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Wednesday, Oct. 15, 2008 05:13 am

The Grown-ups vs. the Webmasters

How we teach kids to stop being so creative

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Here's one of the most embarrassing moments of my life: My parents were visiting, and after dinner, we lingered around the table to chat. My son Milo, then 3, entertained himself with a footstool and a canister lid. Sitting on the footstool and holding the lid, he pretended to be driving a car. From his actions and sound effects, we could tell that he was speeding and violating other rules of the road. The faster he went, the less we talked, preferring instead to watch Milo "drive."

Then he braked, adjusted an imaginary rear-view mirror, and pantomimed that he was applying lip balm. In that instant, we knew: Milo's reckless "driving" was an imitation of me.

That's one thing you learn from being a parent: We're always teaching our kids something, even when (or maybe especially when) we don't think they're paying attention. Furthermore, whatever we are teaching them may not be what we want them to learn; in fact, it may be the opposite. Which is why I'm fretting about Springfield High School's Web site.

I stumbled into it years ago, and I remember being amazed by its creativity, youthful exuberance, and infinite depth. It's the kind of site I refer to as a "rabbit hole" — like the portal that took Alice to Wonderland. You sign on to get a teacher's name, and click "clubs" or "history" or "GIS projects." Next thing you know, you've burned an hour reading summaries of old yearbooks, touring Oak Ridge Cemetery, and exploring the boiler room with the SHS custodian. Sure, there's the bell schedule and the football roster and pics of cheerleaders and the Latin Club. But SHS's site has always had so much more.

The reason: it's created and maintained by the Webmasters — a "service learning" class that meets three days a week at 7:30 a.m. Kids can take the course as many times as they want, and the ones who re-enroll year after year build their skills and pass them on to the newbies. It's their ingenuity and enthusiasm that make the site sing.

So naturally, District 186 officials this year decreed that all school Web sites need to conform, and pasted over the SHS portal with the bland generic corporate "style."

When I discovered this desecration, I asked Milo what had happened. He shrugged and muttered something about 9th graders' parents complaining that the Web site didn't match the middle school site. See, Milo is a Webmaster, but he's also 15 — that monosyllabic age where boys don't get excited about anything except zombies and video games. Yet, he rises cheerfully and rides his bike to SHS to get to Webmasters earlier than the official 7:30 start time. Last year, he built a site map using context-free coding; this year, he's learning Flash action script to construct a game for the Illinois History for Kids section. His computer skills are beyond my comprehension, and this class is the place he gets to flex them.

Learning little from him, I started calling around. Jenni Dahl, the wonderful woman who taught the class for 10 years, told me she took a job with the Regional Office of Education this year because, at age 53, schlepping 50-pound computers around SHS was killing her (she was basically the IT person for the entire campus).

"Webmasters was definitely a work of love for me, and the hardest thing about leaving my job," she said. She reassured me that despite its plain brown wrapper, the site's content was still there, if you knew where to find it. And sure enough, in recent weeks, links have been added to provide access to the meat of the site.

Dave Heinzel, who supervises the Web sites for the district, told me another reason the SHS site had been standardized was to provide easy access for administrators to post announcements. Just 31, Heinzel promised he genuinely cares about the Webmasters, and he will keep their site evolving.

"The Springfield High site was run with a code-based structure, and you had to go in and edit the code to update their site," he said. In other words, the Webmasters no longer control the front page. The grown-ups control the online face of SHS; you get to the kids' content only if you care to click further.

I asked Milo if he thought it was like asking the SHS band to leave their unwieldy drums and tubas at home and play kazoos when they march in a parade, because if people are really interested, they'll come to the spring concert. "Well, yeah," he said, "but I don't want to offend anyone."

I wonder how Milo and the other Webmasters will feel years from now, when they look back at the time their creativity got papered over for the convenience of a few grown-ups. I find hope in the fact that, even though he's 15, Milo no longer has an interest in driving — fast, reckless or otherwise — and less than zero interest in lip balm or imitating mom. I guess some lessons we teach our kids don't soak in. I just hope this is one of them.

Contact Dusty Rhodes at drhodes@illinoistimes.com

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