Digital Discussions: La Esperanza in the Shared Virtual Classroom

Judi Moreillon
with Barb Tatarchuk

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The action research project described in this article presents a case study of the online literature discussions of undergraduate children’s literature students in geographically distant classrooms. With their digital conversations, students constructed a text in which diverse voices were heard and engagement with the social and political issues raised in the literature was deepened. The results of this study affirm the importance of the social construction of meaning and suggest that shared virtual classrooms create powerful communication and learning environments for promoting multicultural understanding and technology-enabled literacy.

  Related Postings from the Archives

Introduction | Context | Shared Texts | Tool of Empowerment | Participants | Digital Discussions | Interviews | Questionnaire and Evaluation | Conclusion | References | Text Set

The bitter winter winds were blowing through the pine trees as Barbara Tatarchuk read Amy Hest’s When Jessie Came Across the Sea to a group of 29 children’s literature students at Northwestern Michigan College in Traverse City, in the northern Great Lakes region of the United States. One day later and 1600 miles (2500 kilometers) away, 21 children’s literature students at the University of Arizona sauntered across the sun-drenched campus in Tucson in the U.S. southwest, entered our classroom, and listened while I read aloud the same story. During the next several weeks, both groups of students read, listened to, and responded to many of the same picture books, poems, and novels, and discussed them in literature circles. But these students from opposite sides of the country also used Web-based technology (and the U.S. Postal Service) to share ideas, memories, feelings, personal experiences, original poems, and regional artifacts.

This multifaceted approach to learning is what modern literacy is all about. Today’s newest and most rapidly changing form of literacy is technology-enhanced “digital literacy” (Gilster, 1997). The use of Web-based communication tools has set off an explosion of discourse communities in cyberspace. Like other discourse communities, they use a set of social practices that link people, media objects, and strategies for making meaning (Lemke, 1998). Their existence refutes one of the basic concepts of print literacy: the idea of the writer and reader as isolated individuals. Instead of one author writing to many silent and distant readers, many authors are creating texts that form a basis for interaction with many readers.

In Virtual Architecture: Designing and Directing Curriculum-Based Telecomputing, Harris (1998) describes what she calls “global classrooms,” where technology is used so that “in-classroom discussion of a topic is extended to other classes studying the same topic, thereby creating a virtual learning space” (p. 21). The shared virtual classroom capitalizes on this many-to-many mode of communication and, as a result, has the potential to create a global forum for the social co-construction of meaning.

The overarching question that framed the collaborative action research study described in this article was “What is the impact of digital discourse on the literature responses and multicultural education experienced by students in remote geographic locations?” We had two subquestions as well: “What are the theoretical and practical considerations for building online literacy communities?” and “Does digital discourse address the (re)distribution of power in a learning community?” These questions guided us as Barb and I analyzed the classroom exchanges in our own implementation of the global classroom, with a focus on the students’ experiences and their learning outcomes.

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The Classroom Context

The learning experiences in the children’s literature courses at both universities, most particularly weekly literature circles, were designed to help undergraduate students make personal connections to the texts they read and to describe and discuss the issues raised in literature selections through social discourse (Short, Harste, & Burke, 1996). These practices have the potential to build a multicultural literacy learning community in which each student’s perspectives and experiences are shared and valued. In a literature course, the experiences of the literary characters and their creators add to the multicultural perspectives of the class (Rosenblatt, 1978).

One of the primary goals for our shared virtual classroom was to invite as many perspectives as possible into our learning community. First, we learned from the perspectives of the characters in Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan, and from other texts on the broad topic of immigration. We also had the opportunity to learn from Pam Muñoz Ryan herself, via an electronic question-and-answer session. Most important of all, each student had an opportunity to access the perspectives of 49 other undergraduate students of children’s literature.

Influenced by Freire and Macedo (1987), Cadiero-Kaplan (2002) notes that “students involved in a critical literacy curriculum read the world and the word, by using dialogue to engage texts and discourses inside and outside the classroom” (p. 37). Barb and I invited students to consider the literary elements of each text personally, to describe and analyze the works, and to make connections with their own lives. Next, we asked students to engage in a discussion of their ideas, both in their on-site literature groups and online with their virtual classmates. Finally, we challenged students to respond critically to the issues and problems raised in the shared texts. These students did indeed “read the world and the word.”

