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Chasing the Golden Techie.

Why I'm going to teach handwriting...
Why I’m going to teach handwriting…

What are we doing with technology integration these days, anyway?

Sometimes the cure for curiosity is a good, old-fashioned esoteric conversation, even if it’s only with oneself. An issue, a debate, is percolating, brewing rather, and using my Powers of Subtextual Hearing, need to explore some ideas that have fanned before me: I think technology integration is in trouble at my school.

Here’s the situation:

My school, since its re-opening eleven years ago, houses a ‘technology academy.’ (And for the sake of full disclosure, this accounting is from my own anecdotal observations. I am open to others who may read this to add their insight, perspective, and most importantly, corrections to this.) The technology academy consisted, and still does, of two teams, one 7th grade and one 8th grade. The content teams include Humanities (social studies/language arts), Science, and Math. The schedule altered from the rest of the school (I’ll label that Regular MC), using blocks, and rounding out the day with PE/Health and an elective (usually band or orchestra). The students were, and are, (there needs to be a tense that covers all of time) chosen by a lottery system to all of the elementary schools. The program was touted as something unique, elite (in the good way) and supportive of those kids whose interest in technology would be singled out (again, in a good way) and would be inclusive to all students, too. Special Education, Honors, all demographic backgrounds/class, etc. are invited to cast their hopes and chosen. If the student’s home/local elementary or middle school was outside of the boundaries, special arrangements for transportation are made. When I began at the school, the program was in its second year, and had phenomenal leadership, and the teachers worked functionally in their teams, augurs of PLCS to come. When asked, the teachers of the tech academy would offer professional development or guidance, but for the most part, the majority of my tech instructional development has been on my own. There seemed to be an ‘us’ and ‘them’ culture, sustained by the notion that the students, and teachers, in the tech academy were something special and other. They were the vanguard, the proof of concept, the leaders in technology integration. Some years, the district brass would come to their spring PBL showcase–strongly integrated content areas using the best of the technology and exploration available at the time.

victor courtright

Meanwhile…back in the Regular MC…staff changes, administration changes, etc. made for some instability. However, some of this change proved golden. During these years I, being a nerd/techie/geek myself, loved having the technology for all students, and worked very, very hard to integrate engaging lessons using the technology and best practices for 21st Century Learning Skills. Most of this I did, and do, on my own time and dime. It was often my desire to see how to get the Regular MC kids to feel the same about their school experience as I saw the Tech Academy students. There was a clear difference. Was it about buy-in? Tipping points? Staff trained better, or just simply better? There was no time to think about causes and correlations, because just the job of teaching, getting my Boards, maintaining responsibilities in curriculum leadership and planning, etc. kept my focus, and I could embed engaging technology on my own terms. New teachers infused the staff with their passions about brain research, and another set of colleagues provided whole staff inspiration on their ‘water’ project. In other words, they tried to recreate on a larger scale what the enclave of the academy achieves regularly. But without support as a whole-school vision, these programs would stumble a bit, but overall, a great start. When we had teams at Regular MC, we planned Student Led Conferences, once the singularity of the Academy, but for years we incorporated and planned them, too. So that’s another area where the Academy wasn’t unique. But what were they doing and providing that was value-added? This question isn’t intended to make anyone defensive–having a cohort of students who get focus and attention with an excellent staff (although there has been a high turn-over in the 7th grade team), who continue up to the tech academy in high school, have a block schedule, (more time for instruction and learning), hands-on projects, and perhaps most importantly (speaking for my own bias) true integration with ELA/SS– this is what Common Core and great instruction is all about –learning about history with writing, reading, and critical thinking. These are great benefits to students in the academy. Could they be replicated whole school? 

