Spring/Summer 1996, Vol. 7 No.2

by Kathleen Foster
When is he coming? Is he coming today? Can we check our e-mail? The same questions greeted Pam Getchis as she began her 1pm class every day. Pam, a graduate student in Special Education at Trenton State College, was doing her student teaching at Greenbrook Elementary School in Kendall Park, NJ. The children asking the questions were resource room students assigned to Special Education teacher Lavonne Slusher. "He" was balloonist Kevin Kuehn. The story of how they all got together begins in a chat room on America Online. Ms. Slusher first heard about the project through an online chat for educators she participates in on America Online. Another teacher asked if anyone was participating in a Ballooning project offered through the Internet for the 95-96 school year. After receiving information about the project Ms. Slusher decided to become involved.
The project, Balloonin' USA, was the brain child of school administrator Kevin Kuehn. Billed as the world's first "interactive hot-air balloon trek," the project was designed to allow students and teachers to follow the balloon's flight across the United States through daily updates and photos available on the Internet. Schools were also invited to fully participate in the project by submitting their school as a possible landing site for the balloon. Kevin Kuehn planned to visit all 50 states during his journey.

The Students Present Their Case

The students at Greenbrook Elementary School composed a letter to Mr. Kuehn highlighting the reasons why they considered their school an ideal launch site. Reasons included the proximity of the area to both New York City and Philadelphia, and the available soccer field, safe for landing and launching because there were not many wires or trees.
The letter was only the beginning of a semester long project that sparked the creative talents of these learning disabled students. Ballooning was used as a theme to reinforce needed writing and verbal skills. To introduce the ballooning unit, the children, with student teacher Pam Getchis, used the K-W-L strategy to evaluate what they already Knew about ballooning, What they would like to know, and in the end, what they had Learned as a result of the unit. A ballooning chart was then developed. They began a series of writing assignments all related in some way to hot air ballooning. They designed and named their own hot air balloon. They developed and maintained vocabulary books of unfamiliar words related to ballooning.
The students were also fortunate to have a parent visit their class who had personal experience in hot air ballooning. The teachers took this opportunity to strengthen the students' verbal expression and interviewing skills. Prior to the visit, the students worked in pairs to develop a list of possible interview questions. After interviewing the visitor, the children wrote about what they learned and shared their work with the class.

Students Develop Creative Writing Skills

The students also spent time working on their creative writing skills. They created an advertisement for their own Hot Air Balloon Business. They attached pictures of balloons and used a computer to complete their final draft. The students spent time strengthening their letter writing skills. They composed letters to the Ballooning Federation and regularly sent e-mail to Kevin Kuehn asking questions related to his travels.
Technology was very important to the overall success of the project. The resource room was equipped with access to America Online. The students were able to develop their computing skills, as well as learn new skills related to e-mail and the Internet. They were also able to monitor the project on a daily basis and correspond with other students involved in the project. At one point the students even participated in an online "chat" with students from California who were also participating in the project.
One of the final activities the children participated in was the creation of their own Balloonin' USA T-shirts. Vocabulary development and skills needed to follow directions were emphasized as the children used fabric and glue to complete their T-shirts.

The Big Day Arrives at Last

The project culminated in a visit from the pilot, Kevin Kuehn. Mr. Kuehn was going to be in the area and wanted to stop in for a visit. The children were ecstatic! After a semester of hoping, their wishes were finally coming true. Mr. Kuehn did indeed visit the school. He spent an entire day discussing the project and hot air ballooning with groups of students. He also spent time in the resource room with the students who had originally written and asked him to visit. Poor weather conditions prohibited the balloon from taking off but some of the students were allowed to stand in the gondola, the basket which hangs beneath the balloon. The visit was an overwhelming success and prompted the students to invite Mr. Kuehn back to their school if he is ever in the area again.
This project is an excellent example of how technology can increase the motivation and interest of students. These children spent a semester strengthening writing and verbal expression skills, while at the same time being completely interested in the topic. The project involved a great deal of hard work on the part of student teacher Pam Getchis and classroom teacher Lavonne Slusher but both believe the end result was well worth their efforts. The class has moved on to other projects but the bulletin board and daily Internet logs are still updated by Ms. Slusher. The children are hoping that if Mr. Kuehn comes back again the weather will allow them this time to sail up, up and away.

A sampling of the e-mail between the class and the Balloonin' USA project

Date: Sat., Sep 16, 1996 7:34
From LavonneS
Subj: Monday!!
To: Kevin@tie.net

........We are a special education resource room serving LD and hearing impaired kids in Greenbrook Elementary School in Kendall Park, NJ. Our kids are really getting into this. ...........Our bulletin boards are growing with evidence of their study about hot air balloons. We have a US map showing where you are with the first mark on South Dakota. Next week ... Our kids will be writing paragraphs to explain why they think our school yard would be the perfect place for you to set down. Hope you could..........

Subj: Launch Site Preparation
Date: Dec 8, 1995 4:45 PM EDT
From: charles@sdserv.org
To: LavonneS@aol.com

Hello Launch Site Coordinator!

My stuffed mascots and I will soon be visiting your school.......... Your selection as a Balloonin'USA landing site confirms that you are a leader in education. Your staff and students will become a resource for local and regional information that will be requested from students across the country and around the world via the Internet. I also hope you will use this opportunity to showcase your students' achievements ..........I am confident your students will remember this event for many years. Thank you for hosting Balloonin' USA.

Soft Landings,

Kevin Kuehn
Balloonin' USA

Kathleen Foster is a graduate student in the Department of Special Education at Trenton State College.

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