What a Wonderful World?

A Middle School Teacher’s 1:1 Reflections

by Anne Moege, Mitchell Middle School
NWP Professional Writing and Technology Retreat ‘06

“Thank you for calling the WWLI (Wonderful World of Laptop Initiatives) hotline. If your idea of technology integration means showing students PowerPoint presentations of your class notes, press 1. If you’ve never heard of the terms ‘wiki,’ ‘blog,’ or ‘discussion board,’ press 2. If you have lost your Internet connection, have no idea where your students’ ‘X:’ or ‘H:’ drives disappeared to, or need other technical assistance, press 3. If your students inappropriately use or abuse their computers in and/or out of class, press 4. If you’re harboring anger because you wanted a Mac and ended up with a Dell, press 5. If you refuse to support your colleagues in their technology endeavors, stay on the line until a customer service representative is available.” And then begins the encouraging music: Wilson Philips’ “Hold On.”

Holding on . . . that’s precisely the decision several of my colleagues and I made as educators a year and a half ago when my middle school, one of the lucky few, was awarded a 1:1 grant in early June of 2005. This grant provided each of our seventh-grade students with his or her own laptop computer. I may make light now of the early challenges we faced, but most days, an 800 number to a technology hotline would definitely have come in handy.

At some point during the ’05-’06 school year, I’d heard through the middle-school grapevine that our superintendent had written a 1:1 grant, but I, quite frankly, hadn’t given much thought about the implications. By spring of ’05 the “word on the street” was that our district intended to drop entirely our twelve-week computer exploratory classes for both seventhth and eighth grades. One computer teacher was moving, and the other decided to retired, but with the news of not filling those positions, my ears perked up. Finally, within the last month of school, we began the planning process in the event of grant approval, and two technology committees (one at the middle school—mainly PC users—and one at the high school—mainly Mac users) were put into place to visit with the assistant director for technology from the local technical school to discuss the platform we would adopt and how the technical school would provide our tech support. By then, I definitely wanted to know more and volunteered to serve on the middle-school committee.

Because the committees met separately, I can relate only what the middle school’s committee voiced concerns about; for example, how would we proceed with laptop distribution, what types of restrictions would students’ computers receive, and what specifics would be included in our computer policy? However, the major outcome of our separate meetings was the decision to adopt a Dell platform, mainly due to the technical institute’s recommendation based on the skills of their network systems people and the structure of the existing network. Adopting an alternate platform would take time, technical tweaking, and training, and time was something that was not on our side. The ultimate vision became this, though I don’t really think the committees’ input had much to do with this goal: our incoming seventh graders would keep the laptops from seventhth through ninth grade; then in tenth grade, they would receive new computer (most likely a Mac) so that by the time they graduated from high school, they would have experienced both platforms. A column in the local paper by our superintendent in mid-May confirmed the exciting grant prospects; all we had to do next was wait.

During a curriculum mapping workshop in early June 2005, our principal announced officially that our district had been awarded the grant, bestowing upon each of our seventh-grade students a Dell Latitude D510 to be used, well, basically like a textbook—to be hauled from class to class and then home and utilized for assignments and homework. By now, I was hearing a good deal of skepticism over the probability of immature 7th graders being able to handle respectfully a $1,000+ laptop. Then there was the reality that, although we would have tech support, all staff would be responsible for teaching students basic computer skills and integrating technology into our curriculum without any computer teachers or integrationists around for guidance. In order to do that effectively, we’d need some training, which would most likely cut into our precious, limited summer schedules.

Still, my enthusiasm for computer accessibility and creative ways of using the laptops far outweighed my doubts. I was tired of fighting for the computer lab (and not winning), and I knew enough about technology to handle teaching students some basic computer skills while we worked on language arts-specific assignments. Fairly new to the district but not to teaching, I was ready to take on a type of leadership role, using my students as “guinea pigs” to try some fresh, innovative strategies and then share successes and failures with other colleagues. I definitely knew I didn’t want to do what everyone else would be doing. Sure, I could do this. Wait . . . innovative things? Not just word processing and PowerPoint?