But now I’m on the other side. I’m the 7th grade Humanities teacher. I’m included in the conversations. One such the other day has got me to thinking– I sensed there may be a misconception about what “Regular MC” teachers have been doing while the Academy was chugging along. The idea that we were not doing PBL, or integrated content, or Student Led Conferences, or 21st century technology best practices, or or or….and that simply isn’t true. Did these misconnections create or sustain an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ with the students? One student this year said in an ASB election speech at first she didn’t want to come to our school (fear? reputation for fights?). The students actually gasped in the audience. (Don’t worry: she was still elected. But this is clearly more than a PR problem.)

A colleague mentioned that during parent conferences, some Academy parents worried we weren’t ‘tech enough.’ I didn’t get a chance for clarification, but perhaps that’s not necessary. If any parent’s perception is that we’re not tech enough, or creating a culture innovation, perhaps they have a point, because I’m not sure anyone is anymore.

Has technology integration caught up with itself? Meaning — what is the place for a technology academy? How are we keeping ahead of technology integration–and my biggest question: how are we sharing this with the entire school?  John Spencer recently wrote an article about how teachers sometimes blame the devices, and that led me to a link about the stages of technology integration journey. The point being, if only one area of a school has evolved to actualized technology integration, thinking the rest of the school is behind, there will always be a huge gap. Technology instruction means nothing if 90% of the students aren’t receiving the benefit. The Regular MC kids have a tendency to break their laptops, leave them behind, ‘lose them,’ shove them in lockers, leave them at home, not charge them, and generally treat them with disdain, as if the laptops give them nerd-cooties. We teachers shake our heads and wish there was some way for them to care–knowing full well that this laptop isn’t going to immediately feed an empty tummy or find their parents a job. The laptops tend to be one more thing to make them feel stupid and marginalized.

In some ways, my district has become a shill for one brand of software products, and support for  others is discouraged. And, as if the Internet read my mind, just as I’m contemplating the role of teacher and technology, Mindshift publishes this article, “Rethinking the Role of Educator as Facilitator Amidst Tech Transformation.’ Well, I do believe students still want a human present in their lives to guide them, to smile a genuine smile, be happy they’re here, and listen to their ideas. It can’t be all Khan Academy or whatever new software/on-line class of the day.

But this is important: we teachers can help guide access and relevancy.

Listen to the story, “As Tech Firms Come to Oakland, So Do Hopes of Racial Diversity.”  Our students will forever be disengaged, and fearful, if they never see what the point is. This pragmatic and honest answer is the other side of this question: all the tech in the world means nothing if we don’t show greater possibilities for job, to show how to make a living, how things might look. The old conversations (horrible ones) of “you’ll be flipping burgers if you don’t do your homework” is grossly destructive. Many of their parents are in their 30s doing low-wage jobs, sometimes multiple ones, because doors have been closed or sent overseas for jobs that pay a living wage. So perhaps it’s up to us educators to learn about what are the new paths. And then show them the path. Help them map it out. Talk and teach them how to change or alter if something happens along the way.

Perhaps parents have the new American dream that their children will be giving TED talks on their genius invention, their children are prodigies and have the potential to invent, make, do, and create. Well guess what? Yes. This is the dream, the hope. So it’s up to the educational leaders, especially the classroom teacher, to help see this through. The very definition of leadership is just that — you take others to great places.

In terms of teaching, I am loving my double-content of social studies and language arts. I love my students, and love how they bring engagement, kindness, and yes–charged laptops– to class every day. What an honor. As far as my content area, I’m good at it, I planned it, and know how to garner resources and organize it. However, I’m on a island of one right now, though, and that’s not okay. I vow to continue to share ideas, both using technology, and when not to, and my expertise with the entire staff and students. It cannot be kept in bottle, and anyone who thinks it’s the domain of an enclave is not thinking of the whole vision, perhaps.

Integrating technology is not just for the young, or the experts, or the few. It is one of the last truly democratized, public and free sources of intellectual and academic pursuits.

Question: what role do academies have today? What should their mission statement and purpose include to their students, parents, school, and even district?