Communications technology allowed Barb and myself to promote the practices of cooperative learning, the use and composition of multicultural texts, and the teaching of critical thinking (Considine & Haley, 1999). It helped us reach our goals of increasing diversity in our classrooms, practicing equity and democracy in the online environment, experiencing the social construction of knowledge, integrating technology into learning, and developing collaborative skills with local and distant colleagues.

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Shared Texts

A collaborative, technology-enabled communication forum that included student-generated as well as published texts became the context for our exchange. Before we entered the online environment, however, our first objective was for students to build relationships and understanding of one another in both the on-site and the distant classroom. From our initial class assignments, Barb and I infused our individual and collective classrooms with opportunities to consider the ways our personal cultures (our Primary Discourses) influence our learning and teaching (Gee, 1992). We shared our own literacy and literature timelines and composed “Where I’m From” poems. As white, middle-aged, middle-class women, Barb and I offered our Primary Discourses as a place for beginning our investigation into “difference.” After they created individual literacy timelines, students were asked to write a “Where I’m From” poem to include in our Literacy Memories class books. Students received a copy of the book prepared in their own locations, and the classes exchanged books as well. This learning project helped students begin to notice and value individual differences while we developed relationships in our local and global classrooms.

In addition, each class collected a cultural package to send to the other. Traverse City students sent postcards, maps, photographs of snow, stones from the beaches of Lake Michigan, “snowbirds” (a local candy), chocolate-covered cherries, and more. Tucson students sent postcards, photographs of desert animals, Mexican candy and gum, an eclectic recording of Mariachi and Native American flute as well as cowboy tunes, and more. We also posted photographs of the discussion groups on the Web. These artifacts provided a way to learn about one another and the influence of place on our perspectives.

Pam Muñoz Ryan’s Esperanza Rising, our shared novel, focuses on the topic of immigration. Set in the 1930s, the story is based on the life of the author’s grandmother. In the novel, Esperanza and her mother are forced by a death in the family to leave a wealthy ranching life in Mexico to become poor migrant workers in Depression-era California. Barb and I negotiated to select this text. We both wanted a novel with a regional focus and one that would raise social issues that have become increasingly critical since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001: immigration and prejudice. We wanted to use literature and writing as a means for understanding difference.

Barb and I built the shared classroom discussions around Esperanza Rising. We used the same read-aloud selections for each class. We read Hest’s When Jessie Came Across the Sea to introduce the immigration text set to students. We also read aloud Elegy on the Death of César Chávez by Rudolfo Anaya and selections from My Name Is Jorge: On Both Sides of the River, a collection of poems in English and Spanish by Jane Medina. Students from each discussion group read picture books and novels from the text set listed at the end of this article.

Our literacy memories, our cultural packages, our photographs, and the shared text set were the foundation on which we built the global classroom exchange. As facilitators of this exchange, Barb and I hoped that through building community in our individual classrooms and by sharing these texts, we would be able to build a secondary digital discourse community. We hoped students would feel comfortable with one another and would be empowered to express and reflect on their experiences, values, and beliefs. We also hoped they would be affected by the experiences and reflections of their on-site and distant classmates.

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Technology as a Tool of Empowerment

Educators around the world are rising to the challenge of meaningfully integrating 21st-century communication tools into every content area. Many educational theorists and researchers believe that appropriating these technology tools for student empowerment holds the promise of democratizing education (see, e.g., Brown, 1999; Cummins & Sayers, 1995; Kinzer & Leu, 1997). Using these tools to share literature response and then using the written record of online conversations to guide and reflect on our discussions created a powerful way to combine literacy, discourse and knowledge construction, and technology for the purpose of multicultural education.

At Northwestern Michigan College, Barb used Blackboard as a course management tool. At the University of Arizona, I used Polis, an online course support tool developed on site by Sally Jackson, a professor of communication and faculty associate for distributed learning. We selected Polis as the virtual site for our shared classroom discussions because it is accessible without a password and contents are archived in perpetuity. These features have allowed us to provide links in this article to actual student conversations that took place during the study.