To meet the challenges that lay ahead, approximately ten other colleagues and I answered the call to be trained to help train the rest of the staff. Here was my opportunity to learn some new ideas and then, a step out of my comfort zone, to teach teachers for the first time (even more daunting when they might be a tad hostile as we were strongly “encouraged” but not “required” to give up eight days of July to be trained). Unfortunately, the first few days of our five-day training led by a Dell representative from Texas started roughly. We muddled through online lessons via the Dell Co-nect site—lessons like “Introduction to Laptops,” “How to Use Office XP,” and “Top Ten Internet Resources.” There was absolutely nothing wrong with reviewing these topics, but the bigger question wasn’t being addressed. Exactly how were we supposed to use the computers with our students? Finally, frustrated by lack of direction and knowing we needed to fill the expected two eight-day sessions with something relevant, we told the Dell rep what we thought our staff would need. We trainers, of course, really had no idea where to start, but it seemed logical to begin with the basics. The trainers, for the most part, knew about the Office XP products (Word, Publisher, PowerPoint, Excel) that students and staff would utilize, but would all of our staff have practiced them enough to be able to teach students how to use them? With this question in mind, our training group then developed two four-day training segments based on the Dell Co-nect site’s lessons for using Word, Publisher, PowerPoint, Excel, digital images, and our district’s intentions for using shared folders. We breathed a sigh of relief and hoped for the best.

Our “blind leading the blind” training ended in July. School started the third week of August, and students received their computers the final week of August during two evening information sessions, which parents and students were required to attend in order to learn policy information, sign policy forms, and, of course, receive the prized laptop. Thus, our laptop experience began.

Numerous issues arose early on to emphasize our inadequate preparation, including server issues, security issues, break-down issues (the Dells were the ones eventually recalled due to faulty batteries), and tech-support issues (one poor guy for our whole middle school). One concern stood out above all of these, at least for me: students voiced that if they were never going to use their computers, why did they have them? We could fix server problems and computers and implement policy changes eventually, but there was no convenient here’s-how-to-integrate-technology 800-number for us to call.

In retrospect, we probably did the best that we could, given the implementation time frame, but with the laptop initiatives becoming more and more prevalent across the United States (in my state of South Dakota, for example, twenty high schools are piloting laptop programs during the 2006-2007 school year based on the Governor’s South Dakota Classroom Connections laptop initiative), it’s important to examine and share the successes and failures of the laptop experience in order to reevaluate how to go about effectively implementing a 1:1 initiative, training teachers for their new roles, and understanding technology integration.

This year my school district, in a sense, has been given a “second chance” to “get things right.” In May ’06, our high school was named one of the Governor’s pilot schools, so our laptop initiative, which has now shifted to a Gateway platform, extends from grades seven to twelve. And during our frustrations, triumphs, and self-examinations of the past year and a half, I’m absolutely certain the high school and middle school staffs have learned a great deal. Thus, although I am but a novice in this whole “wonderful 1:1 world,” I consider the following assortment of comments—based on my students’ and my 1:1 journey—to be a rudimentary “help line” for those about to give the 1:1 a whirl.

1) Teacher training for technology integration means more than reviewing Office products. We can encourage teachers to start small and integrate gradually. We can suggest that they take a look at what they already do and find areas for technology integration. But what if they don’t know where to start, what to try, or what technology integration is? I recently read a newspaper article where Georgia teachers were struggling with how to go about technology integration after two years of 1:1 implementation. Once teachers were given laptops and told basically to “go with it,” one wondered what “go with it” meant; was there a website she could go to?

In my middle school’s case, eliminating the computer exploratory placed our teachers in the unique position of having to teach computer skills. I believe that’s one reason we felt it was important to review the Office products during our first teacher-training sessions; we needed to be able to teach skills our seventh graders might not have been exposed to during their sixth-grade computer exploratory to ensure computer basics were covered prior to their entering high school. Still, during my initial computer training experience, a small voice nagged me to dig deeper. The only Office product most of my fellow trainers and I hadn’t been familiar with was Movie Maker (software that allows one to create and edit movies using images, narration, and music), though I’d had minimal exposure to digital storytelling (stories combined with a visual multimedia element) during my Masters coursework and could immediately see the possibilities for this more “sophisticated” software within my classroom. What else was out there? Where could educators go to find promising educational products, preferably free or at least inexpensive?

