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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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The Best of Times: And They May Only Be Getting Better

The other day, I was trying to explain to my husband how this is both the worst of times and the best of times to be a teacher. Never before has society expected so much from public education. We are asked to close achievement gaps that exist long before our students even start school. We are held accountable for the physical and emotional well-being of our students as well. All this in the face of increased demands like testing that sometimes seems to have little to do with the art of teaching and learning.

Despite these challenges, for me it is the best of times to be in the classroom. I have access to research galore about how kids learn best. I have knowledge and skills in using best practices that allow me to engage my students and excite them about learning.

But best of all I no longer feel the pressure to restrict my students' classroom experiences to what I feel competent doing. I am present in the classroom in my most comfortable role -- that of a learner. Most of the time that involves either learning from or with my students and some form of technology.

My transformation began in the 1980s when several Apple IIe's were deposited around my school. There was not much training for the teachers to show them the ways they could be used. Most of us figured computers would find a niche in the world of banking or government but that there would be little impact on the day-to-day life in a classroom.

So the computers just sat week after week without doing much -- just like some of my most unmotivated students. Somewhere along their academic careers they had become convinced they could not write. Some had motor issues, which made their handwriting illegible. They had merged their limitations in the physical act of writing with what they had to say. By seventh grade it was a difficult task to convince them otherwise. But one child, Anthony, taught me the potential power this dark beige box held within its 8-megabyte memory.

On the one or two days a week his grandmother was able to make him come to school, he sat at a table in the back of the class. It was the farthest spot from me and the rest of the class and the closest to the door. It was also the same table where the computer had been placed. One day, I noticed Anthony had discovered how to turn the computer on (something I had not yet done). He sat mesmerized as the lime-green text appeared on the black screen. The next day he showed up at school again (his third day that week), pushed his chair up closer to the computer, turned it on, and began to explore. He wasn't learning what I had planned to teach that day, but he was learning what he needed to know.

By the end of the second week he was asking to stay after school so he could type his writing assignments. He was now writing four to five complete sentences on the computer compared to the four or five words he typically generated by hand. I would hear the rhythmic whine of the dot-matrix printer and then see Anthony grin as he held his paper up for me to see. "Doesn't it look good?" he proclaimed with pride. This was the first time I had seen him excited about anything besides lunch, the dismissal bell, or being called to the office to be sent home.

One day (the fifth school day in a row for Anthony), he asked if I wanted him to teach me what he had learned. By this time Anthony had inducted several other fringe students into his private club. They, too, delighted in learning to do something no one else knew how to do. I just had to join, and together we hit the technology trail.

On the last day of school that year, after the good-bye hugs had been given and the halls were cleared, I found on my desk a typed thank-you letter from Anthony. It was ten well-elaborated sentences that told about how good it felt to finally be able to write. I really needed to thank him for helping me to get a small glimpse of the powerful potential of technology in helping students to learn not only content but also self-confidence and prideful ownership of their own learning.

Through purposeful, thoughtful integration of content and technology, I feel we can reach many more of the outliers that we see in our classes every day and help them make connections between what they are learning in school and the literacies of their real lives. Things have really changed since then. My students and I have learned to use interactive whiteboards and electronic portfolios, online discussion groups and podcasts, hypertext and hyperlink -- all to help stoke the fires for learning in my students and in me.

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