Building a Useful Elementary Social Studies Website

Dawn F. Thomas, Martin M. Creel and John Day
The blue-green glow of thirty monitors lit the darkened computer lab as a group of elementary school teachers concentrated on the search for classroom-ready information on the Westward Movement. Twenty minutes into the search, they took a break to share what they’d found. “Wow,” “Check out this site,” “I can’t believe there is so much out there,” were some of their initial reactions. However, reality soon set in, resulting in such comments on the evaluation form for the session as “I don’t have time to search through all these sites to find one or two documents” and “If I only had the time, I would use this every day.” Still another comment was a classic of stretched-teacher irony: “Should I drop parent conferences or planning instructional activities to ‘surf the net’?”
Time, or more precisely, lack thereof is a legitimate complaint on almost any topic related to teaching these days. Teachers are often asked to implement new initiatives, try out new techniques, or learn new skills with nary a thought given to when they might do so. New technology is no different. The Internet—often touted as a time saver—has been for many new users a vast time consumer. These thoughts on time became the catalyst for a pair of educators as they set out to build their first website.

A Website Is Born
Three years ago, our social studies team—the two people who oversee the social studies curriculum in our county’s elementary schools—more than had its hands full. It was during the early days of our school system’s initiative to provide Internet access to all of its 183 schools. We were already in the process of converting a massive field trip database from an old Apple IIe computer format to one consistent with the newer computers coming into our schools. This database was a listing of 160 field trip sites within driving distance of the Washington-Baltimore metropolitan areas, with the essential details needed for planning an instructional trip.
Though truly a time-saving resource for our elementary teachers, the task of verifying and updating the information, duplicating the hundreds of disks and guides involved, and disseminating multiple copies to 127 elementary schools loomed large on the horizon. More frustrating was our realization that information in the database would be out of date by the time it was distributed. And, it would be only three years before the disks were recalled and the revision process started all over again. There had to be a better way to develop and deliver resources to teachers. The Internet proved to be the solution.
The spring of 1995 found Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS)—a mammoth urban/suburban system in Maryland that includes Washington, D.C., suburbs—embarked on an ambitious plan called “Global Access” to connect all of its schools to the Internet. By the end of that summer, several “model technology” schools were fully wired with an Internet-connected machine in every room. Every school in the system had at least a handful of computers in its media center. The Global Access plan called for providing website space not only for each school, but for all department offices—including that of the social studies.
While the school system was weaving a network of fiber optic and copper, our office had become absorbed into the brave new world of websites and URLs. Soon, however, the timesaver’s jury was in. There seemed to be a lot of fluff on the Internet, and useful information took hours to find. What elementary teachers need is good, solid, easily-accessible resources and materials. Though impressed by the array of information available, the time required locating it presented a serious roadblock to its use by our teachers.
Fortunately, one morning over coffee the light bulb went on. Our puzzlement over the usefulness of the Internet suddenly jibed with our field trip database conundrum. It was a perfect match. By using our own website to publish the database, we could place a relevant document within easy reach of teachers. Moreover, that meant the database could be updated and disseminated instantaneously.
After that revelation, the ideas just flowed. We could link websites that correlated with our field trip sites to our page for pre- and post-trip activities. Even if schools couldn’t provide many trips, connections to other Internet websites would provide virtual field trips for students. The ease of publication also meant teachers’ own field trip activities could be collected and added to the trip sites.
After several months of late nights—and a crash course on scanning and HTML (HyperText Markup Language) coding—the field trips were on the web. The database became the first of many teacher-oriented resources now found on the Montgomery County Public Schools social studies home page at: http://www.mcps.k12.md.us/curriculum/socialstd/index.html .
Early feedback from our teachers was overwhelmingly positive. An unexpected benefit came in the form of complimentary e-mail from teachers outside of the school system. Thousands of schools across the nation plan trips to the nation’s capital every year. The worldwide accessibility of the database could benefit them, too. Most e-mail ended with the suggestion, “It would be great if you could publish other teacher resources like this.”
Having set out to save teachers time, we ended up learning a few lessons about website publishing. Our first realization was that new ideas outstripped the time and people available to carry them out. As is true of any curriculum writing, it takes time to edit materials so they conform to a system’s publishing criteria. We had the added step of converting the field trip database to the HTML code used on the web. The trade off was, of course, eliminating the mass production phase of dissemination. Publishing the database was an ambitious goal, but we managed to place all of our field trips on our website, along with 60 of the corresponding activities (with more to come).
With suggestions pouring in from teachers, we found ourselves caught up in a flurry of activity with little time to think about its implications. Teachers didn’t have the time, and some the skills, to search the Internet for useful websites. Our response was to create a set of curriculum-specific bookmarks, which has now grown to over 500 links. As with our textbooks, teachers trusted us to evaluate websites carefully, and felt assured that whatever we linked to would be reliable and support the curriculum. Following teacher suggestions, our next response set us on a path that has yet to end.

