Wednesday, June 29, 2011

technology, culture and creativity

At ISTE (for those of you who have no idea what I'm talking about ISTE is the International Socieity for Technology in Education who just held a conference in Philly), my awesome think-tank co-workers Clairvoy, Jenny, and I gave a presentation on our school's on-line student newspaper. The paper was Clairvoy's brainchild and Jenny and I were along to represent the work the rest of the school has done in getting students involved and published on the site.

Throughout the presentation countless parents told me "I wish my child's school was doing this", or "I hope when my children are in elementary school they'll have this sort of instruction instead of worksheets". Me too, I agreed, rubbing my growing stomach. Will my daughter end up at a think-tank school with innovation and student-focused learning, or a school falling back into the traditional worksheet model because it's safer and easier for teachers, administrators, and policy makers?

The newspaper was something Clairvoy started this year and it's been exciting to watch it grow as students and teachers turn it into exactly what they want it to be. Numerous people at the poster sessions walked away wide-eyed telling us, "Wow, this is really the forefront of education."  It was nice to hear, but at the think-tank it's almost old hat. We forget how lucky we are to work with so many other motivated teachers.

As I chatted with attendees about the benefits of our online paper I found myself thinking about some of the parents I worked with this year. They were parents who wanted their children to have the best, yet their perception of the best and ours was widely different. They themselves had attended urban elementary schools and had parents who fought for them at every step of the way in order to help them be successful. One even mentioned to me that in her eyes that is what good parents do- fight the teachers in order to get the best for their child. These parents seemed to bring an innate lack of trust of school officials and teachers because of their background. Most likely if you'd grown up in those schools you wouldn't trust school officials either.

Yet these parents wanted an old school approach for their children. They would prefer to see worksheets and round robin reading as opposed to age-appropriate learning centers and research-based guided reading. They were unfamiliar with our methods and no amount of explaining current research in education would calm them.  What they experienced in schools was worksheets and what they wanted for their children were worksheets. Each of these parents had worked hard to be where they are today- they had faced adversity and had overcome. It makes sense then that what they want for their children is the same thing- and since they were successful with their experience they want their children to be successful by following the same path.

To them the on-line newspaper was nothing impressive, nor was any of the other technology we used in the classroom. Promoting creativity was not something they wanted to hear about during parent-teacher conferences. They wanted rote memorization in order to know whether or not their children were learning the material at hand. These parents certainly made me reflect on what we each want to get out of the education of our students- much of our expectations are built from our past experiences and reference points.

As I chatted with Angela Watson in the bloggers cafe on Tuesday she noted that little was mentioned about using technology in urban schools at ISTE. True, I started to realize, many of the schools engaged in the most creative uses of technology were not from highly urban areas. There were exceptions, the think-tank included, but urban schools and the culture and environment they bring with them were not a focus.

Many urban schools do not have the resources for some of the technology available, and if they have purchased the technology they do not have the staff to support the teachers in learning to maximize the use of the technology. These schools come with their own sort of issues and technology demands. Do the children have access to the technology at home? How do they interact with technology outside of school?  Do their parents use technology to communicate with school?

These are certainly questions that need to be discussed, yet the more I thought about it the more I realized that the culture of urban schools inspires a different use of technology as well. Friends who teach in inner-city DC tell me that they are frequently faced with parents who bring similar concerns as my parents this year. They don't want to hear about their child expressing themselves or writing a book for fun, they want to know how their child is performing based on assessments that measure rote memorization. There is technology out there that facilitates rote memorization and skill and drill learning. And that's not a bad thing- sometimes it is exactly what students need. But it is certainly not the only thing it can be used for.

 Is there a culture that does not expect or promote creativity in urban schools? With our current education policies are we promoting that culture even further, pushing our most at-risk schools to put aside teaching problem solving and creativity in order to learn rote facts? Why are our middle and upper-class schools able to participate in creativity within their lessons but our inner city children are not?

How do we bridge the gap between teaching the problem solving, free thinking, and creativity children need to succeed in life in our urban schools while still meeting the cultural expectations of old-school teaching methods?


Robert said...

I teach in an urban area in the SF Bay Area... I definitely had parents coming to me concerned that their kids were just playing with iPods in class. But I invited them in to see during Back to School night and a family night to introduce the tools we use. I'm glad I stumbled upon your blog, because it seems like you are doing many of things I am trying to do. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Don't forget, urban parents have a reason to worry that their children are not being taught basic skills -- whatever its faults, NCLB has made the contrast between urban (and rural) and wealtheir schools much more transparent. I think it's important to reassure urban parents that the skills ARE being taught (by worksheets or by other methods) and that the children also need to use those skills in activities like your on-line newspaper in order to cement them and learn to enjoy them.

organized chaos said...

Anonymous, you're right- it is completely understandable why they have that perspective, and any of us would share that perspective with them if they came up through those schools. I think it is important to recognize where they are coming from and understand the background- it's not us personally, it's years of history. In the early grades helping parents understand what we are doing is more likely to be hit with resistance simply because it is the first time they've heard it. All the explanations, parent workshops, meetings with literacy coaches, and discussions may not sway them their first year in elementary school- it's going to take a couple years of hearing it to break down the wall that's built up from years of mistrust.

Shannon said...

I have a question about the on-line newspaper. I'm the techie at my school trying to get the other teachers to do "cool stuff" that is innovative rather than worksheets. I'm interested in this on-line newspaper idea. Can I get more info or a website address? Thanks!

organized chaos said...

Shannon, do you have an email address where I can email you? If you put it in the comments here I just wont publish it when it comes through.
You can see the website at