Coincidentally, the Dakota Writing Project, based at the University of South Dakota, Vermillion, and affiliated with the National Writing Project, sponsored an electronic writing marathon during the time of our computer training. The opportunity, which involved exploring a variety of online writing spaces, lasted three weeks in July and three weeks in January. The experience proved so helpful that I signed up again for the summer ’06 session. My eyes have been opened not only to more about digital storytelling but also to Nicenet (an Internet classroom assistant), weblogs (online journals), del.icio.us (an online tool for collecting and sharing favorite websites), Tapped In (an online space for educational professionals to share with and learn from each other), and wikis (collaborative websites that users add to and edit). The great thing about these spaces is that they do not apply solely to my content area of language arts. Teachers and students of all content areas and levels can benefit by exploring these and other online spaces.

Since our laptop experience broadened to include our high school this school year, the district brought in David Warlick—an educator, author, computer programmer, and owner/consultant for The Landmark Project (a professional development, web design, and innovations firm in Raleigh, North Carolina)—to speak to us at our all-staff in-service prior to the start of this school year. His presentation opened the eyes of many as he shared what literacy and learning mean in the 21st Century: in short, students will need to be able to research effectively (expose the truth); use that information effectively (employ information); share their ideas in writing effectively (express ideas compellingly); and use information ethically (ethics). The Landmark Project site alone includes scores of technology ideas and resources, but had I not been introduced to David Warlick, I might not have ever stumbled upon his site. Just as Warlick encouraged us to guide our students to becoming effective researchers, we, too, need help in filtering through everything the Internet offers. Districts need to give teachers the time to search for and to develop ideas and should also determine ways of sharing “what’s out there” with their staffs. However, regardless of whether or not a district is able to hire integrationists or consultants, teachers must be willing to learn on their own. Overall, training should be ongoing; teachers should always be seeking, experimenting, and evaluating.

2) Create a learning community with staff. One way to share “what’s out there” is to get teachers actively involved with training, in-services, and so on. I applaud my district’s willingness to allow its teachers to plan and facilitate the past two summers of teacher technology training. Who better to explore, discover, implement, and share ideas than those who are using the technology? Granted, our first training summer sessions weren’t all they could have been. But by our second “go-around” of teacher training sessions, our technology committee and staff had a much clearer vision about what our computer training could or should include.

For example, as a result of my technology exploration through the electronic writing marathon, this past summer, I was able to pass on what I’d learned about Nicenet and del.icio.us. Other colleagues who’d explored on their own presented what they’d discovered about interactive websites, Quia (a “create-your-own” educational materials website), and Inspiration (graphic organizing software).

In addition, though our district hired a technology integrationist this year, several staff members have continued to take active roles in sharing technology information. These colleagues often email our staff links to interesting sites (such as a live webcam of an African watering hole, a blogging article from USA Today) or technology “toys” (i.e. a cordless, optical-air mouse). We’ve held before- and after-school mini-sessions covering areas the staff wants more information about, for instance, reviewing how to use shared folders or certain Quia elements. After my students and I dabbled with blogging this fall and winter, I passed along our experiment to English department colleagues, who are eager to try blogs with their students.

Although our middle-school staff continues to face challenges, we have, in a way, established our own “hotline.” Yes, we have a technology support individual, but his hands are often full.

One colleague down the hall requested and wrote down the directions for “fixing” when a student’s “X:” drive seems to have disappeared. I, of course, asked for a copy! A colleague next door inquired about synchronizing issues that plagued her students early in the year; again, she shared what she learned with the staff. An eighth-grade language arts teacher hosting a high school foreign exchange student asked me for advice about setting up a Nicenet class with the purpose of discussing topics with freshmen at the exchange student’s school in Norway. Because our staff has been working and learning together, how convenient it has been to be able to call on a teacher down the hall to answer questions when they crop up!