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The participants in this study were students in children’s literature courses at the University of Arizona and at Northwestern Michigan College. The 29 students in Michigan met in a physical classroom twice each week; the 21 Arizona students met just once a week. Table 1 shows the demographics of each class.

Table 1
Participant Demographics

Median age (years) 22 21
Sex (female / male) 18 / 3 26 / 3
Main area of study:
   Elementary education
   Secondary education
   Special education
   Early childhood education


   White, non-Hispanic
   Hispanic or Latina/Latino



As in most children’s literature and preservice teacher education courses in the United States today, the majority of the students in our classrooms were female (88%) and “white, non-Hispanic” (88%). But although the classes were similar, they were not the same. Had they not participated in this exchange, the Michigan students would not have had access to the perspectives of the six Arizona students of Hispanic or Latino origin. Students discovered there were regional differences between the two classes, differences that stimulated dialogue and prompted reconsideration of moral and political issues relevant to both communities.

For the most part, students were in the third or fourth year of their undergraduate programs. Although the median age of the Arizona class was 22 and of the Michigan class was 21, students ranged in age from 18 to 53 years. Eleven students had participated in online discussions in previous courses. Six students, three from Michigan and three from Arizona, were invited to participate in individual interviews. In this article, we use pseudonyms for these students. During the exchange, students’ actual names were attached to postings; after this study was complete, the Polis administrator globally changed all posting signatures to “anonymous.”

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Digital Discussions

For the sake of organization and ease of response, Barb and I initiated the first discussion. Our goal was for students’ interactions and their own questions to build and direct the subsequent course of the digital conversations. Beyond constructing the first discussion questions, we tried not to share our own perspectives online; we reserved the digital discussions for students only. Sharing power in the classroom is one critical component in the successful implementation of curriculum that utilizes technology tools (Sandholtz, Ringstaff, & Dwyer, 1997). The digital environment provided a framework in which students could express themselves without teacher interference.

Students began by working in groups; later they worked both in groups and as individuals. The first questions we posted were about the characters in Esperanza Rising, their class and generational differences, and particular incidents in the book that highlighted these differences. We also asked students what connections they had to the situations represented in the novel and the impact of the historical fiction genre on their understandings of the issues addressed. The socioeconomic situations of the characters led the students into a discussion of class issues. Students used the symbolism from the story -- crossing the river -- to talk about how difference divides people. In this exchange, summarized in Figure 1, students were talking about Esperanza, a privileged child, and Miguel, her childhood friend and a ranch hand from a lower socioeconomic class.

Figure 1
Differences Discussion

Arizona --
A River Divides:

So many things create a river between people today: money, status, education, color of skin, gender, religion. It’s these “rivers” that segregate and cause people to judge. It’s these “rivers” that cause some people to feel better than others, and some to feel below others.
Michigan --

I agree completely about rivers dividing humans. Every day people separate each other by these so-called rivers, it can be seen everywhere you look.... It is human ignorance and self-centeredness that keeps the rivers flowing and they will never dry up until people start to wake up and say “no more.”
Michigan --

As long as there have been men and women there have been differences. We cannot ignore the fact that we are different. The one thing we have to make sure of is that we don’t build dams. It’s the monstrous walls of misunderstanding that I see as being the problem. If we were all alike, how boring would this world be? Diversity is what makes the world go round. To be truthful, I find myself very uncomfortable in a very elite setting (I’m just an average Joe). I also find myself uncomfortable in a poverty setting. What I must be careful of is not to misunderstand and misjudge a place or a person.

This discussion excerpt shows how students effectively used the metaphor of the river to express their understanding of text. Although students use metaphors in traditional classroom discussions, the quick thinkers generally initiate these discussions. The online discussion allowed for a more deliberate building of language and ideas and did not preclude participation of those who played with language more slowly. Because online discussion never disappears in the same way as oral language, students were able to revisit this conversation when their thoughts had had a chance to ripen and even ferment.

