At a recent conference, I witnessed something rare: Four schoolteachers holding an audience of corporate executives rapt with stories of how kids are learning with technology. Bigwigs from Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, Sun Microsystems, Compaq, America Online--they were all there, riveted, as one by one the teachers took the microphone to describe ordinary days at school.
The occasion was Technology & Learning magazine's 13th annual Teacher of the Year reception, and these were the top winners. None of them was used to public speaking--except in a classroom, of course--but they knew their business and were happy to share.
Alesia Slocumb-Bradford teaches middle-school math in Washington, D.C., the right place to be for a teacher seeking a challenge. Because she's concerned about the underrepresentation of African Americans in math, science and technology, she makes sure her kids get plenty of practice in real-world explorations, such as the Internet's effect on advertising or how a local traffic bottleneck might be alleviated. She also has her students incorporate technology in other ways, such as using graphing calculators and software to manipulate mathematical functions and geometric figures in ways not possible with a pencil and paper.
Slocumb-Bradford also sponsors some after-school programs, such as the Computer Technology Club, the Robotics Team and the Stock Market/Investment Club. Her students build robots from Lego blocks and use computers to operate them, learning the C++ programming language along the way. They also use the Internet to research and trade stocks during a 10-week competition sponsored by the Securities Industry Foundation--and have ranked in the top 10 for the last few years. Slocumb-Bradford said she has a hard time getting the kids to go home at the end of the day.
In Shelbyville, Tenn., Betsy Norris and her sixth-graders are too busy using computer software, digital cameras, scanners and the Internet to spend much time bubbling in ditto sheets and reviewing practice questions for the standardized tests that have nearly taken over the curricula at many schools.
Instead, Norris' students conduct research, build Web sites, translate documents into other languages and create PowerPoint presentations on what they learn. Funny thing: Their test scores are improving along the way. Norris also trains teachers in technology, oversees the computer club and school Web page, writes technology grants, repairs donated computers and teaches night classes at the state technology center. She describes herself as "fortunate" for getting the chance to make learning a fun and customized experience for her students.
Sally Irons, a Niles, Mich., high school teacher, is paid an extra $300 a year to solve basically all the school's computer problems, train staff on newly installed software, offer telephone and on-site support and educate the campus on computer-related issues.
It was her new baby and the subsequent time crunch that got her thinking about using students to train teachers instead of trying to do it all herself. So Irons created some computer courses, including LAN Maintenance and Trouble-Shooting, Advanced Systems Analysis, Computer Programming and Computer Presentations. Now the kids maintain the school's 500 computers and learn the business applications of Microsoft Office and 3D animation programs. At the end of the two-year program, students know enough to pass the A+ certification program, the industry standard for computer technicians.
Katherine McNeil remembers how it felt to be labeled a "poor" student and told that she might as well get married because there would be no college in her future. It wasn't until years later that her learning disability was diagnosed. Today, the Renton, Wash., educator uses the word "honored" when she talks about teaching students diagnosed with the most severe behavioral disorders and a history of suspension and failure.
She describes her middle-schoolers as "warehoused," "frustrated," "disillusioned" and "disenfranchised." McNeil said she believes that technology has become the education equalizer for her students. Simple word-processing and spell-checking applications make it possible for some of these kids to write a legible paper for the first time in their lives.
Because McNeil has promised her students she won't teach them anything they couldn't use in a real job, they stay current by reading newspapers online. They also check stock reports on the Internet and record gains and losses on a spreadsheet.
Some critics say that technology does not belong in schools, that it detracts from learning, even dehumanizes the experience. These four teachers use technology in their classes. But when they talk about what they do every day, it isn't about bits or bytes, chips or cables. It's about teaching kids.
Susan McLester is editor of Technology & Learning magazine.