Laptops in Schools

The New York Times reported yesterday that Liverpool High School in Liverpool, New York is phasing out its student laptop program. The article is a perfect illustration of exactly what schools do wrong when they issue laptops to each student.

[T]echnology is often embraced by philanthropists and political leaders as a quick fix, only to leave teachers flummoxed about how best to integrate the new gadgets into curriculums.

The article’s refrain seems to be that teachers didn’t know what to do with the laptops, students only played with them, and nothing of any educational value happened as a result.

I am fortunate to teach at a school where students can reasonably be expected to have access to a computer at home. We have a wonderful computer lab at school. In fact, I am currently debating with myself whether it’s feasible to require my students to purchase a USB flash drive as part of their school supplies for my class next year (they are currently available online for as low as $9, which is certainly less than the graphing calculators required in math). I mention this because I think it illustrates the level of comfort our school community feels with technology. Many of our students bring their own laptops to school.

Because access to technology is not a problem for my students, I am perhaps not the best person to comment on whether laptop programs are valuable or not, as they are not relevant to me. I was disturbed by some elements of the article. Was there not one teacher who used the laptops in innovative, educationally sound way? No use of wikis or blogs, no research? No composition using word processors or presentation software? I just can’t believe no one found the laptops valuable at all.

Second, I am confused about what the school authorities hoped to accomplish in issuing laptops without first offering professional development to educators. I also cannot understand why the school didn’t anticipate the problems that ensued with students’ misuse of the laptops. In the photograph at the top of the article, it looks as though the student using the laptop has even applied stickers to it. What sort of discussion about how the computer should be handled was generated? The stickers are not exactly small, and if the student has been using the laptop in class, surely someone has seen them. I probably shouldn’t even get into the appropriateness of the student’s attire, but did a school that allows students to wear shirts that seem to advocate underage drinking actually expect its students to know how to take care of and properly use a school-issued computer?

It sounds to me as if the faculty was resistant to the idea of using the laptops, but the school authorities were convinced the computers would be a panacea — test scores and grades would magically rise just because students had 24-hour access to a laptop. That is simply not the case, and of course studies coming out now showing no difference between schools who have embraced laptops versus those who haven’t are going to bear that out. However, standardized tests cannot very well measure some of the learning that takes place in Web 2.0 classrooms:

Mark Warschauer, an education professor at the University of California at Irvine and author of “Laptops and Literacy: Learning in the Wireless Classroom” (Teachers College Press, 2006), also found no evidence that laptops increased state test scores in a study of 10 schools in California and Maine from 2003 to 2005…

But Mr. Warschauer, who supports laptop programs, said schools like Liverpool might be giving up too soon because it takes time to train teachers to use the new technology and integrate it into their classes. For instance, he pointed to students at a middle school in Yarmouth, Me., who used their laptops to create a Spanish book for poor children in Guatemala and debate Supreme Court cases found online.

“Where laptops and Internet use make a difference are in innovation, creativity, autonomy and independent research,” he said.

Integrating technology comes with its own set of problems, and if you really expect positive results, you have to address those problems head-on. The overall tone of the article is clearly biased against the laptops — it does not appear to me that much effort was expended to find examples of innovation and creativity in learning with laptops. I have to agree that throwing laptops at the students and expecting something great to happen as a result is foolish at best, but schools have to decide what results they would like to achieve and actually work toward achieving those results, just as they do with any set of standards in any field of study. We don’t check out books to students and expect them to learn course material themselves. Why should we expect that tactic to work with laptops?

[tags]laptops, education, New York Times, Web 2.0[/tags]

Professional Development Lending Library

I had either a brain wave or a brain fart, and I’ll let you decide which.  Professional development books are expensive.  Sometimes our schools have good libraries, sometimes they don’t.  Sometimes our schools will pay for our professional development books, sometimes they won’t.  I have a modest proposal.  If you have a title you would be willing to lend to or give to another teacher, sort of like Bookcrossers do, you can add it to a list of available titles.  Check out Bookcrossing and see if this is something you think is viable and interesting, and I’ll set it up.

