“Technology” is one of the buzzwords suggested as a key to making quality education accessible for all students in America. Being passionate about creating an exciting and challenging learning environment for my students, I’ve tried to embrace the new innovations that have come my way. I recently had the opportunity to attend ISTE 2014 (The International Society for Technology in Education annual conference), and I was excited to find ways that technology can enhance the academic experience for me and my students. The conference was overwhelming. From the enormous Expo hall with over 500 exhibits to the many people walking around wearing Google glass, I was in tech heaven. Surely the tools to break educational barriers could be found here, right? However, at the end of the weekend, I found myself reflecting on what I had seen from a very different perspective.
As I sat down for the opening keynote, I was surprised to find that it would be delivered by the actress, Ashley Judd; however, I was ready to be inspired by new ways to use technology in order to open the doors of education to all students. Well, Ms. Judd did not have any compelling “21st Century” approaches to learning to share. Instead, she spoke at length about her traumatic childhood, one that included sexual abuse and neglect, and how school provided the only consistency for many years. She shared from her heart about the teachers that “saved her life” by paying attention and noticing that she was facing unique challenges inside and outside the classroom. It was a touching speech, but I was still looking for the next great computer program or digital device that would transform my classroom. I missed the point.
I spent the next three days attending sessions during which knowledgeable educators shared tips and tricks for incorporating technology into instruction: how to turn your classroom into a “Makerspace;” 30 new ways to use Google; how digital literacy can close the achievement gap; tech tools for collecting and managing data. It was all very informative and interesting. I took many notes and wrote down countless websites, but something was missing. No matter how hard I tried, I did not feel the excitement I expected to feel; the passion just wasn’t there.
There were two distinct moments when I felt the stirring I was looking for, and they were unexpected. The first was when I saw a group of students presenting to adults about cool ways they are using technology in their classroom. Honestly, I can’t even remember what they were demonstrating, but the excitement in this diverse group of faces is what I remember. I loved seeing kids being part of the discussion. The cool tools and devices were just machines and computer programs until they got into the hands of kids. Then, they became like magic wands opening up whole new worlds of knowledge.
The second experience happened on the last day in the Expo hall. I was visiting random booths when I heard a commotion at the other end of the hall. I followed the sound of drumbeats (yes, drumbeats) and kids cheering, only to find Ron Clark and a group of students from Ron Clark Academy demonstrating a lesson while a large group of teachers watched. Sure, they were using some innovative technology, but that wasn’t what drew the attention and applause of the educators around them. It was the enthusiastic relationship between teacher and students, and it drew me in, too.
As I walked away from that wonderful lesson, I pondered what had been missing from the conference for me, and I realized that it was what I had just witnessed — students, the very thing that must be at the heart of everything we do as educators. Technology is cool, and we should embrace the opportunity to enhance our instructional practice, but if we are not careful to keep our focus on the hearts and minds of kids, those technology tools will become just another distraction from the real needs of our students. I think maybe Ashley Judd’s message was more appropriate than I realized. We — teachers — have to build relationships with our students; we have to know what is really going on with them before any computer program is going to be effective.
Ginger Lehmann teaches American Literature and Writers’ Workshop at Clarke Central High School in Athens, Georgia, where she serves on the School Improvement Leadership Team and the Technology Committee. She formerly participated in the Red Clay Writing Project Summer Institute (a local chapter of the National Writing Project), and now serves on the RCWP Leadership Board. Ginger serves as an adviser to the Clarke Central Poetry Club, and teacher for the Red Clay Writing Camp. She is the 2014 recipient of the Walter Allen award for excellence in teaching from the Foundation for Excellence in Education organization in Athens.