Every seat in Lindsey Figueroa’s fourth grade classroom is occupied by either a jubilant young techie in the making, or a little Luddite, resistant to the glow of the eleven-inch screen.
Figueroa is a teacher at Mayberry Elementary School in East Hartford. She is a no-nonsense presence, looming tall over the tilted heads of those who will build our future. She instructs the class to remain focused on the objective. Like a confident pilot steering a plane through an electrical storm, Figueroa is determined to guide the children to their destination and land this bird safely. The mission: to get each pupil to complete a PowerPoint on one of five regions in the continental United States.
In one corner, two girls work fastidiously on the design of their PowerPoint; in another, a boy and girl partner up on Kidrex.org—a kid-friendly search engine—to research the landmarks, capitals, and natural resources of America’s west. One young boy ricochets from chair to chair like a Super Ball, dreadlocks bouncing behind him. He is warned by Figueroa to remain on task, but every five minutes or so he rebounds off his chair, and makes his rounds all over again.
To maintain peace in this classroom at the end of a lengthy corridor, Figueroa uses ClassDojo—an online behavior management application. “We use it every day. From the beginning of the school year to the end of the school year. Each student has, like, a little monster. They have points next to them,” she explains, dragging the mouse icon over a student’s profile. “Every time I want to give him a point, I just click on his name. And then there’s [marks for] those participating and having self-control. So whenever he is doing something positive, I give him a point.”
Class Dojo is not too different from the archaic gold-star system of elementary schools’ past. The key difference: the system has undergone a digital changing of the guard.
Mayberry Elementary is bursting at the seams with tech enthusiasm. The school’s technology teacher, Jed Upson, assures us that “as far as use, [technology] is a benefit.” He adds that the kids are doing “better on standardized tests,” and that those results can be attributed to the interactive relationship children are forming with electronic devices.
Upson, who is finishing up his master’s in educational technology and has been teaching for eighteen years, describes what he views as a changing mindset. “Kids are finding things critically, and are learning to distinguish a reliable source from an unreliable one,” says Upson.
Upson teaches his fourth graders how to code through an easy-to-teach, easy-to-learn program called Kodable. “[Exercises] are presented as games. They can learn concepts such as sequencing and looping through puzzles, and this puts them at an advantage. We’re preparing kids for jobs that don’t exist [yet].” He pioneered a pilot program to bring ten iPads into the classroom, which has yielded outstanding effects. Kids were giving keynote presentations on the iPads, and jumped at the chance to share their learning with other classes.
Upson taps away on the keys, then pulls up a tab on the projector. The site is an interactive platform called Nearpod that can generate multiple mobile presentations at once. He refers to it simply as “Microsoft PowerPoint on steroids.”
Upson likes the program because it presents more of an unbiased approach to teaching: he cannot see the name of the student who submits an answer to whatever query he makes. He can type a question and it will be sent to his students’ computers almost instantaneously. They type their answers, which are then fed back to his computer. Upson also praises the diversity of activities and components on Nearpod; audio, video, and site links can be posted right into the lesson plan.
When asked if he has any concerns about children’s use of technology, both in and out of the classroom, he pauses briefly and says that he warns his students to “stay away from, and watch out for, cyberbullying.”
Amanda Connor, an educator at an elementary school in Springfield, has a slightly different outlook than Upson’s. “Kids today aren’t like us. They don’t learn the same way,” she says.
Connor works in the inner city, where funds for education aren’t exactly robust, and test scores are similarly lacking. A connection between the two is a possibility; these kids do not have access to technology in the way that wealthier public and private schools do.
She recounts a time where “the bathroom was lit on fire by a joint.” She adds that the internet culture—the ease of access to information on anything, even drugs—can influence kids to try substances at a young age.
Connor is big on helping develop her students’ skills through social interaction. If there is a scuffle, she makes the students involved talk to each other in the tribal tradition carried out in places like Papua New Guinea. She likes this method, because it drags them away from computers and mobile devices.
Connor is dubious when it comes to the idea of using computers or mobile devices to teach math. “I make them hand write math problems.” Her class, however, is one of many that no longer teaches children to write in cursive.
She is also troubled by the fact that literacy is not that high in her school. She gives a terse response to the question of why there is such a resistance to the written word. “When you don’t know how, you don’t like it.”
She fears that a lack of parental presence in her students’ lives is holding them back. “Talking to them when they’re young, that’s how they learn language.” Amanda notes that almost all of her students have cell phones. She took one student’s phone, and that particular student did not remember she had it inside her desk. Connor asks, “Why have one, if you aren’t even going to bother to retrieve it?”
Lynn Murray, former principal of Williston Central School in Williston, Vermont during the mid-nineties, was one of many administrators who helped pave the way for the seismic impact that technology is currently having on the country’s schools.
Murray’s school used ninety percent P.C.s in the beginning of the tech revolution. IBM was a stable presence in her town and they were able to provide one computer for every five kids. Murray recalls that Williston was so ahead of the curve in this area, there were “100 visitors a month stopping in to see what we were doing.”
She believes that the success of utilizing technology in a class full of young learners is entirely based on whether a school has a “curriculum which requires research,” because it can’t be done without it. She admits that technology can be “used in stupid ways,” but it is important that these devices are used in a manner that does not “interfere with what they are learning.”
Murray adds that her school was promoting its kids to conduct PowerPoint presentations; projects that sometimes resembled “film vignettes. Papers came out blog-like and students had command of the material in more creative ways.” With technological connection, “so many real-time things can be accessed. [There is] so much more that can be taken from the internet than a static book.”
In a voice thick with pride, Murray firmly states that access to the web in the classroom is an “incredible resource for a curious mind. They see the way information is disseminated across the world, learn to read and evaluate what they see. That is a critical skill.”
When asked if too much time behind a screen inhibits a child’s ability to socially interact with others, Murray insists that “screen time online can be a catalyst for a face-to-face. Some fall prey to just spending time with a screen. It is a powerful tool for connection, if followed with a face-to-face interaction. It can connect people to events. It is only bad when people cannot shift away from the screen level.”
She puts forth that communication is the bedrock in having success with incorporating technology in a classroom, and that we must “get off the paper. We consume information, and need to teach them how to put information out to the world that they want to read. When technology is not in schools, it sets kids back. It also depends on the quality in instruction.”
Back at Mayberry, Lindsey Figueroa takes a page out of Connor’s playbook, assigning an uncooperative student to write her a letter explaining what he is upset about. “Handwriting is a better way for a student to express their thoughts to a teacher.”
A group of students debate over what they should research. One member yells “bacon!” The energy is high; there is much enthusiasm for the project. One of the young men—formerly held in time-out—moves from the analog corner and is instructed to grab a laptop. His dark eyes are reluctant.
Figueroa instructs a student to copy and paste an image into a Word document. A pair of girls try to walk a group of boys through the process of changing the background of their PowerPoint, “Go to animations! Why would you do that?”
Through all the giggles, shouts, and hyperactive movement from the children, Figueroa somehow finds the time to stare into the sky-blue brightness of each device with all these curious minds.
Figueroa raises her voice an octave, asking that each student with a laptop return them to a wheeled storage locker, and that everyone with an iPad place it in a neat stack on the curved front table. Lunchtime has arrived, and the devices go silent.