I still vividly remember the day a few years ago when I came home and announced to my wife that, “I quit!”
I was an elementary technology teacher, and I was done with teaching.
Maybe it was because my wife was a middle school principal at the time and had dealt with teacher meltdowns before, or maybe it was because my wife was my wife and knew my limitations -- anyway she just looked up and said, “Okay.”
It wasn't just one particular thing that set me off; it was the culmination of many things that caused me to become disenchanted with teaching. I remember thinking to myself in many different teaching situations that this, “wasn't what I signed up for.” I was turning into another cynical teacher — one who realizes that perhaps the mountain to education reform was just too big and too steep to conquer.
My wife gave me some time to cool-down before discussing my options. She started by asking me to explain what was so wrong with my job. I thought about her question for a moment and then explained that I had thought that technology would make my classroom so much better – students should be well-behaved and lessons should be amazing because after all, I was using technology.
I was a tech teacher for crying out loud — this should be my dream job!
After many different conversations on the matter over the period of a couple of weeks, I decided not to quit my job. I decided instead to change my job.
The problem, as I soon figured out, was not the technology itself, but it was instead what we did with the technology that matters. Teachers who take their infamous worksheets that they have had since the 90's and just make a Google form out of them aren't exactly embracing the capabilities of technology. The status-quo does not get better with technology -- in fact, I would argue it gets worse. So the hard reality is that teaching does not get better with technology per-se; we as teachers must use the technology as a tool to make things better.
My second problem was that I thought technology would make better students, but it doesn't. Students who are not challenged will turn in so-so tech assignments. Students who are not challenged will be bored and cause trouble. Don't believe me? Tell your students you will now be reviewing how to make bullet points in Word — step-by-step for 60 long minutes. Watch how quickly your class falls apart. I came to realize that to our students technology can be really boring because we are not challenging them with it.
So I started to search the web for educators who were doing great things with students and technology.
I clearly remember the first time I saw an unbelievable technology project made by young students. I was searching the Internet for information about podcasting, and eventually I came across a website that had a middle school principal who had done a few podcasts. His name was Dr. Tim Tyson and at the time he was the principal of the Mabry Middle School in Marietta, GA.
My research into podcasting continued as I was lead to his school’s website (he still keeps it archived at www.MabryOnline.org). I was amazed to see how much this principal was podcasting, but that was not the unbelievable part. What happened next changed me as a teacher for the rest of my life.
While on the Mabry website, I saw a link to their 2007 film festival. I clicked the link and soon I was watching the film-work his middle school students had done. I was blown-away to say the least. I had never seen this type of quality work from college students, let alone middle schoolers.
Within days I was on the phone to Dr. Tyson asking him all sorts of questions. Starting with the biggest one I had, “Who really made those movies?” He told me in a matter-of-fact tone that his students had. I told him I didn’t believe him. He laughed and explained to me that he gets that a lot. He assured me that they had a high expectation when it came to the tech projects that the students make at his middle school. At Mabry they do not allow their students to do sloppy film work. Instead, they needed to follow a quality checklist with areas like sound, lighting, etc. He went on to explain that most teachers allow students to do poor work when it comes to tech projects because they don’t know what to look for; after all they are (insert subject area here) teachers, not filmmakers. He went on to explain that you don’t need to go to film school to know what makes a good video. He stressed that a student should not be allowed to turn in a video that looks like it was shot during an earthquake or has such poor lighting or sound that you cannot see or hear what is going on. And he did this back in 2007!
It was like he flipped a switch inside of me. I had no idea that young students were capable of such great work. Here I was an elementary tech teacher and now I knew what I wanted my students to do. I wanted them to make such incredible technology projects that people would be calling me someday asking who really made them. I wanted people to say, “There is no way a third grader took that great photo.” Or ask, “How many grownups helped make that movie about the civil war?” What I wanted were unbelievable tech projects for my elementary students. I wanted to push my students to do great work with technology, not just mediocre work. I wanted them to do projects that they could put in their digital portfolios and say with pride years later, “Yeah. I made this movie when I was in elementary school, pretty cool, huh?”
This is what I wanted, but where was I to begin?
Like many teachers, I had never studied filmmaking, graphic design or web programming. However, allowing students to do a poor tech project was like letting them write stories and allowing them to do anything they want – any way they want.
Poor grammar – sure.
Spelling errors – yup.
Bad punctuation – you bet.
Or, it is like allowing students to solve math problems any way they want – no order of operations, no learning your times tables, etc. We as teachers would never allow this to happen in our other projects even if the students worked hard at it. We would correct them and teach them the proper way. Yet, when it comes to projects that use technology, we allow bad presentations, videos, podcasts, web pages, etc. to be made by our students. All because as teachers, we have no idea what to look for and how to grade these projects.
The biggest problem is that when it comes to technology, the tables are turned, and we consider the students to be the experts and we, as the teacher, are the learners. We are intimidated by our students, after all, they know live in this world and we are only tourists. But the reality is that technology actually makes our role as teacher more important than ever and not obsolete. We, as their teachers need to step up and show our students how to use technology better. So what I needed now was a way to get students to be experts with technology, even if I myself was not an expert.
To get better technology projects, we need to demand better technology projects. No different than what we expect from their projects in reading, writing, math, science, geography, etc. We must demand the very best technology projects from our students. The employment-world they will soon be entering into will expect nothing less than this.