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Here & There

Teacher Kathy Koehler's fifth- and sixth-grade students sit at their usual desks in their classroom at Medford's Kennedy Elementary School, but with the press of a key, they are at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in downtown Washington, D.C.

Smithsonian volunteer docent Susan Linder appears on an overhead projector and begins leading the Medford students on a virtual tour to see several pieces of the museum's art by African-American artists.

The interactive video-conferencing field trip at Kennedy illustrates a trend in U.S. classrooms of virtual field trips. Budget cuts in Oregon's public schools have made traditional field trips hard to come by, though some schools' parent-teacher organizations continue to provide limited funds for those excursions.

But more teachers are turning to technology to help take their students outside the walls of their classrooms.

"With lower budgets and limited resources, we are forced to be more creative and look for opportunities," says David Cosand, a Kennedy fifth-grade teacher.

Cosand spearheaded instructional video conferencing activities at the school through a grant from the Medford Schools Foundation.

At Kennedy last Thursday, a print of a face of an old black woman with a solemn expression appears on the overhead projector in Koehler's classroom. The woman in the print wears a gray broad-rim hat and a dress of the same color fastened at the collar with a safety pin.

"Is she rich or poor?" Linder asks the students.

"Poor," the students reply.

"What might be the clue that she's poor?" Linder asks. "Her clothes, the safety pin. She is using what's available."

The print by African-American-born Mexican sculptor and printmaker Elizabeth Catlett is called "The Sharecropper," Linder reveals.

Linder explains that sharecropping was a common system of agriculture in the southern United Sates between the end of the American Civil War and World War II. Tenants would work a piece of land and share their crop with the land owner as payment.

"Many sharecroppers were very poor because they had to go into debt to buy seed," Linder says.

Interactive video conference field trips work similarly to Skype over the Internet, Cosand says.

"A call comes through, and you click a key to accept the call," he explains.

Linder can see the pupils in Medford from her computer screen, while the pupils simultaneously watch her speaking and pictures of pieces of art that are displayed from Washington, D.C.

"There are two really good things I like about it," said D.J. Froman, a student in Koehler's class. "One is you don't have to put any money toward this kind of field trip, and the other thing is I'm already comfortable in my chair."

While the popularity of virtual field trips stems in part due to limited financial resources, interactive video conferencing allows students to defy the limitation of distance and provides an infinite supply of options for virtual trips and communicating with experts in whatever the students are studying.

After all, "you couldn't drive to Washington, D.C., in one day," says Koehler's student, Casey Fielder.

"The main advantage is being able to access locations that otherwise might be out of touch and being able to access experts from other parts of the world," Cosand says.

Cosand has brought painters and authors to speak to his class via video conferencing.

Koehler says the field trip to the Smithsonian fit right in with state standards she is expected to teach her students, including shape, color, lines and perspective.

It also is a good introduction to a section on biographies of notable African-Americans, including pitcher Satchel Paige and singer Marian Anderson, Koehler says.

Virtual field trips also help prepare students for a globalized economy where it's not unlikely they will one day take a postsecondary distance learning class located in another state or enter a profession in which they will have online video communication with business associates in other cities, states and countries.

"The idea behind this is more and more we are not dealing only on a local level but at an international level," Cosand says. "We are dealing in long distance communications as adults. My job as a teacher is to prepare students for that."

Reach reporter Paris Achen at 776-4459 or e-mail pachen@mailtribune.com.

Kennedy Elementary School fifth grader Casey Fielder, 10, raises his hand to ask a question about a print by Elizabeth Catlett during a virtual field trip to the Smithsonian Institution. Mail Tribune / Jim Craven - Jim Craven