Can I Be Both a Technophile and a Luddite?

Is it possible to be both a technophile and a Luddite?

I taught high school English from 1999-2001. That was during the era when the rallying cry for technology in education was, “A Computer in Every Classroom.”

And my response was, “Why?”

You know, because I’m a Luddite.

I taught in an almost brand new school building, and one of the points of pride for that rural district, which, incidentally, had immense teacher turnover because it couldn’t pay its starting teachers a living wage, was that it had “a computer in every classroom” at the new high school. And yes, there, at the back of my classroom, were two desktop computers. No printer, mind you (and not even access to a network printer). But two computers, ostensibly for student use.

Maybe I could have made better use of them — in fact, looking back, I’m sure I could have, but for the most part, the two student computers were a distraction, a classroom management nightmare. The kids were drawn to them, but not to support the language arts curriculum. Rather, they wanted to check their email, to play games, or to just goof around. Granted, I was brand new at classroom management (looking back, I think I should have just unplugged them unless they were part of a lesson plan), but I didn’t have the self-confidence as a new teacher to do that (and I didn’t want to inadvertently upset an administrator who wanted to see them on).

But what was the point of having two computers in my language arts classroom? I spent a lot of time working with students on developing thesis statements, and on helping them to gather evidence and develop arguments to support their theses. I spent a lot of time doing close textual analysis with my students of the books and poems we read.  I taught some grammar, and worked extensively on vocabulary.  I facilitated class discussions, and encouraged debate.  I designed group projects and activities.  I would have loved to have brought my students to a well-equipped computer lab that would have allowed them to type and edit their essays. But as I recall, we didn’t have a computer lab available for classroom teachers to use on a sign-up basis. We just had two computers. In every classroom. Because that was useful.

The United States and world maps on my bulletin board got a lot of use. I bought those with my own money. The inexpensive paperback dictionaries and thesaurus and rhyming dictionaries got a lot of use. I bought those with my own money, too.  But for me and my style of teaching, the two computers were useless.

I have no doubt that it would have been helpful to have had four or five computers so that I could have designed lessons requiring small groups to rotate through stations, one of which would have included the computers.  But two computers?  Not so helpful.  Frankly, I’d have preferred to have none.

The computers in my classroom had no software (other than MS Word) to support language arts education.

But our politicians were happy. Our school board members were happy. Because we had “a computer in every classroom.”

Are computers (and related technology) the keys to student success?

Will computers and technology, alone, boost student achievement?

Computers and technology might help. I don’t know. I think the jury is still out.

But a rare point of agreement I see on all sides of the current education policy debates is that good teachers boost student achievement. Even if we can’t define what constitutes good teaching, we know that teachers matter. People matter. Human interaction — it matters.

I am all for the use of technology to support and supplement learning.

But inspiration comes from human interaction, not iPads.

That is not to say that I think the iPads are useless for supporting learning. Quite the opposite!

Indeed, as a parent, in the past few years, I’ve found the iPad to be an invaluable tool to support my children’s learning. We have dozens and dozens of education-focused apps on the two iPads our family owns, and we’ve used them for everything from learning foreign languages to inspiring my daughter’s interest in epidemiology (at the moment she’s torn between whether she wants to be an epidemiologist or a math teacher).  My five year old loves to dissect frogs and rats.  She loves to learn about the human body.

For instance, while my oldest learned to read with Bob Books as her primary resource (other than me), my youngest and I sit together and work through the Reading Raven apps. That’s a fundamental change in their reading instruction (there was no iPad when my oldest learned to read), and they’re only four years apart. But in working through the phonics of Reading Raven, I quickly discovered that I need to sit at my daughter’s side and stop her from “gaming” the game by avoiding the hard work of sounding out words and reading them into the app (which kids can definitely do). Reading Raven on the iPad is a valuable tool; however, it is pretty much useless without adult support and interaction. That has been true for many of the education apps I’ve purchased, especially those aimed at young children.  I wonder how many early education teachers have encountered similar issues.  Maybe we should ask them (before buying technology for their classrooms).

