Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

Teachers: Don't Fear the 'puter

Shannon Reed is an award-winning playwright who teaches high school English to a large pack of bright young women at a private school on the beach in Queens, New York. She graciously contributed this column:

Last spring, the faculty at the small private school where I teach gathered in the traditional faculty meeting place -- a circa 1960's Home Ec room that probably shudders each time we refer to it as the "Consumer Sciences Department" -- to learn, from an exceedingly cranky member of the New York City Board of Education computers-in-the-classroom team, how to log into a website. As the woman snapped and snarled at everyone, I wondered, disinterestedly, what was her problem? Then I watched the faculty try to complete the simple tasks of accessing the internet and setting up a password and user name at the website. It quickly turned disastrous.

In front of me, Ellen blithely ignored all instructions and checked her gmail account. Behind me, Rosemarie bemoaned the touch pad, and quickly (and mistakenly) started up and shut down her computer twice in rapid succession. To my left, Bill complained that his fingers were too big for the "tiny key things." To my right, Jonna blocked out everyone and everything around her, then painstakingly entered her grades into her record book -- by hand. The Board of Ed lady smacked herself in the forehead at one point, braying, "You guys are worse than students!" It was mean of her, but if we were my class, I'd be snappy and cranky too.

This situation is all too common in schools right now. Someone -- a principal, a superintendent, the people we in the trenches term "Administration" -- decides that technology should become a greater part of the classroom. Hardware is purchased or donated, a network is created, and perhaps a school webpage is plated out in primary colors and the school's motto ("Reaching for Excellence Today for Tomorrow!") is turned into a rainbow-stripey banner that runs across the site too quickly. And then... what?

Never fear. Help is here. What follows are some basic ways to integrate computers into your classroom. I've deliberately kept these first suggestions quite simple, to emphasize that incorporating technology is both beneficial and not nearly as difficult as you -- and Bill, Jonna and Rosemarie -- might worry it will be.

Block out HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The very first task you must accomplish is to develop a competency in computer skills yourself. How you decide to do this is up to you, but classes, books, and just futzing around until the screen goes dark and you have to hit Ctrl + Alt + Del and start it up again are viable options. I've always gone the teach-myself-route, but there's no reason why a basic computer course at an adult education program or one of the many simple instructionals out there can't help you. I highly recommend, Teacher Created Computer Basics All Ages, written by teachers to help students learn computing. It will help you, too. Also, Absolute Beginner's Guide to Computer Basics helped my dad get progress from a man who nearly wept when he had to send an email, to a man who likes to shop "the Ebay."

Hey, MySpace is good for something!
Or there's an even better route, especially if you know where the "on" button is already. Unless you teach at an Amish school, your students are primed to help you. By the time my students arrive in my class, they know how to create MySpace pages and download music. They type (horrifically spelled) instant messages to each other and longer emails to friends and family. Students are the people who have time to search the web for hours, and while much of what they uncover might be inapplicable to a classroom, some of it will be.

It is incredibly empowering for a student to help her teacher learn something. Last year, I decided to set up a MySpace page for myself. My essential reason for doing it was to create a bond with my students, but it turned into a fascinating way to understand their culture and lives. Better yet, because I was completely MySpace-illiterate, I had to turn to students to show me how to set up my profile, change its design, send comments and post photos. They loved being able to teach me something about their world, and I loved providing an example of my oft-stated reminder that learning is something we do our entire lives. So, power on, folks. Stop using your computer just to play solitaire.

Welcome that weird little paper clip thing!
If you've already got mad computer "skillz," your next step is a thoughtful consideration of how computers can best serve your class. What do you find lacking in your classroom, and is there any way to incorporate technology to help you? What can a computer do that is helpful to your students' learning process?

I teach English, so my thoughts turn immediately to research papers, which each of my classes must produce during the school year. Helping 120 students churn these out is difficult, because I'm teaching research skills while also providing criticism on the paper content. My students would like to spend a few minutes cutting and pasting a paper from online sources. I would like them to move into the local library and spend their evenings burrowing through a large stack of the Readers Guide to Periodical Literature. A compromise is necessary.

