. There are connections I make with the poem that my students have not made. They may never make these connections. But as soon as I take too much control away from them, the sooner they will fail to see meaningful connections between themselves and Dove's poem.

The web itself has become a piece of text, a woven cloth made up of the threads of student meaning-making. It is strong cloth. What else would you expect of something called The Freedom Web?