3) Learn from your students. Let’s face it; when it comes to technology, the kids often know more than we do. Still, it’s difficult to “let go” of our teacher control and allow the students to teach each other and their teachers. When my “first-year laptop seventh graders” and I tried Nicenet, a few students were unable to log in, and their frustrations and mine grew. Finally, one boy checked into the Internet security settings (nope, I didn’t know much about that at the time), determined the appropriate setting, and then the students were good to go. Later in the year, a student wrote his Nicenet response in Word, explaining to me that he wanted to check his mistakes first and then copy and paste his response into Nicenet. Why didn’t I think of that? This, too, eliminated the panic that ensues on the rare occasions when students post a response only to be faced with the ominous words “this page cannot be displayed.”

In addition, during our digital storytelling experiences with Movie Maker, students helped each other add time to specific portions of their projects or work through the steps of saving the project as a movie, giving me, essentially, several aides in the classroom. When we were exploring “tracking changes” in each other’s writing, a student showed me how to “Tile Windows Vertically” or “Horizontally” so that students could see the edited rough draft and work on the final draft at the same time.

This year I’ve given more responsibility to and learned even more from my kids. Before attempting blogging with my students, I showed one or two students out of each of my classes how to post writing and upload images during their student-responsibility block (SRB) so that when we got to those points during class, they’d be ready to help. Now when hands fly up during an activity, I often have students stepping in saying, “I can help him” or “I’ll show her how.” When I didn’t know how to go about a blogging task, I passed the quests on to interested students: “figure this out and let me know how to do it.” My bloggers have taught me how to compress a “too-large” image so that it can be uploaded to one’s blog and how to adjust settings so that a blog’s comments will not be “off.”

Finally, I often ask my students for feedback. Last year I was curious if using Nicenet would improve my students’ attitude toward writing. I discovered that although nearly all of my students expressed that they enjoyed using Nicenet and the majority felt that their response writing improved in quality, attitudes toward writing didn’t change much. One student pointed out that “writing is writing no matter what.” Recently, students finished a research unit that involved more aspects of Nicenet: following a class schedule, conferencing, adding documents, and link sharing. Once the unit wrapped up, I asked students for input so that I could better prepare for my next attempts. I learned that some students liked that they were asked to work more “independently” and enjoyed sharing links with classmates to “cut down on” the amount of time it took to find websites relating to their research topics. Some would have preferred discussing the topics face to face while others liked conferencing with students from my other language arts sections. Next year when I tackle the research unit, I know I need to carve out more time for explaining how to add a document, thanks to students’ suggestions.

4) Be flexible, patient, and prepared. Just because my students now have daily access to laptops, we do not always have it “made in the shade.” Example A: Two or three (or four) students per class are without computers because the laptops are being repaired (which can require as little as an hour or as much as several weeks’ time, depending on the computer’s “injury”). What do I do with those students? Example B: Students diligently working at a website are suddenly “kicked out.” What then? Example C: Students can’t access their work on a certain drive (“It was there at home, but now I can’t find it”). Now what? (No, you don’t need to remind me that “technology is great . . . when it works”.)

The fact is, we have to be flexible, we have to be patient, and we have to be prepared. Ideally, each of my students would have a computer every day of school, but unfortunately, that is not the case. My school did have some extra laptops to be loaned out, but they’re all—well—loaned out. So I do try to have a “Plan B” for my “computer-less” scholars, such as providing a hard copy of an assignment, letting them work with a partner, allowing a trip to the library’s lab, or even letting them move on to another activity. If the Internet “acts up,” I can always divide my class into groups, one using a website while the others read independently or work on another activity, and then switch the groups after a certain amount of time. To avoid wasting precious class time, I quickly learned that if I could troubleshoot some of the common computer issues (i.e. a student’s computer not synchronizing or reconnecting a student to our school’s wireless network), I wouldn’t need to send a student to the “tech guy.” However, I also learned that I did need to give students time within class to use the technology, not dump it on them as homework only to be greeted the next day with “I just didn’t get how to do this, so can you show us again?”

