In virtual school, teacher is just an e-mail away

Dear Ms. Hart,

May I substitute the three-page paper analyzing "The Epic of Gilgamesh" with a different project? Since the story is about friendship, I'd like to film a documentary about a day in my life, and how my best friend's death affected me.

The e-mail came from one of my 10th-grade world-literature students, the same week Time magazine published a short piece examining the viability of online education. In her Nov. 29 article, Time writer Deborah Fowler presents two virtual schools for consideration - the University of Miami Online High School and the Laurel Springs School in Ojai, Calif., which offers K-12 curriculum.

Many students at these schools are aspiring professional athletes who compete around the world, and thus need a flexible education plan. At the conclusion of her article, Ms. Fowler quotes Kevin Roy, director of education for the Elite TNT Tennis Academy in Montgomery, Texas, on his views regarding online schools which some of Elite's students attend. "You will never have that wonderful teacher who inspires you for life," Mr. Roy says. "But the virtual school offers endless possibilities."

I've worked for Laurel Springs as an English and history teacher for more than seven years. When Roy's quote hit the Web, staff and teachers were dismayed at the idea that online education precludes inspiring teachers.

According to my school's philosophy, the needs of each individual student are paramount. We offer an extensive questionnaire that evaluates learning styles and pinpoints students' areas of interest. Should a student find a particular lesson less engaging than others in a course,

teachers will work with the student to design a more relevant lesson. Such attentiveness to the individual can't help fostering meaningful relationships between students and teachers.

For years, I taught English in traditional high school and college classrooms. There's nothing like the energy and excitement of a group discussion about a novel, poem, or essay. But there's something different that goes on in a distance-learning program, and pedagogues should look further before they recoil from education via computer.

My school, like other distance-learning programs, offers a range of K-12 courses and electives. I work with young adults who are Hollywood actors, Olympic hopefuls, and world travelers - students for whom a traditional five-day-a-week school is impractical. I also work with young people who are in recovery from drugs or alcohol, kids who've been bullied by classmates, chronically ill students, and those in bereavement due to divorce or death. These students cannot flourish in a traditional classroom, where there are 30-plus individuals expected to conform to a strict curriculum.

I'm grateful to Roy for pointing out the endless possibilities offered by distance learning. Students in my British-literature courses have the flexibility to travel to England with their families during the school year and explore Shakespeare's Globe Theatre and Jane Austen's Bath. My history students supplement their studies with trips to a local museum or an analysis of historical films. Recently, one of my championship figure-skaters, who long ago demonstrated her prowess as an essayist, wrote a compelling 10-page illustrated story of her quest for American citizenship.

Some educators are aghast when I explain how delighted I was to receive my world-literature student's proposal to film a documentary instead of the standard analytical essay on "The Epic of Gilgamesh." The ancient Sumerian legend of a man devastated by the death of his closest friend resonated deeply with my student, who had recently witnessed the murder of her best friend. Her work on this documentary ensures that she'll never forget the Sumerian king and his sorrow, so like her own.

At times, sitting alone at my computer and grading student essays or projects, I miss the dynamic classroom debates, the pleasure of looking into a student's eyes and seeing a new enthusiasm for literature. But neophytes who regard distance learning as a lesser form of education need to rethink their position. My students and I communicate daily through e-mail, not just about course work but about new puppies, dating dilemmas, and worries about leaving home for college. We develop strong friendships, and I've found myself in the role of mentor too many times to count. Although we've never met face to face, many students keep in contact long after graduation.

Why is this? Perhaps the answer lies in an e-mail I received recently from a Japanese student upon her graduation. Her mother had committed suicide, leaving the girl at 15 years old to run a household while completing a full honors course load in preparation for college.

Dear Ms. Hart, Although we've never met, I feel closer to you than any teacher I've ever had. Thank you.

Melissa Hart teaches English and history at Laurel Springs School, an online school in Ojai, Calif., and is author of the memoir 'The Assault of Laughter' (Windstorm, 2005).

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