Best classroom gizmo? A great teacher
The Los Angeles Unified School District’s plan to supply every student with an iPad is, to be charitable, not going well. Before any more school districts decide to spend millions on high-tech gadgets, let me offer a few words of caution. Why me? Because I was there in 1986 when Apple computers were first lugged into elementary classrooms.
This was at the Open Magnet School in West Hollywood, where I and other teachers first experimented with this new technology. After hours, we often hung out with Alan Kay, the leather-jacketed genius from Apple who would drop by to see how things were going. He had done pioneering work on the graphical user interface and the use of icons, among other things, while at Xerox Parc in the late-1970s. His informal job title at Apple was “visionary.”
For this initial rollout, Apple provided not only the boxy Mac Classics but also some nifty glass-topped desks. The computers were tipped onto their backs and slid onto angled shelves under the glass so students could either point and click or put the mouse away and lay out books and papers. Every student had access to a computer. Essentially it was the one-to-one program being touted today by the U.S. secretary of Education, school superintendents and Joel Klein, the former chancellor of the New York City Department of Education and current chief executive of Amplify, a company that makes digital tablets.
After a month or two it became apparent that computers were to the writing process what the Cuisinart was to cooking. Every part of that process — writing, editing, revising, rewriting — was easier. The walls in my classroom were soon lined with typed essays and stories, many illustrated with computer-generated stick figures.
Twenty-seven years later, computers and their offspring are still wonderful tools for word processing. The Internet also made it easier for students to do research and to communicate with peers and mentors. And for many teachers, computers have replaced work sheets that reinforce concepts taught in directed lessons.
Of course, high-tech gizmos can also be used for plenty of other classroom projects. For instance, my fifth-grade digital natives could easily spend all day creating Keynote presentations on the Jamestown Colony or generating book reports that look like Pfizer’s annual report. But is that the best use of precious class time? And is that the best use of me?
The fact is I’m the last guy you would want overseeing any high-tech razzle-dazzle in the classroom. But I am your man when it comes to delivering content, piquing a student’s curiosity, helping a hesitant writer formulate a persuasive essay and encouraging students to make connections across the curriculum. And unlike a computer, I can inspire, critique, counsel, model good behavior and put on five shows a week.
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan says putting textbooks on Kindles, iPads (and such) will save districts millions of dollars. I’m not so sure. I’ve been using the same math text for 10 years. Why shouldn’t I? My students do well on the state test, and the concepts don’t change. The commutative property is still a+b = b+a. With a $19.95 purchase price, that comes to less than $2 a year. And textbooks don’t crash, need batteries or break if you drop them. And I’ve never heard of one being stolen.
Another argument you’ll hear from Duncan, Klein, et al is that our public schools need a high-tech “disruption,” a cyber-shock that will send students scurrying to their glowing screens where they will absorb the knowledge that will lift them to ever higher levels of achievement.
I have three responses. First, in my experience, what technology disrupts is classroom discussion, debate, collaboration, cooperation and social interaction. Many elementary students are going to spend the next 60 years primarily dealing with some type of tech tool. Before they go into those digital cocoons, shouldn’t they learn how to relate to, have empathy for and communicate with classmates? Shouldn’t they be taught how to respectfully disagree, to defend a point of view, to negotiate and to compromise?
Second, another thing computers disrupt is the desire to get some exercise. Staring at that screen has a drug-like effect on students. Many times I’ve had to tell the boys (yes, it’s always the boys) to close their computers and go to recess. No surprise that one side effect of excessive computer use is obesity.
Third, if bureaucrats and billionaires really want to “disrupt” the traditional educational model, they should forget iPads and Androids. Instead, put a piano in every classroom and make piano lessons part of teacher training. Imagine an educational model in which music, dance and drama are part of every lesson. Imagine students singing about math properties, taking history from the page to the stage, dancing their way through the Constitutional Convention and the Lewis and Clark expedition, acting out scenes from novels, borrowing from Tom Lehrer and singing the periodic table of elements.
Kindergarten teachers have always made good use of music, dance and drama. Why stop there? Drama helps students develop oral language and people skills. Dance gets kids off their butts. Music fires up the neural synapses, improves retention of the material and brings a sense of joy into the classroom.
I have a piano in my classroom. My students start each school day with 15 minutes of singing and dancing. In January, I conducted an experiment. I said to my students: “We’re facing drastic budget cuts. We have to get rid of either the 15 laptops or the piano. Which should it be?” I don’t think I have to tell you the response.
Jeff Lantos teaches at Marquez Charter Elementary School in Los Angeles.
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