Mayor for a day -with a little help from the World Wide Web

When YOU are an educator in an alternative school, you have to believe that there is more than one right answer, and that in some way you are going to make a difference in the lives of your students.

Alternative schools give high school dropouts between the ages of 15 and 21 the chance to come back and complete their high school diplomas. Students must complete a full range of classes to graduate.

Technology is one way to make a difference in these students' lives. It is a great way to reach students who are tired of routine textbook and worksheet assignments. Technology allows students to put themselves in control of their learning and to be more responsible for it. At EXCEL Alternative High School in Marshalltown, Iowa, we are reaching students in exciting ways.

In my classes, students mainly use technology. I have them become mayors of virtual cities in which they are responsible for the development and well-being of their citizens.

In our Virtual City class, students use the program Sim City 2000 (a city simulator) to build a city from the ground up, create jobs, battle crime, balance a budget, educate citizens, and all the other things it takes for a successful city.

Students work both online and off. One assignment calls for them to use the Internet to research the effects of gambling on communities. They then write a paper to explain to their "simcitizens" their rationale for legalizing gambling or keeping it illegal. Homelessness, crime, education, budgeting, and property taxes are just a few examples of subjects they study.

Several methods of evaluation are used in Virtual City that are not your standard written test. One is a state of the city address. Students create graphs and charts for visual aids during their presentations. They visit Web sites to read and listen to addresses from the mayors of cities in the United States.

Race for Mayor is another evaluation tool. I pick an existing Sim City and have students run for mayor.

Students are given a list of debate topics and then do research by looking at the Sim City. They formulate ideas on how to improve the city and even test out their hypothesis. Come debate time, they are full of ideas on how to improve the city.

I was thrilled after our first debate. Students discussed how to improve education, how to build a better infrastructure, how to improve colleges, how to reduce crime. They really got into it. Our at-risk students were discussing property taxes! Once the debate is over, it's time for action.

Another exciting feature of Virtual City was our e-mail partners. Students were set up with US mayors who answered their questions about governing a city.

Some of the mayors we partnered with were in Honolulu; Tempe, Ariz.; Iowa City, Iowa; Madison, Wis.; and Berkeley, Calif. Students looked forward to sending e-mail and getting a reply back. This further enhanced students' interest in learning.

Technology is exciting for students and teachers. The computer will never replace the classroom teacher, but it is a great tool for the teacher to have.

We haven't seen the best uses of technology in schools yet. There will be many more advances in the teaching profession that will enable students to learn better, quicker, and smarter.

*Chris Hungerford is an instructor at EXCEL Alternative High School in Marshalltown, Iowa.

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