When students were asked about their connections to the novel, their responses included links to other texts, personal experiences, and references to historical and current events. Initially, several groups made connections with Nory Ryan’s Song and When Jessie Came Across the Sea, two books from our shared text set; over the course of the exchange, nearly every shared book was mentioned. Groups also connected the situations in Esperanza Rising to those in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, books they had read prior to the course. Several students made connections to Alonso Arau’s 1995 film A Walk in the Clouds, which also portrays a Mexican grape-growing family and their bonds to one another and to their land.

Students’ personal connections to the novel were quite strong. Some shared family members’ immigration experiences; one Arizona student shared her personal experience of arriving in the United States as a Spanish-speaking third-grader. Students shared stories that contrasted the experience of crossing the Mexican versus the Canadian border. They talked about the challenges of moving as children or teens, and one student talked about her experience as a “street kid” in a socially stratified white community. These exchanges began the process called “distancing” (Brown et al., 1998): When people are asked to take a step back and rethink the world in which they live, they tend to see their own “reality” more clearly.

Many students shared memories and stories of their mothers and grandmothers. These very personal discussions encouraged some of the more hesitant members of the class to participate. A student in Arizona began with a personal connection: “Like Esperanza and her family, we have also started over with ‘nothing.’ We also feel very special bonds with some of our family members.” Two young women, one from each class, who were hesitant contributors in whole-class discussions, were able to share their heart-felt memories of their grandmothers with an expanded audience. This discussion allowed students to show their vulnerability in a safe environment.

Several students made references to the events of September 11. These students talked about feeling “vulnerable” after the terrorist attacks, like the characters in Esperanza Rising who experienced an unexpected event in the murder of Esperanza’s father. They asked one another whether they had been touched personally by September 11, and one person suggested that being directly connected was necessary in order to experience the horror. Two students shared their direct connections to people who were near the tragedy or who take daily risks as rescue workers.

After Barb and I read the students’ first individual and group postings, we found three broad areas of high interest or concern: connections across texts, regional perspectives on immigration and the concerns of immigrants, and educational issues related to immigration, prejudice, and discrimination. We offered these three strands as possibilities for the second round of postings. In these discussions, students talked about language barriers, living conditions, and class struggles of new immigrants. They discussed new immigrants and their striving for freedom. They considered the prejudice and discrimination experienced by immigrants. They concluded that family bonds and not losing hope -- la esperanza -- were frequent critical components of the immigrant experience.

Students shared personal experiences as immigrants or with immigrants who lived and worked in their region. We asked if they felt children of immigrants or migrant workers were accepted in schools and whether they experienced discrimination in other aspects of their lives. Although the students had varying experiences with immigrants and immigration issues, there were some notable regional differences that they hadn’t considered before their online dialogue. Three particularly powerful discussions were entitled “La migra and Me,” “Voluntary Segregation,” and “Balanced, Multicultural Classroom.”

This last discussion focused on English-only classrooms and elicited strong opinions from students. Arizona students shared the passage in 2001 of Proposition 203, which limited bilingual (Spanish-English) education in the state. As a result of this law, many monolingual Spanish immigrant children are being taught in sheltered English immersion classes when in the past they would have been placed in bilingual classrooms. Students in both locations talked about Spanish-speaking children as victims of English-only laws, “ innocents” who should be supported in their primary language as they learn English as their second language. Students in both classes talked about the need for Spanish-speaking adults living in the United States to learn the English language in order to participate fully in the society. Figure 2 shows a sample of one exchange from the primary language dialogue.

Figure 2
Primary Language Discussion

Arizona --
Balanced, Multicultural Classroom:

A goal would be to run the classroom with a balanced, multicultural education. However, this has recently been made more difficult since the passage of Proposition 203. Goals with the texts would be to show students the lives of people from a variety of different cultures.
Michigan --
Prop 203:

Balanced, multicultural classrooms would be fantastic! I have thought about something I would like to do when I am a teacher -- like introducing food, music, customs, etc. of all types of cultures on a regular basis. I feel that this will make students more comfortable about people who are “different” than themselves. Could you tell me about Proposition 203?
Michigan --
English Language:

In fairness, I should probably go first. I am being honest stating that I have a problem with some people who choose to immigrate to the U.S. and then fail to learn the predominant language of the U.S. culture. I know when I have traveled to Europe, the people of the various countries expected me to at least attempt to use their native language BEFORE they let on that they spoke English. I don’t understand why the U.S. is all in a tizzy about speaking another language beside English, when all the other countries of the world are learning English. Germany, Sweden, Norway and places in Japan begin teaching their children in elementary school, usually in first grade level, the language of English. Ok - let the massacre begin!
Arizona --

A good base in any primary language makes learning a second language that much easier. Many of the same strategies are transferred to the new/second language, as well as many of the same mistakes are repeated that occurred when learning a second language. Bilingualism for migrant workers is an important and powerful tool in a country that is dependent on a single language for its method of communication (English). Therefore, by learning a second language, the opportunity for success increases and it also bridges the gap between communities that are separated by language barriers.

Some Michigan students felt that migrant workers choose not to integrate into the local community. Language barriers and the brief harvesting season are the reasons they gave for “voluntary segregation.” Several Arizona students shared a different perspective. They felt that segregation was the result of discrimination, not choice. On the whole, Arizona students, with their proximity to the Mexican border, had a different view of Mexican immigration than did their Michigan counterparts.

Several Michigan students expressed a preference for virtual chat and invited Arizona students to join them live online. One Arizona student, Barb, and I participated in a live discussion focused on bilingual education. In this small group, the conversation was quite intense. Michigan students had many questions and were surprised by some of the strong feelings expressed. In Michigan, the class session that followed this discussion was also very intense because those who had been participants in the chat shared the main points and brought up even more questions. Some of the students who had not paid much attention to the asynchronous discussion on bilingual education became more involved and interested in the exchange.

After reviewing the postings regarding the failure of schools to address the difficult issues facing immigrants in the United States, we asked students to identify outcomes or goals of sharing multicultural literature in classrooms across grade levels. Students talked about increasing children’s understanding through knowledge of history and culture and developing respect and acceptance for difference. As shown in the following example, these global classroom conversations are the embodiment of social construction. These students showed that they had begun to stretch their definition of diversity beyond the ethnic and class differences highlighted in the immigration text set. They were thinking and writing about other kinds of difference. Figure 3 shows an exchange based on the thread “Acceptance?”

Figure 3
Acceptance? Discussion

Arizona --

One possible goal amongst students is acceptance. Without acceptance you really can’t grow. There are many unheard voices that haven’t been expressed. Our society consists of many different types of people but because our society is stratified, many don’t know about the “other side.” In reference to Sing Down the Moon, the journey from Arizona to Fort Sumner, New Mexico hasn’t been told. However, this journey is important to the Navajo tribe and their trials and tribulations. Without conveying our history to the future generation, “we are condemned to repeat it.”
Arizona --
Acceptance 101:

How do we teach our children acceptance?? I admit it has gotten much better since past situations, but every time a new group of people comes along, here it is again. This is an entirely rhetorical question because it is theory in practice, and who knows if it’s working out. I practice acceptance, and I hope that one day I can teach my kids that difference is good, and uniqueness is beautiful.
Michigan --
Persons With Disabilities:

I love your question and it is one I face daily -- in a slightly different form. Working with mentally ill persons, I see how many people walk across the street or make denigrating comments. These stories about immigration have enriched my views, understanding and acceptance of differences through their communication of universal issues and personalizing the characters. I think acceptance can more easily follow knowledge, understanding than without either of those. And I agree, that we can have strong impacts through modeling.
Arizona --
Facing Life with Disabilities:

I too understand where you are coming from. I was born with only two fingers on each hand. I have overcome every obstacle imaginable. So, as I walk down the street, eat at a restaurant, or go to the bars, I do encounter the questions, the stares, and the little whispering that goes on. In addition, I completely agree with the idea that knowledge and understanding will help the term “acceptance” become easier. With experience in teaching and modeling to the children, they want to know and therefore the children ask questions without regulation. Once the question is answered, the children’s curiosity is abated. Because disabilities are not common, children are not around and therefore don’t know but try to understand.
Michigan --
Teachers’ Responsibility

I completely agree that our American society must learn to accept every person for who they are regardless of what they look like. While it may not be as bad as in the early 1900s, discrimination still exists. There is still discrimination against race, religion, sex, and anyone who looks differently from the “normal” person. I believe that in order for this problem to disappear, we must continue to teach young kids the importance of accepting others. While this first should be done in the home, the responsibility is then passed on to teachers and schools to ensure that discrimination is reduced throughout our society.