The iPad has been invaluable for math as well. For my little one, I am a fan of Native Numbers and the math portions of the Teach Me apps. I could do a whole blog post just about math apps for my oldest, but some of the highlights are the arithmetic drills of Instant Interactive’s Math Drills, the fun of Factor Samurai, the beauty of Algebra Touch, the entertainment of Operation Math, and so on, and so on.

And I haven’t even mentioned the Squeebles apps, which are so popular with my kids that they have their own folder on the iPad, nor the amazing Splash Math apps, each of which covers a whole year’s math curriculum (although my older one groans about firing them up). And then there is Motion Math, and Lobster Diver, and Hungry Fish. I’ve been able to not only assist my eldest to drill and excel on the basics (e.g., math facts), but I’ve gotten help from apps in assisting her to see, intuit, and understand concepts that my explanations alone couldn’t help her to fully grasp (e.g., negative numbers and fractions).

In addition, broader technology offerings have helped my oldest to solve problems and learn skills. For instance, when she struggled with the question of why 0/3 is 0, but 3/0 is “undefined,” a frantic plea to my Facebook friends was answered by, among others, a college friend who is an astrophysicist, and a former math teacher colleague (he now teaches physics). Those two generated an explanation I could relay to her that relied on only 3rd grade level math, but nonetheless made sense to her. We’ve also used Khan Academy for area and perimeter, and countless websites for various research projects (although I’ve had to do a lot of supplementing the school curriculum on the issue of how we determine which websites are reliable sources of information).

We have dozens of apps that teach various science and social studies topics, that let my kids browse works of art, tune their musical instruments, and practice their Spanish and Hebrew. I grew up with an Apple II+ computer in my house starting in 3rd or 4th grade, and although I am far from a techie, I can’t imagine not having technology play a significant role in my kids’ lives, including — perhaps especially — their educations.

So yes, I’m a technophile. I think there is amazing educational technology out there. We should make technology resources available to all teachers and students to support classroom learning. In fact, I think there are some things that technology does better than traditional paper and pencil can.

But just like the answer isn’t always “a computer in every classroom,” I think we need to be thoughtful about the technology we bring into classrooms.

We need to not only say, “Wow!” to new technology, but we need to always be asking, “Why?”

Most critically, we need to remember that technology can’t replace the human interaction between teachers and students.

For instance, rather than slogans like “a computer in every classroom,” it makes much more sense to me to have sufficient computer labs and iPad carts to make the technology available to whole classes at the same time. A teacher who is doing a technology-based lesson should be able to sign up for an iPad cart or a tech lab. But a teacher who is not doing a technology-based lesson should have the option — without getting labeled a Luddite — to teach in a traditional classroom free of high-tech distractions. Our kids need both.

As parents, as community members, and as taxpayers, we need to support our teachers, including supporting our teachers’ use of technology as one tool — among many — in their toolkits. But it is a waste for everyone involved when a district makes technology purchasing decisions that aren’t teacher driven. Our teachers know what will work for them and their students in their classrooms.  That’s why I support teacher-requested projects through (although it would be even better if our teachers had the budgets to pay for those projects without donor help).  

As a parent, it seems to me that too often these days, we treat our teachers as technology’s tools, rather than the other way around. We need to trust our teachers’ professional judgment, and not impose technology on them for the sake of technology. We need to make sure that our teachers’ focus is on the quality of our children’s skills, and not on the gee-whiz value of the embedded gifs in their PowerPoint projects. I’d rather see a thoughtful and well-reasoned handwritten essay free of grammar and spelling mistakes than a fancy PowerPoint riddled with careless errors and so focused on mastering the technology that it fails to display careful thought or reasoned argument.

I’d rather our teachers tell us what they need for their classrooms.

