Students Don't Fear Her Byte

updated 10/24/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/24/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

IN THESE TIMES OF SHRINKING SCHOOL budgets and sagging morale, chagrin is about all that most harried teachers have time for, while disengaged students dash home to the tube—in front of which the average American kid camps an astonishing 23 hours a week. But far from tsk-tsking such couch potato conduct, North Carolina science teacher Gail Morse went eyeball-to-eyeball with the enemy and turned her students' passion for electronic entertainment into a technique for learning. "Adults were paper-trained—-books, scissors, glue," explains the 50ish Morse. "Kids today are used to lights—by lights, I mean TVs, VCRs, Nintendos, computers."

To both interest and educate her classes at J.M. Alexander Junior High in Huntersville, just north of Charlotte, Morse has begged and borrowed from local and national businesses a smorgasbord of plug-ins that she values at $25,000: PCs, televisions, laser-disc and videocassette units, video cameras and camcorders and even a satellite dish on the roof. These are the tools she feels will best reach today's technologically literate youngsters.

Two years ago Morse's theories were put to the test when she and colleague Pam Shillington took on a group of students the school considered "at risk." Recalls Morse of the 56 seventh graders with low grades and spotty attendance records: "They were kids other teachers are glad to see in your classroom." But once they entered the wired environment, they seemed transformed. Students readily took to such InfoAge skills as desktop publishing (they composed letters that they zapped to other schools around the country) and videotape production (they created term cassettes, rather than papers). In the process, they also polished their math, science and language abilities. A year later, 48 of the students tested at least one level higher in science, and 20 went on to an advanced class.

Their progress was especially gratifying for Morse, who remembers being a "mediocre student" herself while growing up in Roselle, N.J. After graduating from high school, she landed a job fielding complaints for AT & T in South Plainfield, N.J. "I started noticing that the people who got promotions all had degrees," Morse says. "That got my attention." It also spurred her to work her way through Ohio's University of Dayton, where she majored in science. Currently separated from her second husband, she lives in Mooresville with the youngest of her seven children, Susan, 17, and Gina, 14.

Morse credits the in-class boredom of her own children with her changing attitude toward teaching others. "Traditionally, we have been dispensers of information, standing in the front of the room like dictators. Those days are over. I see myself as a collaborator, a researcher, a catalyst." Yet electronics alone are not the answer, she says. "There are teachers filling up their rooms with what I call the stuff. But the stuff is not what makes a difference. It's how you use it to help kids learn. If we're going to teach them how to achieve in the 21st century, then we're going to have to change the whole culture of the classroom."

—T.C.; GAIL WESCOTT in Huntersville

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