Using the asynchronous online forum, students also had the opportunity to interview Esperanza Rising author Pam Muñoz Ryan. Their questions focused on the symbolism and metaphors used in the book, characterization, and the craft of writing for children. Additionally, I invited Tucson-area fifth-grade students, who had also read the novel, to use Polis to ask the author questions. These 10- and 11-year-olds asked Ms. Ryan questions about when she began writing, whether she had plans for a sequel, and her favorite books when she was their age. This exchange gave university students the opportunity to see the book through children’s eyes, as well through the eyes of its author. Because of timing, this aspect of the exchange was not as developed as Barb and I would have liked.

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Insights From Interviews

At the end of the semester, six students were chosen for interviews. Three of the six were under age 30; three were over. Two students were male; four were female. Four students were white; two were Mexican American. Barb interviewed Michigan students Carol, Sally, and Tom; I interviewed Arizona students Maria, Carmen, and Dan. All of these students agreed that the classroom exchange had exposed them to more perspectives. Tom said that “input from other students typically made me think about other aspects of the immigration issues.” Carmen noted that the exchange made her “question her own opinions.” She felt this was good because it helped to know what one “stands for.” Sally said the exchange made her a better listener. She commented, “It’s important to realize that people come from different backgrounds and don’t all think alike.”

Carol and Tom would have preferred to have had a mixture of exchange formats, including teleconferencing and virtual chats. Carol acknowledged the challenge of time zones and schedules. Sally said she still preferred in-person conversations, but if that wasn’t an option, “online is better than not talking to someone worthwhile at all.” Sally reported that, at first, her group didn’t feel like they were communicating with anyone. Carol and Sally would have liked to experience group-to-group conversations to increase their personal connections to individual Arizona students. (Barb and I initially considered this format but decided against it because of my concern that it would have a negative impact on the broader sharing of perspectives.)

Sally, who thought the bilingual education discussion was most powerful, said it “probably wouldn’t have come up just in our [Michigan] class.” Tom and Dan also talked about the Proposition 203 discussion. Dan mentioned that the political aspects surrounding immigration were “more lively” because of the connection between classrooms. He also noted the importance of “tactful” responses when disagreeing online. Carmen talked about her group “being more careful” about the words they used. Tom talked about this exchange as “heated” and noted that his opinion -- that “English needs to be the primary focus” -- didn’t change as a result of it.

Even though students initially signed their postings, Carmen stressed how the anonymity of the online environment was “less intimidating” than sharing face to face in the physical classroom. Maria said the exchange gave her a chance “to be heard.” Both women said it helped and even encouraged them to share more intimate feelings and experiences. In the classroom, and even in small group literature circles, each of these women was shy and hesitant to share. Online, they became leaders. Sally shared that the quiet students in Michigan participated more online than they did in the classroom environment. As with the students who participated in the “Differences Discussion” (Figure 1), Sally noted that she liked to have “time to frame” her responses.

Group dynamics played a role in students’ satisfaction with the group e-mail exchanges. Dan talked about his role as facilitator. He noted that his group discussed the issues in depth before keying responses on Polis. Dan also said that although he doesn’t prefer to work in groups, this particular group worked well. Sally talked about consensus building as a challenge for her group. When discussing the shared classroom experience in a midterm reflection, an Arizona student wrote,

One night in the lab, my group and I negotiated the meaning of “acceptance.” We all had different ideas and shared those ideas and worked together in order to collaborate for a group response. That night, besides learning how to collaborate [about] our ideas, I learned the importance of listening to other opinions and valuing them for their differences from my own.

