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Bob Sipchen / SCHOOL ME

High, Low or No Tech, It's the Teacher, Stupid!

July 24, 2006|Bob Sipchen

The teacher's blah-blah-blah sent my brain swooning toward hibernate mode. I slumped into the flesh-toned plastic chair, propped an elbow on the laminate wood desktop and fought back panic.

I knew the fear was irrational. "You're an adult, a journalist on assignment!" I told myself. "Your pals aren't really out there having a total blast playing while you suffer."

Even now, you see, it's hard for me to discuss the trauma that summer school boredom inflicted on my young psyche. Entering that classroom rekindled the pain.

Here's what's bizarre, though: Before I could escape into guilty slumber, I found myself paying attention. In a classroom. On a hot summer day.

And it wasn't the hand puppets that saved me from stultifying ennui. It was the teacher. She captured my attention without so much as a state-of-the-art interactive whiteboard with edit-as-you-go video clips.

Which brings me to today's subject: Teachers and technology.

My July 10 column, written from an education and computing conference in San Diego, chided schools for a Luddite-like refusal to take young peoples' techno-sophistication and entertainment addiction into account.

Thanks to the relatively new technology of the Internet, a rippin' good discussion of that subject has been unfolding at this column's blog. So far the online debate among students, parents, teachers and crabby citizens is ping-ponging from gung-ho geekery to traditionalist scoffing, with hurtful assaults on my eggshell-like ego thrown in: "The LA Times, great paper that it is, should probably start attacking the problem by finding writers for this subject who don't mock their subject matter."

A few excerpts:

"Computers and media, especially in early childhood and up through 7th-8th grade, do more harm than good.... Being active, hearing stories, using the imagination is critical to well-rounded kids."

"The problem is that exploring Internet links is so easy and tempting, it is difficult to stay focused. In science and engineering, much learning comes from working problems. I am worried that many students spend more time searching for a solution they can copy than working the problem themselves."

"Let the burden of proof fall on technology's touts, who should be made to demonstrate (with uncooked statistics) that a new gadget will assist student learning."

"Tools of all kinds have helped mankind ... for centuries. We have some new tools at our disposal that should be used in this process of making meaning of the world ... not on being entertained or distracted."

The blog debate came back to me as I sat in that classroom, where a master teacher from Alaska was applying her techniques for teaching Russian to a group of kindergartners as 20 Hebrew and Arabic instructors watched.

She taught entirely in Russian, and in spite of the bad attitude I'd brought to the class, I found myself drawn in.

The teacher commanded with respectful confidence. She passed out clay folklore figures the children had created, and, looking each child in the eye, gently but firmly coaxed them into naming the colors in Russian.

Modulating her voice like an actress, she rewarded each correct answer with prompt praise and invited classmates to help those who stumbled.

The class moved quickly. In a seamless finale, the teacher gave the children hand puppets -- wolves, pigs, a wrinkled grandma -- and led them to a simple cardboard theater.

One by one the kids moved their puppets' mouths up and down, presenting a folk tale's dialogue in whispery Russian. The simple sentences connected into a plot, and the children seemed amazed at their accomplishment.

I didn't understand the play much, but the teaching riveted me. And darned if I didn't learn several Russian words.

Now, it might have been cool if the teacher had videotaped the puppetry, let the kids edit it and then discussed it as it played on an interactive whiteboard.

But the day's lesson for me was this: The most important part of teaching is (OK, everyone, hold your hand up like a puppet and make it say "duh!") ... the teacher.

That doesn't mean schools should eschew technology. Even a master needs good tools, and I'm willing to bet that a few hundred years back some cranky monk in a monastery school criticized hand puppets as too high-tech, too entertaining, a threat to all that pedagogy holds serious and sacred.

But let's first make sure teachers have the relatively rare skill to engage students personally, then encourage them as they decide when and how to use new gadgetry to enhance their look-'em-in-the-eye talents.

To join the discussion on technology and teaching or to tell us a favorite summer school tale, please visit

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