What really worries me is looking at our local school budget and seeing that we are downsizing the staffing line items (e.g., for instructional aides) while we increase the technology line items. At my last local board meeting, I heard a group of our elementary school teachers ask the Board for many things, but instructional aides and reading support people were much higher on their list than new technology (although to be fair, they certainly said that the antiquated technology at their “Science & Technology Magnet” was a problem).

I am all for technology in schools, and I think that positing staff vs. technology is a false choice. We can staff our schools appropriately, and we can fund appropriate technology if we get away from catchy slogans like “a Smart Board in every classroom” or “an iPad for every student.” Choices about classroom technology should be driven by teachers’ requests and instructional needs — which may vary substantially from teacher to teacher, and not by computer-based standardized testing concerns. Yet, here, at least, it seems to be quite the opposite, as our district’s business manager is quoted as saying that the district has a sense of urgency because the state-mandated PARCC assessments will require students to take the tests online.

As parents and as taxpayers, upcoming standardized tests aren’t acceptable reasons for choosing technology over teachers.

If we have to make a choice, the choice is simple: pick people over technology. There’s really no contest.

And before we go buying technology for the sake of technology, we taxpayers need to stop saying “Wow!” and start asking “Why?”

Maybe we’ll like the answers, but we won’t know until we start asking the questions.

From Thinking to Action

So today I sent the following email to each and every member of my local Board of Education, as well as to key administrators from our local school district.  If you are concerned about these issues, I urge you to do the same.  And as you’ll see from the text of my email (below), I addressed the many points we have in common.  Please speak out, write letters to the editor, etc.  But also, please try to do it in a way that builds consensus and creates bridges, rather than in a way that demonizes our public servants, who, after all, are trying (misguided as we might think they are sometimes) to serve the public.  As any teacher worth his or her salt knows, we are not going to teach anyone (much less persuade anyone), if we make them feel alienated and defensive.

So here’s what I wrote:

Dear Members of the Montclair Board of Education (and selected members of the Montclair Central Services Office):
First, I want to say thank you for all of your hard work.  Serving as a school board member in a town like Montclair is a thankless task, as every decision you make is going to be second-guessed by someone.  So I want to say thank you for your hard work in this thankless job, and to express my appreciation for the work that you do, even if I don’t always agree with all of the decisions that you make.
Second, I want to thank the District/Board for making the decision (which Gail Clarke discussed at the Hillside School PTA/parents’ meeting re: Common Core) to say thank you, but no thank you, to having Montclair students participate in this year’s field testing of the PARCC assessments.  We are undergoing a lot of change in the district this year, and I am glad that you made the decision not to heap that additional change onto our students and teachers this academic year.
Third, I wanted to raise some of my concerns about the new PARCC assessments, which Montclair isn’t field-testing this year, but which will, as of now, be administered to all New Jersey/Montclair Public School students in 2014-2015.  Here is a link to a blog post I recent wrote, which features a video of my daughter attempting to complete a PARCC math assessment item on the iPad:
I note that since that video was shot on Sunday, PARCC has apparently revised their website, and the general public now needs a username and password (and perhaps an iPad app) to access these sample assessment items “in their intended environment.”  I have written to PARCC requesting such access and more information about this change.  Perhaps the iPad app will solve the problems demonstrated in the video, and if so, I think that’s terrific, but I can’t try it as of now, so I don’t know.  I can tell you that if the interface doesn’t change substantially for the better from the one my daughter tried on the iPad on Sunday, I will seriously consider seeing if I can opt her out of those assessments (and encourage my friends and neighbors to do the same).  As a former teacher, I am not opposed to assessing kids, but I am opposed to making decisions based on failures of technology rather than failures of learning.  
Finally, I attended the 2/24 Board of Education meeting in its entirety, and I appreciate your time and attention to the speakers there, especially to the discussion from the Watchung teachers.  I hope that you will take those concerns seriously.  To that end, I direct you to a piece I recently published in The Washington Post, which implores our policy makers — that means all of you — to listen to and learn from our mostly wonderful teachers.  It was inspired in part (as was my blog more generally) by the local concerns I’ve seen with the relationship between our teachers, our administrators, our school board, our students, and our parents in the past 12-18 months.  No one is blameless here, and I think we can all do better.  I implore you to try.
Thank you for your time and attention to this email.  
Best regards,
Sarah Blaine 

PARCC Online

UPDATE March 6, 2014:

I had a moment to check the PARCC website today while eating lunch, and saw that the sample test questions appear to once again be available “in their intended environment.”  

