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June 11, 1999

The E-Mail Read Around the World

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 people."

The plan was to have students map the locations, to see where in the world their e-mail traveled within a two-month span.

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 is
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 schools.

"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 chat.

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 and etiquette.

"[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] not."

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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