[tags]Bookcrossing, library, education[/tags]

Preservice Teachers

I have been pleased to see many preservice English teachers and their professors are finding my blog useful.  I welcome new teachers to the profession and thank their professors for guiding them.

I have been trying to think of something preservice teachers in particular might find useful, but I’m not sure what that might be.  Why don’t we start a conversation, here or on a wiki (tell me which you prefer, I’ll set it up)?  Preservice or new teachers could post questions, and veteran teachers could answer.  My gut tells me that a wiki would be great for this purpose.

[tags]preservice, educators, advice, mentoring[/tags]


One last post, and I’m off to bed.  I do, after all, have to teach tomorrow.  I had a discussion with my principal about rubrics the other day, and today I read an article entitled “Why I Won’t Be Using Rubrics to Respond to Students’ Writing” by Maja Wilson (in English Journal, March 2007 — read it here if you are an EJ subscriber).  My only real issue with the article is that Ms. Wilson focuses on personal narrative, which is much harder to look at with an objective rubric.  I would have liked to have seen what she would have done with a persuasive essay, expository essay, or literary analysis, where I think more objectivity in the form of “looking for certain things” certainly exists.  I do, however, think she has some very good points.  I have been a staunch believer in the rubric, and have even written defenses on this very site this year, but my discussion and this article are really making me think.  I do think rubrics have helped me become more objective, but I think I have taken the objectivity too far and some of the human element in what my students are writing has not been considered.  I have ideas about how I will approach things differently next year.  If I had my way, I wouldn’t grade student writing at all, but simply give them feedback so they could improve.  School doesn’t work like that, however, and I have to assign grades to written work.  Instead of being a tool, my rubrics have become my crutch, and I think I could have given more tangible, valuable feedback this year.  I do plan to stick to my resolve about portfolios and typewritten feedback (at least every other essay) for next year.  It’s too late for me to collect data and see what sort of quantifiable impact this approach will have on my students, but I will keep you posted.

Maja Wilson is also the author of the Heinemann book Rethinking Rubrics in Writing Assessment.

[tags]rubrics, writing, assessment, Maja Wilson, English Journal[/tags]

The Butterfly Effect

Wil Wheaton wrote eloquently about a memory he has of being treated unfairly by a teacher on Parent Night, and it really resonated with me, as I am sure it would most teachers.  You have to go read it first, so go on do it, but come back here for the rest.  I’ll wait.

OK, now that you’re back, wasn’t that heart-wrenching?  Many of us probably have a memory of being called out or being treated unfairly by a teacher.  My only memories of kindergarten are of sitting in the middle of the floor (which was the equivalent of time-out).  My teacher also wanted us to write our full names one day, but I couldn’t spell Michelle (my middle name), and she wouldn’t tell me how.  Her name was, ironically, Mrs. Love.  To be fair, I was one of the youngest kids in my class and really immature.  I was a real tattler.  But I count myself lucky because I can’t recall a time when I thought a teacher was really unfair to me.  I was wrongly accused of chewing gum once.  A couple of my teachers doled out class punishments.  Once I received a detention (my only detention ever) for not turning in a permission form on time.  I had probably been told a million times.  In all, though, I can’t say I was singled out and humiliated by any of my teachers.

