The Problem With Tech and Teaching

Let me tell you a funny story about technology in the classroom. I was teaching English at a charter school in Boston a few years ago, and my classes were working on "Macbeth." I'm always looking for new angles of attack, especially with Shakespeare, so I decided to focus on different interpretations and stagings of the play. I cut scenes from a variety of movie versions of Macbeth and showed them to my classes, so we could compare the difference. I used a Royal Shakespeare company version. I used the movie "Scotland, PA," a wonderful modern adaptation in which Macbeth's is a fast food restaurant. But my favorite of all was the Roman Polanski version, produced with funding from Hugh Hefner.[Image credit: Maryland State Archives]

Every single witch was naked. And Polanski didn't stop at the three witches in the script. There were dozens of them. Naked, cackling, ancient, overweight witches caked in dirt and grime, stirring cauldrons. I was obviously worried about showing this movie, unedited, to my tenth graders. But I asked my principal for permission first. I pulled up the scene and she and I watched it together.

"Do you see anything sexual here? Because I wouldn't want to show them anything sexual," she said. What I saw on the screen was probably the least sexual scene I had ever witnessed in a movie. It's the kind of scene I'd call to mind if I wanted to hold out a little longer, if you know what I mean. So I showed it.

I didn't just show it. I presented it. I played it on my class projector. I didn't need a screen because my walls were painted white, so I threw the movie large from floor to ceiling. I pumped the sound through my nice 2.1 speaker system. Because I had ripped the movie to my hard drive (I'm claiming fair use as a teacher), I could stop and start easily so we could discuss scenes.

At one point I stop and stood in front of the room, asking basic recall questions to make sure my students were paying attention. They were staring straight at me, but they weren't answering my questions. They were holding back laughter. Of course, I had stopped on one of the witches scenes without thinking. I hadn't turned the projector off, and it was aimed directly at me. Where my pasty white face should have been hovering before them, instead I was plastered with a gigantic, ancient nipple the size of a serving platter. I was a boob in front of the room, trying to get 20 or so fifteen year olds to take me seriously. When I realized, even I cracked up.

Now let me back up and explain what's really happening here. In my classroom, I had two computers. I had an old bondi blue iMac, the very first on the market, on my desk. I used it only for attendance and internal email correspondence with other staff members. It could hardly manage much else. The movie file was stored on my personal 17-inch Powerbook, a holdover from my days working in production at dotcoms. The speakers were my personal set. The projector I used was the only one in the school. Most of the computers did not have the proper VGA connection to hook up to the projector, and even if they did, most of the teachers, who were young and fresh and extremely bright, could not troubleshoot the connection, anyway. There was little competition for the projector, and it stayed in my classroom for most of the year.

[aquote]If a malicious student came along next and deleted the files, there was nothing we could do[/aquote]

My school had one computer lab, with just enough computers so that everyone in a class got a seat. They were Internet connected, but there was no internal server, so students couldn't store their work in a central location. If they forgot on which computer they started a report, they might lose it forever. If a malicious student came along next and deleted the files, there was nothing we could do. The students couldn't afford flash drives, and the school couldn't afford to provide thumb drives for them. Some students had floppy disks, but there were only two USB floppy drives that would work with our computers, and one of those was usually broken. Try telling a room full of students that it's time to pack up and head to their next class, then watch them pass the floppy drive around while they frantically save their work.

I taught at one of the better schools in the city. It was a successful charter school, so in addition to the public funding, we raised extra money ourselves. This was still the best technology we could manage. I can't imagine what the average school had to use, let alone the schools in the neighborhoods where property values provided the lowest level of taxes to support education. Did you know most school funds come from property taxes? If you live in a neighborhood with expensive houses, your school has more money. So it goes.

When our school got a little bit of extra money, we fixed things. We added new whiteboards, or bought new chairs. When we got more money, we hired people. We hired teachers, or tutors, or special educators. Students took five courses, all the same. Every student took English, Math, Science, History, and Spanish. We offered no other languages, no art, no physical education. No music. When the school raised a ton of money after years of successful fundraising, we bought a new building and moved out of the basement of the YMCA, where we shared space with homeless veterans and a women's shelter.

Technology, like new computers, was low on the list. Very low. It's not that the school didn't care about technology, it just couldn't be a priority. The teachers were not trained in new gadgets, and we didn't have the time to train ourselves. The students did not live in a world of mp3 players and tablet computers. They had computers at home, but many of them lacked an Internet connection, or a printer. Some had to rely on the local public library to use a connected machine.

There are red herrings in the arguments over teaching. There are easy targets that most people agree need to be changed dramatically. Textbooks are one of these. It's easy to look at the sorry state of textbooks and decide that they could use an upgrade. When you see a kid carrying 30 pounds of paper and cardboard on her back, this seems like an obvious fix. But in my five years teaching in urban schools, in schools where 90% or more of the students qualified for a free lunch, I never once pointed to textbooks as a priority that I would like to change. I never felt that my lack of technology in the classroom was the main issue holding us back.

[aquote]The problem with education is, and always will be, a human issue[/aquote]

The problem with education is, and always will be, a human issue. When I start arguing the topic, and it's hard for me to refrain from jumping into an argument about education, I'm often asked what needs to change to fix our education problems. Is it the students? The parents? The administration and the budgets? The school district and the federal regulations? The teachers? What is it?

It's everything. It is every last one of those things. But I promise you that everything you think you know about the problems in education is wrong. Maybe you've heard that the students are lazy and don't have any ambition. Maybe you've heard that the parents don't care, or they care too much and stifle the teachers. Maybe you've seen administrative bloat and budgets that need to be trimmed back before they are increased. Perhaps you've heard the term "teaching to the test." Most of all, you've definitely heard about the teacher's unions protecting bad teachers while the good ones leave the profession early because they are so underpaid.

I could write a column on any one of those issues. The idea that students are lazy hurts me the most. Lazy is a code word. When someone calls a student lazy, they are dismissing that student. I never met a lazy student. There was always something else going on. There was something missing from their lives, or something missing from my teaching, that made them behave in ways ignorant critics would deem lazy.

I never met a parent who didn't care, though I met many who never showed up to school meetings, mostly because they were working night shifts and 16 hour days to make ends meet. As far as teachers leaving, teachers should definitely be paid more, but that's not why I left the profession, and I suspect it's not why most teachers quit within 5 years of starting out. I left teaching to take a job that paid half as much. So I'll tell you why I left.

I could never do enough for my students. I worked 12 hour days, and always on weekends. I graded dozens, even hundreds of papers in a week. I could never plan enough. I could never provide enough feedback. And I wasn't remotely the best teacher at my school. I can't imagine how the best teachers tortured themselves, and many of them are still teaching.

If you want to reinvent the textbook, by all means, go ahead. I'm sure that college students will love the fancier books, and professors will make even more money publishing endless revisions and selling the fresh copies without losing money to an intermediary publisher. I have no quarrel with that.

But don't think that will fix our public education problems in any way. If you want to fix education, you won't be able to do it with software and technology. You need to start with the people. Help them. Respect them and support them. But most importantly, hire as many of them as you possibly can. There is unimaginable work to be done.