Hail, www.britannica!: Computers for Research
In my class, we use printed copies of the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers (6th Ed.) because the MLA is the school's choice in style, and they do not publish their guidelines on the web. Additionally, my students are required to use two printed sources of information for every source they find online. However, there is an exception to this rule: if they take information from an online source that also exists in print form, they may count the online source as a print source. Thus, my students soon become familiar with www.time.com, www.newsweek.com and www.nytimes.com. I'm not so much of a print fetishist that I want them to scroll through fragile circa-1920 microfiche archives at the library if they can access the same information in a few seconds on a computer. The microfiche machine always gave me a headache, anyway.

I encourage the use of printed encyclopedias, which force a student to practice reading and vocabulary skills in a way that is too easy to avoid on a computer screen. But I further encourage a visit to the encyclopedia's website to check for updates and new information on a topic. We all especially like www.britannica.com, which is $70 a year (but, as they point out, you'll "save $1,325 off the print" version). Likewise, I show my students how to use the local library's online reservation page (as a resident of Brooklyn, I have access to www.brooklynpubliclibrary.org, which is truly more dear to me than some family members) to search for and order up books on their topics, and then I show them how to efficiently take and organize notes from large texts.

Some of my students have downloaded a free program to the school computers which allows them to place "online post-its" on the screen. For visual organizers, this is a great boon, as they can compare the gaps in our outline to the actual notes taken and posted, seeing what areas they need to focus on for further research. Check out this site for a download. It's worth noting that the real Post-It company has similar software (which is probably prettier) for sale.

C'mon, you know Faulkner would've used one: Computers for Literature
There's more to the English classroom than research papers. Literature's another major area I need to cover, and since the majority of my textbooks are just slightly younger than me (I'm not kidding -- the Freshmen read a textbook from 1981, and one girl found her aunt's signature in her book from twenty years prior), I turn to online sources to find newer poems and short stories to share. A favorite site is for former Poet Laureate Billy Collin's a poem-a-day project, Poetry 180. This link takes you to Jane Yolen's Fat is Not a Fairytale, by the way, a fantastic poem for prompting discussion and self-image awareness in your class. There are many more contemporary poets writing on relevant topics for teenagers and children at the site.

I also like www.poets.org where you can search by poet or poem for a particular work, or listen to a poet read his or her own work aloud. You really haven't lived until you've watch a class of 14-year-olds try to decipher W. B. Yeat's reading of his own The Isle of Innisfree.

Trying to help your students learn a bit about Shakespeare's life and times, in order to give them some context for the plays? It's hard to help a teenager understand what life was like in Elizabethan days. A visit to www.bardweb.net or www.absoluteshakespeare.com will give you more information than you can use!

Your school librarian may have more suggestions for great sites that can help students learn about literature. I always find that my librarian -- a man who lives online -- has something helpful to suggest, if only I remember to wander down to ask him. His latest find? J. K. Rowling reading an excerpt of the final book in the series.

Now I don't get my free t-shirt if I don't mention the Visual Thesaurus, so I'll close this list of suggestions by mentioning that computers can be wonderful tools to help students with creative writing as well. I like to take my class down to the computer lab in my school, and encourage them to brainstorm on the Visual Thesaurus and "freetype" on topics for poems and short stories (this is usually prefaced by some groundwork in the classroom). I love to improve their vocabulary with creative writing, so sometimes I give them a difficult work on an index card, then have them point their browsers to Visual Thesaurus. They type in a word, it comes to life and they have a new way of understanding the meaning, which in turn, inspires them to freewrite.

I'm really just scratching the surface on how technology can spark learning in your classroom; Wikis, YouTube and PowerPoints haven't been covered yet. Believe me, I've not heard a peep out of my administration regarding how I'm using the PowerBooks in my room since the day the principal walked in to see the entire class composing business letters while I demonstrated the format with a laptop and projector. I'm golden. And you -- as well as Bill, Rosemarie, and Jonna -- can be too. Because, for all my sarcasm, computers are truly a boon to the classroom.

We all know we're not in this for the money or fame but for the belief that education is a noble goal. Technology, when used to promote, celebrate and cause education, should be a welcome part of every classroom. (And if you don't agree, feel free to visit my MySpace and comment me, pleeeeaze.) While they're not appropriate for everything (in my classroom, tests on paper, books with spines and number 2 pencils will always have a place to live), they really can serve your educational goals as you see fit. They're your tools. Use them.

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