It seems as if Jane Van Galen and I have been swimming in the same digital soup lately. On her Education and Class blog, she recently wrestled with two topics that drive my thinking often: Introducing students to the tools of the Read/Write Web and addressing the needs of children living in poverty. Van Galen writes:
"As I click through the blogs describing innovative, engaging uses of classroom technology, I can seldom find mention of the kinds of kids present in these classrooms…
Here’s my concern: Web 2.0 could potentially transform the ways that poor and working-class kids think about the boundaries of their social worlds, their potential for developing a public voice, their ability to assume a greater measure of control over the circumstances of their lives.
Or, the innovations happening in only some schools could be yet another means by which the gap between these kids and their more privileged peers deepens, another way in which they come to school already “behind” other kids and with access to fewer resources in school to catch up."
My first reaction to Van Galen’s thoughts is that few students of any economic background are engaged in meaningful digital learning opportunities in schools today. Technology applications remain limited and traditional. PowerPoint presentations, word processing and online research continue to dominate classroom computer use even in affluent schools with access to extensive resources.
Even in communities that have invested heavily in one-to-one laptop initiatives and classroom technology systems that include interactive whiteboards and student response systems, instructional practices haven’t significantly changed. Districts over-invest in hardware and software suites and under-invest in teacher professional development. We end up with what Mark Prensky describes as teachers doing "old things in new ways," instead of doing "new things in new ways."
But I also recognize that in the affluent school where I work, there is less pressure from outside "forces" bent on driving the curricular decisions of teachers. Instead of being forced to adopt scripted instructional programs that are closely monitored and supervised, teachers in my building still have the freedom to experiment, trying instructional practices that haven’t been "approved for use" by decision makers far removed from the classroom.
I imagine that external forces can act as handcuffs for teachers in low performing schools, limiting their ability to introduce the collaborative tools of the Read/Write Web to their students. When your school is facing state takeover or public ridicule because "student achievement" (read: standardized test scores) haven’t met expectations, innovation is replaced by "research based" instructional practices (read: test preparation materials) chosen for their effectiveness at producing "results" (read: great multiple choice test takers).
What makes this reality even more frustrating is that children in high needs schools are far more likely to depend on teachers for exposure to technology. Personal computers and high speed Internet access are givens for the families that I serve, but are often cherished resources for children in many rural and urban communities. The technological experimentation that my students do at home—compensating for a lack of innovation in their classrooms—has to be introduced in high poverty schools in order to ensure that all students enter the 21st Century on a level playing field.
That’s why I was so jazzed to find out about the 21st Century Learning Project of the Alabama Best Practices Center. Working to introduce blogging, podcasting and wikis to several high needs schools, the Best Practices Center has continued its long history of driving meaningful change in education. While these efforts (supported by a two-year Microsoft grant) continue to develop, the promise is clear in the work of the students at George Hall Elementary School, who are using WetPaint to create a schoolwide wiki/blog/podcast program documenting classroom field trips and learning experiences.
It is also evident in the work of the students in Mr. Frazier’s class at Hueytown Elementary School who are beginning to interact in a digital environment, leaving comments for one another in response to prompts on their classroom blog, and in Mrs. Carroll’s class at West Blocton Elementary outside of Birmingham, where first graders are beginning to make their own blog posts, learning valuable lessons about the power of becoming creators of online content. Finally, it is evident in the developing wiki covering a range of classroom topics being created by students in Mrs. Barnett’s class at Fayetteville High School in Talladega County.
Teachers in each of these high-needs schools have accepted the responsibility of truly preparing their students for life in tomorrow’s world. They’ve adopted Web 2.0 tools as effective "content delivery systems" (a term borrowed from my friend and colleague Sheryl Nussbaum Beach, lead consultant to the ABPC project), addressing required curriculum objectives and motivating students at the same time. Their efforts are at once admirable and essential, serving as models of what technology integration should look like in any community.