Four out of the six students interviewed said they would use the global classroom methodology in their teaching. Dan, whose isolated hometown has a population of just 2000 people, said he would use the approach as a “way to understand other people.” Carmen noted that she had never before been encouraged “to use technology to reach out.” She also noted that the shared virtual classroom could be used as a “tool to battle stereotypes [that cause] conflict between cultures, races, and economic groups.” Carol said, “It’s amazing what we can learn from each other if we only listen.”

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Follow-Up Questionnaire and Online Evaluation

We administrated a questionnaire, adapted from Johnson (1999, online document), to all 50 participants after four e-mail discussion exchanges, the questions and answers from the author, the virtual chat, and the evaluation postings. The questionnaires were submitted anonymously; 45 students returned them. Table 2 shows data from the questionnaire responses.

Table 2
Responses to the Follow-Up Questionnaire (N=45)

Statement Agreed Disagreed
1. Communication with others over a computer network made a difference in my understanding and/or appreciation of the novel we discussed. 73% 27%
2. The classroom learning experiences conducted before the online dialogues (“Where I’m From” poem and immigration text set study) provided me with insight and background on the social conditions and issues raised in the novel. 86% 14%
3. I felt comfortable making comments and responding to others’ comments during the online discussions. 96% 4%
4. I learned from the opportunity to share my feelings, thoughts, concerns, and opinions with children’s literature students at another university. 84% 16%
5. I believe that the time required outside of class to access the computer network in order to participate was time well spent. 65% 35%
6. I can see how communicating with others over a computer network can help students access different perspectives and support their engagement in critical thinking. 98% 2%
7. If I had the opportunity, I would choose to participate in a project like this again. 71% 29%
8. This is a learning experience I would like to facilitate for students in my future classroom. 73% 27%

A majority of students (73%) felt that communication with others over a computer network made a difference in their understanding of Esperanza Rising. Almost all participants (98%) realized how computer networks could help students access different perspectives and support their engagement in critical thinking. Only 4 percent of students were uncomfortable sharing their feelings, thoughts, concerns, and opinions online. It is interesting to note that only 65 percent of students felt the effort required outside of class was time well spent. This response could indicate that students place a different value on learning about diversity than Barb and I do as course facilitators and teacher educators. It may, however, simply reflect the fact that many students, because of family and work responsibilities, are already struggling to find time for school-related tasks.

In addition to administering the questionnaire, we invited discussion groups and individuals to post evaluations of the experience online. Our questions asked students to evaluate the connected classroom experience, to identify and reflect upon the most powerful discussions, and to share their remaining questions. Barb and I posted our evaluations as well.

In their comments, several students expressed their preferences for in-class, face-to-face literature circles. Some others indicated they found the Polis system difficult to follow, reporting that they had trouble finding their postings and looking for responses. Learning to navigate texts in a nonlinear fashion is one digital literacy skill. Several students expressed their preferences for virtual chat or teleconferencing. Some students commented that there had not been enough time to explore the possibilities of the approach fully. One of the variables in online discussions, as well as in class discussions, is the dedication of the students. Those who put more into the experience certainly get more in return. As Tom said in his interview, “Those that do not take the risk end up on the sidelines.”

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Barb and I believe, and the students’ feedback suggests, that our shared virtual classroom achieved the goal of increasing the diversity of perspectives in both physical classrooms. Our students’ diverse family backgrounds and their varied regional experiences made a difference in the topics discussed and created an opportunity to deepen students’ responses to the literature and the issues it raised. The high-quality, multicultural literature we selected for this study invited us all to educate both our hearts and our minds (Bishop, 1994). Similar to literature circle discussions, the shared classroom exchange helped us to negotiate meaning socially from these books. Instead of transient oral exchanges, however, the meanings we shared were student-generated written texts that we could savor and question, reflect upon before responding, and revisit as often as we wanted.

We also achieved our goal of establishing equity and democracy in the classrooms. While small-group face-to-face discussions naturally limit the number of ideas shared, all members of both classes had access to the perspectives and experiences of the group of 50 participants. Equal opportunity to participate was afforded every student, not just the least-shy talkers (who dominate teleconferences or face-to-face discussions) or the fastest typists (who take the lead in virtual chats). We were pleased that from the beginning, nearly all the students were quite comfortable in sharing their personal experiences and values.

