Technology upgrades highlight evolutions in education

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School has changed a lot from when we were kids. The way teachers treat students has changed, especially from the time my parents were in school — (paddle, anyone?).

The way students treat each other is also quite different. And our state and federal interventions cause a lot of changes. The demands placed on kids (and subsequently schools) now are astronomical in comparison to what we dealt with in school, or even compared to what kids had to think about 16 years ago.

But technology might be the No. 1 difference. When I first began teaching in 1997 I had an overhead projector in my room, a great big R2-D2 of a machine that stood in the middle of my room and let me write with colored pens on a piece of plastic so I could show an entire room information instead of having to walk around and show them one by one. It would also project anything that was transparent, so for teaching math I could show shapes or quantities and in reading I could use special paper to copy articles so students could see what I was reading or follow along with main ideas.

The setup was useful and allowed students to see what I was teaching, but it was much more time-intensive than the document camera and projector I have today. I liked it though — it was a compact work station and allowed me to still be in the middle of my classroom teaching while being able to present information to everybody at once.

Way back in 1997 I didn’t have a computer or even a telephone in my classroom — and I was OK! If something important needed to be conveyed to me the secretary would announce it over the intercom or send a student office helper up with a note. We took attendance on a piece of paper and sent it down to the office. Any information that needed to be given to us from a parent, the school, the district or the state was placed in our mailboxes to be dealt with after school. I got, on average, one or two messages in my mailbox a day.

How many messages do we get in our mailbox each day now? Ha ha ha, I’m not really laughing.

When I taught in those years, I didn’t have a desk in my room, I spent the entire day walking around the classroom. When I sat down it was next to a student, to give specialized instruction or to join in a game or a conversation. When I read a book to the class I had to walk around the room while I read it so everyone could see the pictures.

Students had me near them most of the time. There was not much opportunity for anyone to hide out in the back of the room — there was no back of the room.

I remember when our school district began buying document cameras, I was pretty wary about this new technology. Even though I generally embrace new ideas, and technology is something I’m comfortable learning to use, this new system was really complex. A spindly-looking camera with about 15 buttons labeled only with icons was connected by cords to a space-age box. The box has its own remote control decked out with probably 60 buttons accompanied by mysterious words like “angle,” “marker,” “random,” “standby” and “input” all connected to my computer screen (oops, not “screen,” “monitor” — it’s called a monitor) and then again to the actual computer. Cords snaked endlessly around my desk — so many cords that they were covered by a 10-inch-wide strip of vinyl to prevent anyone from accidentally pulling something out.

The fact that I was confused and overwhelmed by this system had nothing to do with my age at the time (I was 26) or education level (I had a master’s degree in information and technology).

This new system is now standard. As far as I know, our school district has been able to outfit each classroom in Walla Walla with this setup, allowing teachers to simply press some buttons and, voilà! their students, even in the fifth row, can easily see the caption they are referring to in the text book.

Adding new technologies in schools allows teachers to do their jobs more effectively, helping to deepen students’ understanding of the material. As an advanced Spanish teacher. I don’t just teach people body parts and days of the week — I teach advanced grammar through concepts that are interesting so students learn vocabulary at the same time. We read books about ancient Greece in order to practice past-tense verbs. We study world problems and read articles from CNN Mexico to practice the potential simple tense (“if I could ... I would ...”).

Our technology allows me to look up concepts on the computer and show them to my students. When studying the effects of globalization on indigenous people in Costa Rica we can see a YouTube video comparing an environmental landmark before and after a new industry comes in. When learning about pyramids in ancient Egypt we can see satellite photographs of the structures. Technology opens up the world, but I wonder what it does to relationships?

Now I have to make a concerted effort to come out from behind the computer. While class is in session I force myself to not look at emails by turning off the notification button. I make sure to turn the projector off and walk among the students whenever they are writing or actively working on a project.

Obviously, no cellphones are allowed in class. I’ve taken training classes and been at meetings where the presenter doesn’t explicitly demand this and adults will have their cellphones out on the table. It doesn’t take long for some people to be so absorbed by their little screens that they might as well not even be in the class at all.

Yet, I’m as bad as the rest. I know exactly where my phone is at this moment and how many messages I need to respond to and how far behind I am on my email. I sit on my couch and check Facebook at night while my kids watch their cartoon after dinner. I can’t break free any more than anyone else. It is a brave new world and I wonder if any of us will ever be the same.

But not all school changes are so overwhelming. In fact, when my parents describe some of the indignity they went through in school I am grateful for the distraction of too many cords or too many state standards. In the 1950s, kids didn’t seem to have the same influence that they have today. They were silent unless spoken to and adults were always right. My dad has mentioned more than once a teacher who would hit them on the knuckles with a wooden ruler when they were doing anything she didn’t like. The only thing I ever used a ruler for in school, besides measuring, was making fake fingernails by putting glue down that middle strip. No teacher would have ever hit me with one!

My mom told me they used to practice for a potential A-bomb evacuation. The alarm would go off and they were to run home. Bye-bye, be safe now. Uh, OK. We don’t get to be that flippant with our charges, 1950s — wow!

My dad has a similar story. He was a young elementary student and got sick at school. The school wasn’t able to get ahold of his mom, so they just told him to walk home. He lived on a farm about two miles away. It was early spring and he decided to take a shortcut by crossing a river. He got chest deep and felt himself being lifted and almost carried downstream, but managed to swim to safety on the other side. He then had to walk, sick and wet, the rest of the way home. Again, nicely done 1950s — way to care for the Baby Boomers. Good job, no wonder many grew up and became hippies and didn’t trust the government.

Then, of course, there was discipline. When I was going to school in the 1980s teachers were nice, even when kids were kind of difficult. I guess I was in a class with a lot of boys who were not easy to teach; when I became a teacher two of my previous teachers laughed when they remembered how hard my class had been. But I never really noticed. The worst thing that would ever happen was that the teacher might make someone write their name on the board. Or if they were really bad they had to put a check after their name and stay after school, with their head down. Whoa, big-time punishment.

When I was in elementary school there was a boy in the other class who didn’t like this check system. I will call him Harvey. Harvey had a little trouble following directions, and one day he lost it to such an extent that other kids were talking about it for weeks afterward. The teacher told him to put his name on the board, as she did every day. And, like every day, Harvey also had to put a check after his name. He frequently even had to add a second check.

But this day, when the teacher told him to add a second check, Harvey stalked up there and put check after check after check, each check getting bigger and bigger. He was like some kind of hero the way he rebelled against the teacher, though as a teacher now my heart aches for him. He must have felt terrible to always have his name on the board.

My parents’ generation — and even my older brothers’ generation — had the threat of the paddle looming over their heads, and this actually trickled down to us. We would whisper that someone was going to get the paddle, but no one ever did. In fact, by the time I was in school it was illegal, but we didn’t know this.

Now it is a totally forgotten idea. We treat kids with dignity, speaking to them quietly, carefully documenting any misbehavior and informing parents and counselors of even the most minor behavior infraction. It works because the kids are informed and are required to take ownership of the whole situation, including telling us what their behavior was and why, and making the phone call to their parents. There is no public shaming or physical punishment.

Thank goodness, we’ve come a long way. But we’re not perfect, I wonder what students will find to complain about when they look back on us 20 years from now?

Sara Van Donge is a Walla Walla native, middle school dual language teacher and mom to two children. She is currently working on publishing a larger project, which will be available this summer. She can be reached at saravandonge@gmail.com.

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