Monday, August 29, 2011

Seeing Technology as an Equalizer Allowing Pride and Power, by Laura

Blown by the winds of Irene, we are back to school--or at least the faculty are. It seems as though we took a summer hiatus from blogging here, though I did blog about my family trip to Australia, if that garners any interest. Before the days grow too much shorter and too much fuller with the new school year, I want to share some thoughts about the equalizing and transformative effect of technology on some students that I worked with this summer.

One professional activity of my summer was piloting a summer writing program for middle school students through my local Writing Project, The Hudson Valley Writing Project. The program was hosted by Poughkeepsie Day School, which graciously let the program's participants use space and school equipment for the week.

My co-teacher and I worked with the most diverse group of students, by almost any demographic measure, that I have ever been privileged to teach. We worked together to build a class community right from the first day. Every student had access to a laptop, whether they owned one or not. Every student was given an account, through the school, for the week, so that they could access the Google apps that worked so well for collaboration and editing.

With Google apps equalizing the participants, everyone had a voice right from the start. Which type of computer and how old it was became of little interest to our students as the community moved on-line.  We kept them busy with different prompts and different applications, and moving to new on-line environments refreshed the writing process in much the same way that changing physical location can help generate a writer's new ideas.As they shared work on-line, students were freed from some of the self-consciousness that can make middle school such a harrowing time.  The young writers naturally focused on their own and each others work.  Technology smoothed some obvious differences in language ability and maturity levels, and our class grew close by the end of the very first day.

When we took a field trip to nearby Vassar College, we provided students with cameras so that they would be able to use their photos as prompts, and perhaps as a basis for digital photostories.  Their excitement was powerful.  In less than three days of working together, we could see students begin to compose their photostories as they took pictures. Technology made it possible to quickly add the visual, an important literacy for students to develop.

Although we used some programs, like Photostory and iMovie that were on the computers, we also introduced on-line applications.  A few chose to use JayCut, an on-line video editing program.  [I was terribly dismayed to read on Richard Byrne's excellent blog Free Technology for Teachers, that JayCut has been bought by RIM and may not be available in the future.]  This program was a great equalizer since any student who did not have a laptop, had the chance to work on movie editing wherever and whenever they did have access to a computer.  Some of our students did not have computers or internet access at home; but as one boy enthusiastically told me, "I know!  I can go to the public library!" 

The programs and on-line applications added polish very quickly to the pieces that our students chose to share on our last afternoon together.  Everyone had an audio and visual component to their presentation.  Everyone was able to share work that had both substance and style-- in the best sense.  It made them powerful and  it made them proud.

I saw transformation in the space of five days with our students.  They grew into a community of young writers where the diversity in the community was a strength, and through the use of computers, we were able to minimize differences that would have made inequities more pronounced.  Because I teach in a 1:1 laptop middle school, it can be harder for me to see a profound "transformation" on a student by student basis over such a short period.  While I am proud of my school year students' work, I don't witness the technological world opening to them for the first time, simply because by middle school, each of my students has almost always had plenty of access to the internet and  many applications.

While I was listening with enjoyment to the summer writers present their work last July, I also grew wistful.  Some of them have probably not had access to a keyboard or the internet since that week.  I wish that the creativity and thoughtfulness that they showed during our time together, will influence their new school years.  I wish they had daily access to the technology of our week together.  I wish that any teacher who can give technological access to students this year, will give access to students this year.  I wish that these students, as well as the ones I will begin to work with in the new school year, will have many more opportunities to feel pride and power.