An “Electronic Curriculum”
As MCPS cast its electronic network across the county, more and more teachers requested online curriculum materials. Though daunted, we soon launched into our most ambitious project to date: an “Electronic Curriculum.” We didn’t want to publish one static page after another of what was already on many school bookshelves. However, we had learned a useful lesson in our previous activity, and determined to start with existing documents that were already in a word-processing file and required only an HTML code for publication. Vowing to make our electronic curriculum both dynamic and interactive, we worked on a user-friendly format that would make it easy for teachers to navigate through the documents, but provide more than the current curriculum binders.
Thus, in the curriculum section of our website, the viewer will find a typical overview and formal objectives that provide guideposts to our elementary curriculum. An added attraction is the year-long calendar provided so teachers have ideas to work with week by week. The dynamic aspect of the electronic curriculum lies in providing direct links to supportive websites and to full-length lesson plans with materials that can be printed out. To strengthen interdisciplinary teaching, we developed explicit links among different curricula (e.g., linking a field trip site, a description of a literature book, a mathematics activity, and a science connection to a topic in social studies). To make the curriculum interactive, we created a page for teacher contributions—lesson plans, suggestions, and, simply, questions. An unexpected by-product of this effort to save teachers time was its provision of another avenue for community input. The social studies team is now venturing into a massive revision of the K-5 curriculum using the website as a tool for curriculum change.

What Does it Take?
What does it take to create a website useful to teachers? It would be disingenuous to say that we planned everything down to the finest detail. In fact, recent personnel changes slowed us down and forced us to take stock of our website. While we found that certain aspects could be improved so that teachers gain quicker access to materials, we remain committed to posting only information that teachers are likely to find useful. We also have the continued luxury of working in a school system that not only speaks highly of technology, but provides the money and technical support to enable us to concentrate on curriculum, rather than website administration.
The time required to build and maintain our kind of website is large. We are an office of two professionals serving a system of 3,000 elementary teachers. Collectively, we spend about half our time on the website. That may seem like a shocking amount until one considers that the site is now our main vehicle for curriculum revision, delivery, and training, Training is, of course, vital to the successful introduction of any new technology. It is also a major objective of our social studies curriculum office. We combined the two goals into a program of technology training with a curriculum focus. Going out into schools with the philosophy that technology ought to be a curricular tool, and not an end in itself, found us training teachers, media specialists, and administrators on using the web in general and the resources of our website in particular. With limited time and money, we began by training those we felt would have the greatest impact on teachers.
Because elementary media specialists play a major role in our schools’ technology efforts, they were the first group to be introduced to use of the web page. To date, they have received six hours of instruction focusing on the components of the web site; how to use the site for planning, instruction, and support material selection; and how to use search engines to find, and then evaluate, other sites. They, in turn, have begun to train their own teachers.
Last spring, we began offering similar training to our elementary teachers. In addition to the topics mentioned above, teachers in upper elementary grades were introduced to components that specifically fit their own curriculum needs, and were shown how to use their schoo#146;s electronic mail system and the Web interchangeably to share social studies information. Teachers also took their first steps toward lesson plan development using the Internet. We will be offering this training over the next two years, expanding into the primary grades, in an effort to prepare at least one teacher per grade level who can use the website skillfully.
We learned a lot of lessons in building our website, and have summed them up in the five general rules shown in Table 1. As we expand our training and offerings, we plan to keep a teacher-focused website. Words like “revolutionary,” “innovative,” and “pioneering” are often used to describe the Internet. We are committed to using the Internet to fight the battle every teacher fights every day—finding the time.

Dawn F. Thomas (Dawn_F._Thomas@fc.mcps.k12.md.us) is the coordinator of elementary social studies for Montgomery County Public Schools and is the 1997 NCSS National Social Studies Supervisor of the Year. Martin M. Creel (Marty_Creel@fc.mcps.k12.md.us), previously a middle school social studies teacher, is the interdisciplinary teacher specialist for K-12 social studies in the Montgomery County schools. John L. Day, original designer of the MCPS Social Studies Home Page, is now coordinator of the Signature Program at Springbrook High School in Montgomery County, MD.


Table 1
The Building Blocks of A Useful Social Studies Website

1. Know Your Audience
> Identify your primary audience and set objectives with them in mind. For example, if you want teachers to use your site, make sure it is written for them.
> Identify your secondary and tertiary audiences, perhaps students and parents. You may want to include information for these audiences elsewhere on your site.
> Recognize that websites written for a general audience usually do not meet the specific needs of teachers.

2. Know Your Objectives
> Why are you building this site? Is it to publicize your work or is it to provide additional support for users?
> Are you planning to make your site a major vehicle for curriculum and materials delivery?
> Are your website objectives in line with your system’s and department’s objectives?

3. Post Information that is Useful to Your Primary Audience
> Teachers want resources first, curriculum second, and platitudes last.
> Parents want general descriptions of what their children should be learning and how they can be active partners in the learning process.
> Links to other websites should be appropriate for your curriculum; and remember, if you link to a site, you have given tacit approval of the material there.

4. Organize Your Information in an Easily Accessible Design
> Website design requires a plan. Brainstorm what information you wish to post, then “storyboard” your design on paper. Be sure to break your site into logical, useful sections.
> A “welcome” letter should not be on the first page; either get right to the material at hand or have a menu directing users to the material.
> Do not expect that users will scroll far down a page to find information or a link.
> Do not include too many choices on one page or imbed important choices in text.
> Do not use flashy graphics that will detract from the purpose of your site. Also, large amounts of graphics can slow down the access speed of your site.

5. Actively Maintain Your Site
> Do not begin development and then create “under construction” signs for incomplete information. It creates frustration. Make a rule to only post new material when it is complete.
> Search for dead links (hyperlinks that do not work because the page they connect to has either moved or been deleted). Either update or remove them. There are programs that will automatically search your site for dead links.
> Do not begin ambitious projects such, as a monthly online newsletter, unless you have the resources to maintain them.

©1998 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.