Students also shared critical conversations about issues of social justice, particularly in the area of educational opportunities. Several of the interviewed students confirmed our belief that these discussions might not have happened if our classrooms had not been connected, and that some of the students in both classes, if they had shared at all, would not have shared as readily or as personally in a face-to-face situation. We believe this approach affected the distribution of power in our two classrooms and in the online forum. As one group said in its evaluation posting, the experience “provided a chance for us as a group to notice similarities and differences in opinions about controversial issues such as immigration, race, culture, and segregation/integration.” Students individually and collectively discovered the issues raised in the texts, but they also went beyond the presentation of information to critical interpretation and construction of new knowledge (Dresang, 1999). We believe this exchange suggests that digital discourse offers possibilities for multicultural education at its best, where difference can be experienced as a resource for constructing knowledge and every voice is heard and valued.

This global classroom exchange reinforced something Barb and I believe about teaching. “Seeing ‘our connectedness to the world’ and helping others to see it is a moral purpose and teaching/learning opportunity of the highest order” (Fullan, 1993, p. 39). In a world that continues to struggle with difference, recognizing our interconnectedness has never been more critical. “Technology is an important tool for teachers who wish to create schools of heart and learning -- schools of thoughtful transformation -- in which differences are seen as resources and in which students are empowered to apply their skills to better their own and others’ lives” (Brown, 1999, p. 318). This action research study explored the potential for participants in a digital discourse community to co-construct knowledge in an egalitarian manner. One critical component of literacy learning for the 21st century is that it invites and listens to all voices in order to discuss, reflect upon, and ultimately make individual and collective meaning. Therein lies la esperanza -- hope.

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Children’s and Young Adult Literature Text Set

Aliki. (1998). Marianthe’s story one: Painted words; Marianthe’s story two: Spoken memories. New York: Greenwillow.

Anaya, R. (2000). Elegy on the death of César Chávez. El Paso, TX: Cinco Puntos.

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Bunting, E. (1998). So far from the sea. New York: Clarion.

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Cha, D. (1996). Dia’s story cloth. New York: Lee & Low.

Garland, S. (1998). The lotus seed. San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Giff, P.R. (2000). Nory Ryan’s song. New York: Delacorte.

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Hest, A. (1997). When Jessie came across the sea. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick.

Jiménez, F. (1997). The circuit: Stories from the life of a migrant child. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press.

Lord, B.B. (1984). In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson. New York: Harper & Row.

Medina, J. (1999). My name is Jorge: On both sides of the river. Honesdale, PA: Boyds Mills.

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Polacco, P. (1988). The keeping quilt. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Ryan, P.M. (2000). Esperanza rising. New York: Scholastic.

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Shea, P.D. (1995). The whispering cloth. Honesdale, PA: Boyds Mills.

Yep, L. (1991). Star fisher. New York: Morrow.

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About the Author

portrait of the author    

Judi Moreillon received her Ph.D. from the Department of Language, Reading and Culture at the University of Arizona in Tucson, AZ, USA. She holds a master’s degree in library science, and her research focus is on media and literacy. In addition to teaching children’s literature, she has served as a classroom teacher, literacy coach, teacher-librarian in elementary and high schools, and adjunct instructor in the School of Information Resources and Library Science at the University of Arizona. She is also a professional storyteller and the author of the children’s picture book Sing Down the Rain (Kiva Publishing, 1997). Contact Judi by e-mail at

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Author’s Note: I would like to express my gratitude to Barb Tatarchuk for sharing her expertise in facilitating learning, for her commitment to our partnership, and for her generosity of time and spirit. Barb and I together would like to extend our appreciation to author Pam Muñoz Ryan and all the children’s literature students who participated in this action research study. They showed a pioneering attitude and a willingness to share their experiences and insights with us. Thank you for teaching us.

For a printer-ready version of this article, click here.

Citation: Moreillon, J. (2003, June). Digital discussions: La esperanza in the shared virtual classroom. Reading Online, 6(10). Available:

Reading Online,
Posted June 2003
© 2003 International Reading Association, Inc.   ISSN 1096-1232