I’m in my 27th year of teaching – the first half of those years were split between private Catholic schools and high income public schools – and for the last half at low income schools, also known as Title 1 or “At Risk” schools. I’ve almost always had some level of technology in my classroom, and since my 3rd year of teaching I’ve always had at least one computer in my class.
There has been discussion of late about the value of technology integration in schools, especially 1:1 laptop initiatives. Since I have had laptops in my classroom for the last 7 years, and the last year my students have each had a laptop at their disposal all day (but not to take home), I thought I’d weigh-in with my take-aways.
Having taught upper elementary at a “Title” school all through the implementation of NCLB (you know that would come up here) one of the downsides of math and literacy instruction only, pretty much at the expense of art, science, social studies … you know the list … has been that the schema students bring to upper elementary has gotten worse not better. If you think schema is not that important an element of reading try it! Read a technical or scientific journal on a subject you have limited background and schema in and see how long you can stay awake – much less stay with the meaning.
One of the benefits of having the internet available is the speed at which you can find pictures, video and other information about a topic to help build the schema students are missing so that reading is more comprehensible and interesting. Last year when I had a projector mounted in the ceiling of my classroom, attached to an internet connected computer I found out just how big a benefit it is.
“How many of you have seen a kangaroo hop or jump? …. Uh 2? (4th graders) well while you are reading the introduction to the story let me see what I can find.” In 1 minute I found 3 online videos showing kangaroos hopping around – one was shot from a helicopter showing a large kangaroo at full speed covering ground in huge chunks. I didn’t have to wait until the next day and then spend time looking – I found it immediately. The result? My students couldn’t wait to read the story to find out how the kangaroo got its legs. They were more focused – noted more of the vocabulary and what it meant – they were interested in reading. Just from having the access at MY fingertips.
Based from that experience, and a few others, we started using the net on their laptops to prepare them for reading more often. I would spend 10 to 20 minutes looking for web pages that would build their schema for reading and put them on our class wiki page, and then give them 10 to 20 minutes of class time to read and watch and learn and build at least some schema … and it paid off. Students would raise their hands and ask if they could read the story now (before time was up) … they were more focused during reading, and their answers to comprehension questions improved. More importantly, they enjoyed reading more, and when we went to the library they wanted books on those topics. Did that raise their test scores? I can’t say. I didn’t have a control group – but test scores or not they have improved.
Research on computer use and its impact on student writing goes back 20 years or more. Early on it was noted that when students word process their writing using a computer they write more, write more thoughtfully and spend more time editing. Students that are in my current class that were also in my class last year (I rolled my class from 4th to 5th) have word processed about 10 blog posts, several stories of 4 pages or more – journals, and other daily classwork. They still are more focused and thoughtful about their writing … it isn’t just the newness of using the laptops … they’ve been doing this for over a year (which is forever to a 9 year old).
So why does technology continue to engage them? Can’t say for sure. But from my experience – their work is more organized, harder to lose. Handwriting is taken out of the equation – students with poor handwriting love word processing – now their work is as neat as anyone’s. They get feedback from spell check quickly, so they can interact with the work without having to wait for the teacher or someone else to look at it. Editing is quicker, neater – their work looks better and better through the editing process instead of messier and messier. They can work at their own pace more easily. If you are slower you still saw and learned about kangaroos in the 10 minutes, if you are quicker you just saw more. Any other ideas you’ve experienced?
Blogging all by itself would be just about worth going 1:1. I remember 20 years ago IBM had ads on TV about a program they had called something like “Writing to Read.” Someone had noticed there was a direct connection about what you learned about language from writing and what you learned about language from learning to read – vocabulary, the “nut and bolts” of language, how sentences are put together and the reasons for punctuation become more obvious when you are writing them yourself and that carries into learning about reading.
Well that becomes so obvious when students are writing consistently and publishing that writing constantly like they do when you can blog easily. Because we have our laptops and no one has to wait until someone else finishes or we go to the school computer lab on Friday – we write all the time. There seems to be a huge payoff to that. When students get work done early and you tell them if they want they can work on their writing piece and they say, “all right!” something is happening that we should take note of.
So why do they have to blog? Why not just write all the time in some other way? A blog is published worldwide and you get comments about your writing. Think about how much kids like to IM and text message each other and you’ll get a clue. Most of the comments my students get are from each other … and they can’t wait to get and give those – but sometimes they get comments from students or parents or teachers they don’t even know, sometimes from other countries and continents. They can’t wait to write their next piece (is that good?).
There is so much I haven’t gone into yet about 1:1, but this post is too long already so I’ll end with this point. Technology is another area where the have nots are getting left behind. My wife is contemplating blogging with her students later this year. She has no laptops … but her students ALL have access at home. She can have them blog from home and they have parents that can help with any tech issues the students may have. Not my students. If we didn’t have EASY access through our laptops the consistency and constancy would be gone … it would happen occasionally and kids that were absent on “lab day” would be a problem and then it would be a struggle and probably get dropped.
“At Risk” students have as much a right to have access to and learn from and about these tools as anyone. Having them use these tools is imperative even if it doesn’t raise test scores. As Mark Ahlness said on his blog recently:
“These tools can’t be used as add ons. They have to replace existing practices.”