Even during our second year, we still are getting used to how the technology works and how we should work with it. Each day carries a variety of challenges that try our patience, and it’s not uncommon for a teacher to bring up a problem we’ve never before encountered. When my patience runs thin (symptoms my students easily recognize, such as my jaw tightening, fists clenching, and comments about another gray hair), I force myself to refocus and praise my kids for their patience. We don’t give up. Instead, we move on. We try again later. We stay positive, and, eventually, we figure things out.

5) Separate “skinny rabbits” from “fat rabbits.” A few years back, an educator from Iowa spoke to our staff at an in-service; one point she made was not to waste energy on small issues (which she eloquently called “skinny rabbits”) and to be able to tell the difference between the “skinny rabbits” and “fat rabbits” (matters of true importance).

Often, the laptops were, and still are, the hot topic of conversation at lunch or team meetings. Staff members grumbled that students weren’t caring for their computers and their computers were often “in the shop.” A few kids were bypassing security barriers, getting to sites they weren’t supposed to be on; thus, they’d lose computer privileges. One teacher stated she was about ready to give up because three or four students were computer-less each day. In addition, the server, at times, didn’t cooperate when students were using the Internet for research or posting discussion responses, or it took forever for students to log on. Some of the rooms’ LCDs projected slightly off the screen; when could that be fixed? The most common complaint, though, was displeasure in students’ computer settings: wobbly arrows, a hidden start menu, funky fonts everywhere, and background pictures changed multiple times a day.

As I listened to and participated in these conversations, the Iowa educators’ message resurfaced in my mind, and I began to categorize my own “skinny rabbit” laptop issues and “fat rabbit” laptop issues. I asked myself, despite their irritating nature, which “skinny rabbits” could I handle in order to focus on the bigger picture? Surprisingly, I came up with quite a few, including wobbly arrows, funky fonts, and all of the other “cosmetic” experimenting middle-school kids do; my LCD being projected a couple of inches off both sides of the screen (like the tech guy didn’t have enough on his plate); and computer-less students (if three didn’t have them, that means 20-some still did). Yes, these were skinny rabbits, a little annoying, but skinny.

But, shortly after I had shared Nicenet with the English department at my middle school, one colleague emailed me concerns. Her students had discovered the personal messaging element. Was I aware that students could send messages that the teacher couldn’t see? And how would Nicenet know if the person creating a class was really a teacher? Some of her students might create their own class as a space for discussions with friends. Oh no, this was a “fat rabbit” issue! Immediately, I voiced my concerns on the Dakota Writing Project’s E-writing discussion board at Tapped In. The project’s co-director soon responded with far less emotion than I had expected, stating, “Personally, I don’t see that as a bad thing,” and provided the link to an article called “Letting Go: Online Collaboration and Communication in the Classroom.” Okay, my students would experiment in ways I hadn’t anticipated; I wouldn’t be able to “control” that part of their learning. Eventually, I managed to place that concern on the “skinny rabbit” side.

Though there are still times I question the “control” issue (remember my students are blogging this year?), I remind myself that technology experimentation is all part of the process, for teachers and students. Plus, I have “fatter rabbits” to fry—like continuing to explore with my students’ blogs, planning a digital story for second semester, and getting a discussion set up for our Gathering Blue novel.

For the past year and a half, my district has embarked on an extraordinary roller coaster ride into a world that, honestly, hasn’t always been all that “wonderful.” We implemented quickly, only to find out just as quickly how much we didn’t know. Thankfully, much of our staff has “held on” and continues to explore and experiment, evaluate and share. And in many ways, being involved in a laptop initiative has rejuvenated my love for and excitement about teaching. I have been challenged to rethink what I do in the classroom, to discover new ways of doing things, to grow personally and professionally. There will be no answer-all 800-number in this laptop world, but because many of my colleagues have pulled together, I can always check with a colleague down the hall.

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