William M. Ferriter
A Digital Bridge to
Homebound students—whether they suf- fer from life-threatening illnesses or are temporarily sidelined by the flu—are
often left out of classroom activities. But new
digital tools can bridge the home/school gap for
students who can’t physically come to class.
With worry about swine flu looming, it’s a good
time to consider how this might work in prac-
tice. The story of Celest—a 9-year-
old girl with leukemia—shows how.
Celest’s chemotherapy treatments
left her too immunocompromised
to spend any time at school. She
was placed in Brian Crosby’s 4th
grade class at the Agnes Risley
School in Sparks, Nevada, in fall
2006 simply to make her eligible to
have a home studies teacher. “I was
told not to worry because I would
never see her,” Crosby told me
(personal communication, August
But worry was the last thing on Crosby’s mind.
A digital innovator who cared deeply for his
kids, Crosby was determined that Celest would
become a full-fledged member of his classroom
community. With a bit of determination and the
support of his school’s guidance counselor, he
arranged to have a webcam set up in his classroom and a computer in Celest’s living room.
Then, he used Skype ( www.skype.com)—a free
tool for making Web-based video calls—to introduce his students to their homebound peer.
Making Celest Visible
The results were nothing short of amazing. Like
any other student in Crosby’s class, Celest was
placed in a student group for discussion and
projects. The only difference was that Celest
“came to school” digitally, appearing on the
screen of a laptop set on the table where her seat
would have been. When Celest needed to follow
a lesson, Crosby pointed the webcam at the
board. Celest could raise her hand to ask questions; she could also hear questions from her
peers, and they could hear her responses.
“When we did group work, the students in
her group spun the laptop and the camera
around so they could see one another, including
her in the discussion or activity,” Crosby explained. “It worked phenomenally!”
Over time—and after the kinds of lessons on
respecting others that have always been part of
Brian’s instruction—meaningful relationships developed between Celest and her peers. Instead of
no longer need to be left
out or left behind.
seeing her as an outsider, they embraced her.
“They would stop by her house and talk to her
through the window,” Crosby recalls. “During recess, they would stay in class and talk to her over
Skype. We even exchanged valentines. She sent
hers in with her sister, and the students in her
class dropped theirs in front of her laptop. A volunteer read some of them to her [over Skype],
and they were all sent home with her sister.”
And when Celest was well enough, she
stepped right into the class without missing a
beat. “She was just here now instead of coming
over Skype,” Crosby said.
Lessons From Celest
Celest’s experiences—and Crosby’s efforts to involve her—show us that homebound students
do not need to be left out of classroom activities.
For students healthy enough to participate from
home in real-time learning experiences, synchro-