I do remember a time when I think I hurt a student of mine, though.  It has actually most likely happened more than once because I don’t think we realize sometimes what sort of a ripple-effect our actions cause, and something that seemed to us to be a minor incident can be much larger to a child.  The time I remember, however, involved an 11th grade male student.  I was a first-year teacher.  He was horrible.  He locked me out of the classroom once when I had left to get the principal’s help with a discipline issue — and the principal laughed about it, which says a lot about that principal, but I digress.  This kid had to do something every single class period.  It might be making annoying noises, talking out of turn, not doing his work, etc.  You know the kind of kid.  He fancied himself the class clown.  He was difficult.  I didn’t really like him, to be honest, because he felt it necessary to make my job so hard.  I talked with the teacher who had taught him the previous year, and she loved him, so I couldn’t figure out what was wrong.  One day, I was so angry, I threw him out of class.  I said something hurtful, which I can barely even bring myself to repeat here.  Deep breath.  OK, told him as he left the room not to let the door hit him in the rear on the way out.  In the grand scheme of things, it might not be the most horrible thing ever said by a teacher to a student, but it’s pretty bad, I think.  I said it in front of his peers.  I shouldn’t have said what I said, and I have turned it over in my mind for years.  I do regret it.  Not that the kid didn’t have the trip to the office coming — he fully deserved to be sent to the office.  He was out of line, and no one supported me — not the administration and not his parents, whom I can remember calling more than once.  But I saw the kid’s face after I said what I said, and the best description I can give is that his face sort of crumpled.  He was clearly angry, but under that was a layer of hurt I didn’t expect to see.  He had been so obvious, I thought, in his sheer disrespect for and dislike for me.  What could it matter what I thought of him?  But at that moment, I realized it did matter.  He slammed the door and stalked off.

This incident happened in 1997 or 1998, which means it was nearly ten years ago.  The kid is in his mid-to-late-twenties by now.  I think about that incident often.  I have never said the same thing I said to him to another student.   I feel regret that I said it to him, no matter how poorly he behaved in class.  I feel rotten that I could possibly be this kid’s Mrs. Krocka.

The old aphorism is true: a teacher can never tell where his or her influence stops.  We can indeed touch lives forever.  The aphorism doesn’t elaborate, but the obvious conclusion is that we can be a negative influence or a positive one.  I strive to be a positive one, but I don’t always succeed — in this particular case, I failed miserably.

B.C., your name and face are etched in my mind.  I can still see you wearing your quilted orange jacket.  You’ll probably never read this, but I’m really sorry I said that to you.

The Reflective Teacher

Nope, in this case I’m not talking about my good friend, the very aptly named Reflective Teacher, but myself.  I think teachers that do the same thing year after year without thinking about their practices — and then complaining about kids who don’t cooperate like they did in the good old days — really need to think long and hard about why they are even teaching.  I will be the first to agree that students do have a responsibility, too, and it is difficult for even a motivated teacher to kindle student interest out of nothing.  They do need to bring something to the table.  On the other hand, I think it behooves us as teachers to reflect upon our practices regularly and determine where we are doing well and where we might improve.

It never seems as if I have enough time.  I have a modified block schedule, but if you break it down, I have my students for 200 minutes a week, barring any interruptions in the schedule.  I think I spend too much time doing some things that would be better left outside the class for homework.  We read too much together, for one thing.  While I do think reading together less is something I am improving, I still say I have room for more improvement.  I would need to plot out class discussions in more detail in order to make the best use of that time.  I would also need to feel comfortable raising the bar for my students, which I shouldn’t have a problem with — they’re capable of more, and I know it.  We also have an under-utilized learning center where students can get additional assistance with coursework.

I would also like to be more diligent about working with portfolios.  Organizationally, I find this one hard to maintain.  How better, though, to show a student’s genuine progress or lack thereof in writing?  In that same vein, at least every other essay I would like to provide students with typed feedback.  I only did that once this year.  I can type very fast and give really good feedback, but it is time-consuming.  However, that’s part of my job as an English teacher, isn’t it?

I think students in my class know they have to read the material.  I give frequent quizzes, and students quickly learn that in order to do well, they need to prove to me that they are meeting their reading obligations.  I do see some improvement in the writing of my students, particularly those I’ve had for two years.  I think have some creative ideas, and I am proud of the positive ways in which Web 2.0 have impacted my teaching.

What I would like to do this summer, provided I have time, is to plot out lessons using Jay McTighe’s theories of backward design — looking at the whole unit and what I want to accomplish — rather than pick and choose assignments.  I would like more cohesion in my class.  I would like to be at the beginning of May, next year, and feel better about how much I accomplished in the classroom and out.