Friday, February 27, 2004

Days Until Science Expo: 25

But I'm home sick. Flu hit yesterday night. Still feeling achy & weak, but after sleeping from 9 pm last night until noon today, I'm finally up and about. From what I hear, this is pretty mild as far as the flu goes this year. Last night's piercing stomach pains gave me panicky thoughts about what a child might have put in my water bottle yesterday... but I don't think any of my kids want to kill me (even if they could get their hands on poison). Then the achiness and fever hit and I started thinking about how quickly meningitis can kill you... quick web search revealed that my symptoms were a much better match for the flu than for meningitis. Hypochondria, anyone?

The last two nights have been busy ones, hence the lack of updates.

Wednesday night, my school hosted a meeting with several other similar schools to discuss integration of laptops into our curricula. As one of the more frequent laptop users in my school, I moderated the "Pedagogy" break-out group along with two colleagues. Moderated might be the wrong word, since the discussion was rapidly hijacked by a teacher from another school with an axe to grind: He thinks laptops are a waste of time and money and stand in the way of educational progress, and he thinks most teachers agree with him.

This teacher had some valid concerns; no one at the table completely disagreed with him. Nevertheless, I am bone-tired of meetings that turn into complaint sessions - I much prefer to identify the problem and then look for solutions! (I know, I know, it's a radical idea!). I tried - I really tried - to steer the discussion in the direction of, "Okay, so we've had hundreds of years to make print and the pen and paper effective tools for education, but we've only had about 15-20 (at the most) to make computers effective tools for education. What does seem to work? Where we can we go from here? What would help us find new ways of using the laptops for efficient and effective education?"

Back to the old axe-grinding. This teacher just doesn't think his students are going very far in life - maybe one or two will get interested in Science and go to college and study it more, but most won't even go to college. I don't even think he's statistically correct about rates of college attendance, given that he teaches at a school that is rapidly becoming one of the best public middle schools on the Upper West Side, but even if he were technically realistic in his assessment of his students' future paths, it seems like a lousy attitude and a good way to start closing doors for kids.

The whole conversation made me realize that we are probably right about at the point in society when computer knowledge is on the verge of going from a nice thing to know to an essential thing to know, when it changes from an enriching aspect of a curriculum to a necessary aspect of a curriculum. At some point in the last few hundred years in the US and much of the rest of the world, knowing how to read and write shifted from being a luxury that only some people got, while most others "wouldn't really use it anyway" to a necessity for all. I think computer knowledge is reaching that point here in the US. When I was a child, there really were people who didn't have to know how to use a computer. I don't think it is or should be a luxury any more. Of course, just because something is now necessary to include in the curriculum doesn't mean it should push out something else that is also essential. Replacing cursive writing with typing is fine with me, but replacing the ability to read a regular thermometer with knowing how to use a temperature probe is not fine, nor is replacing the ability to make a graph by hand with the ability to make a graph in Excel (BOTH are important). Nor should time spent learning how to use a computer replace time spent learning to read or compute or do research in books!

Where does that leave us? Basically, computers need to be used in classrooms as a tool, just like pen and paper and books are classroom tools. But we are in the infancy of knowing how to do that in a way that is as effective - or more effective - than using traditional tools. I don' t think that means we shouldn't try! We need more opportunities for teachers to share methods that they discover with other teachers. We need leadership in our schools that encourages use of computers when appropriate, but doesn't demand that every lesson involve a computer.

Overall, the meeting went well. Other break-out groups found that all of our schools are dealing with similar issues regarding acquisition and maintenance of technology, the need for extra support staff without spending lots of money, and the need for professional development. I created a list-serv for us to continue the conversation, and we are looking into setting up an internship program with some of the local technical colleges so that we can have computer maintenance experts on-hand without burning out teachers. We are also going to consider setting up a summer professional development opportunity for teachers from all of our schools.

Last night - despite stomach ache - I went to a career fair to recruit teachers for our school. I met a lot of teachers, all very reasonable candidates with certification and experience. Excellent. Incidentally, Social Studies teachers are a dime-a-dozen; we must have 25 candidates for a single position! I met only one Science teacher the whole evening.


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