From Chalk Dust to SMART Boards

When you reminisce about “those glorious days of old,” as my high school song calls our four years in high school, do you remember the chalk dust floating in the air and glinting when the fluorescent lights met the sunlight just right?  Do you remember when teachers always had chalk on their hands and usually on their clothes too?  That is what I remember.  Fast-forward quite a few years and travel with me to my son’s kindergarten classroom.  Imagine my shock when I discovered the teacher now used awhiteboard.  I was happy for her since it meant that she would not have to deal with chalk dust anymore.  When my son Lucas reached fourth grade, the teachers were using SMART boards.  His classroom also sported a computer center, an audiovisual center, and the more traditional learning centers in which students used printed materials.  When I went to observe his fourth grade class, I watched as groups of children went to their centers and worked in groups on various projects.  The teacher did not have to hover over them, as they all knew how to run the machines and what they were supposed to do.  Meanwhile, the teacher could focus on a reading group.  I was impressed.  In two months, I would start student teaching.  I thought to myself,


“Will I be able to manage controlled chaos like this?”

I did not know it at the time, but I was questioning my teacher “with-it-ness.” Lucas’ teacher had “with-it-ness” mastered.  She had eyes in the back of her head, atop her ears, and in the usual place.  She did not need to use them that day because the students knew they were there.  As I progressed through student teaching, I noted with admiration that all of my cooperating teachers had “with-it-ness” mastered as well.

The major difference between the choreography I witnessed and the choreography required when I was student teaching was that I was dealing with young adults, not fourth graders.  From my days as a trainer, I knew how to coordinate technology and adult students on an individual or two-person basis, but I had little experience with small groups such as what I saw in my son Lucas’ classroom.  The results of my attempts at group work were mixed.  Sometimes things went well.  Other times, they did not go so well.  I reflected on the results and I think there were a few different factors at work.

The Sociocultural Factors. First, I think that I could have done a better job preparing the students for the group work.  As a teacher committed to sociocultural pedagogy, I realize now that I could have engaged the students in cognitive apprenticeship more thoroughly than I did.  If I could do it again, I think I would have spent more time setting up the space and the process.  A tip for student teachers: if you want to integrate complex technology into your lesson plans, make sure you have enough time.

Second, I think the students were not into the content enough at times to use their time wisely.  In teacher terms – some students were not engaged.  Although the results were great, generally, I think they could have gained more from the experience than they did.  From this realization, I decided that next time I would work harder on making the content more interesting.  Here I should mention something important: know your students well enough to plan activities for them that will instantly capture and hold their attention.  I learned my lesson the first semester and started the second by surveying the seventh graders on their interests.  This helped me to build activities that resonated with them more than the previous set of students.  It was not perfect, but it was better.

Then there is the unavoidable technological failure. Always prepare for technology failure!  I did have backup plans if the lesson did not go well with the technology available – after the first debacle.  The technology failures contributed to the students’ frustration with the activity and hampered my ability to manage the classroom.  Once the technology failed that first time, and I had no backup plan to save my lesson, my teacher “with-it-ness” dissolved into panic.  A tip for student teachers: Have some sort of backup prepared in case the technology decides to go on vacation.

You can do many wonderful activities with your students that involve technology.  Here is a short list, with references to sites that will give you more information.