June 11, 1999
The E-Mail Read Around the
By Steve Friess
They asked for email and they got some: thousands
and thousands of messages from all over the world.
Then, after their server choked and they canceled
their email address, the phone calls started coming. Faxes,
too. Messages even arrived via that quaint mode of communication,
the post office.
Fifth-grade teacher Glynda Wimmer of Mill Cove
District School, near Halifax, Nova Scotia, hopes the tidal
wave she sparked will stop by the time school ends in late June.
But she's not sure it will.
Her Grade 5 E-Mail Project was supposed to
be a simple geography lesson, something to take up maybe a couple
hours a week of class time. Seven girls and 10 boys sent an
initial note on 7 April to 15 relatives urging them to write
back with their location and pass on the letter "to more
The plan was to have students map the locations,
to see where in the world their e-mail traveled within a two-month
Wimmer envisioned a late-1990s version of that
age-old class project in which students tie notes to helium
balloons and let them float away. But balloon responses take
weeks. By the end of the email project's first day, the class
had already received 180 responses. The next day brought 250
more answers. By the eighth day, the server guzzled as many
as 200 messages an hour, for a total of about 9,000 notes.
"This just mushroomed out of proportion,"
says Wimmer, a 22-year teaching veteran of the middle-class
commuter village of 587 residents overlooking St. Margaret's
Bay. "We thought we'd be lucky to get 50 responses. This
absolutely out of control."
And enlightening, she admits.
Wimmer shut down the email address on 16 April,
far short of the 7 June deadline listed on the initial letter.
By then, writers sent notes from every Canadian province and
all 50 United States, from every continent except Antarctica,
from NATO warships off the coast of Macedonia, from relief missions
in Honduras, from the Pentagon, NASA, and hundreds of other
"Many letters included lengthy testimonials
about the weather, industry, and culture of their locales, teaching
the children more about other places than I could ever teach
them or know about," says Wimmer.
Shutting off the email address wasn't the last
of it. The school secretary and principal field at least 10
phone calls or faxes a day from frustrated Net-heads wanting
their towns included. Postcards and snail-mail letters are also
pouring in, often accompanied by posters, CDs, and souvenirs
of faraway places. On Wednesday, a retired Georgia couple, on
a Canadian road trip, dropped in on the class unannounced to
The Mill Cove Web site now hosts a guest book
that routinely resorts to self-deleting excess notes when it's
full, which is often.
The students, most of whom don't have computers
at home, help maintain the Web site by typing the locations
of the senders and callers into an online registry. But much
more than a geography project, the exercise is infiltrating
the entire curriculum. Even math instruction now includes story
problems like: "We got 500 responses from California and
300 from North Carolina. What's the difference?"
This approach wins Wimmer praise from writers.
"It's so good to see the Internet being used for something
constructive and educational," wrote Dana Thompson of Memphis,
Tennessee. "What a nice change of pace." Mill Cove
principal Pat Helm cited another nice change of pace: The children
received no pornographic or offensive responses.
There have, however, been cases of people altering
the return address of the letter, then writing obscene notes
back to folks who write them. And several messages in the guest
book chastise the school for irresponsibly adding spam to the
Internet. To Wimmer, that's another lesson about Net safety
"[Pupils are] now aware that things can
be sent over the Internet with their names on it without their
knowledge," she says. "It teaches them to be careful
about who you send email to and what could happen if [you're]
Wimmer knows her school will never be the same,
that responses will continue to filter in for years as the original
email bounces uncontrollably through cyberspace.
"We recommend that nobody try this,"
she says. "Then again, if it wasn't us, it would be someone
else who caused all this havoc. We've definitely put Mill Cove
on the map. But what a mess."
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