I urge you to go try them out for yourselves.  


UPDATE March  4, 2014:

I went to try the assessments on the PARCC website again this morning.  I discovered that although they still have webpages (linked below) that say that these materials are available to be tried, when I tried them I was taken to a page to download an iPad app.  I downloaded the app, but I cannot run it without a username and a password, which I don’t have.  I tried using “guest” and received an error message.  There was also an option to bypass the iPad app download page and proceed online, so I tried that as well.  When I did so, I was again taken to a login page, and prompted for a username and password.  I again tried “guest” and was booted.  As a result, it does not appear that as of now, other members of the public can replicate the experience we had with these materials this weekend.  If they are fixing the problems, more power to them, I say.  

I clicked on the “Contact Us” tab on PARCC’s webpage, and sent an email to PARCC regarding this issue.  It is reproduced below.  I will let you know if and when I receive a response.



So here is a link to a video I shot of my 9 year old daughter this afternoon.

First, go watch the video.

Please, please, please do this now.  

As I’ve previously written (and will write more), I have some concerns about the genesis of the Common Core and some quibbles about the details of what we’re asking of our students.  But as I’ve also previously written, I am not “anti-Common Core,” and in fact, I think there is a lot of good to be said for establishing a floor-level of knowledge and skills that all of our students should have and be able to demonstrate.  My concerns revolve around:

(1) whether that floor will become a ceiling;

(2)  how we’re implementing our new Common Core;

(3)  my quibbles about the details of what is and what is not covered (for instance, I tend to fall in the camp that would prefer that our kids learn to write in cursive, but I also acknowledge that reasonable minds may differ on this point, and if the democratic consensus is against teaching cursive, I am comfortable living with that — and supplementing at home as I see fit); and

(4) most critically, how we are measuring our children’s progress toward achieving the Common Core State Standards.

As I am sure the majority of my readers are aware, the ~46 states that have adopted the CCSS have joined one of two consortia for developing standardized tests intended to measure students’ progress toward meeting the CCSS standards.  My state, New Jersey, has joined PARCC, which is the “Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.”  According to PARCC’s website, the 17 PARCC states (plus the District of Columbia and two U.S. territories) collectively educate about 22 million students.  If my math is correct, that means that a year from now, when the PARCC assessments go online for all students in the 2014-2015 academic year, the PARCC assessments will be assessing somewhere in the neighborhood of 16-17 million children annually (22 million / 13 grades x 10 grades that are going to be subject to testing since testing doesn’t start until 3rd grade).

This spring (about two months from now), the PARCC field test will be administered to about one million students.  As you may be aware, the PARCC tests are not the Number 2 pencil fill-in-the-bubble tests of our youth.  Rather, these tests will be taken entirely online.

Sample question prototypes are currently available online through the PARCC website.  The website has a link that allows you to, and I quote: “Try out sample test questions in their intended environment.”

So I did.

And I was frustrated.  Immensely frustrated.

But then I realized that no one is going to care about my descriptions of my frustration with “the sample test questions in their intended environment.”  But maybe someone will care about my daughter’s frustration.  After all, she’s 9.  She’s currently in third grade.  She will be taking these tests a year from now.  And she’s a good kid, she’s a strong student, and she is game to try new things.

So I asked her to try one of the sample questions.  A few minutes in, when I got a sense of how frustrating the process was for her, I asked her permission to video her attempts to get the interface to work.  She agreed, and hopefully the video is showing up here, because my description of how this process went can’t do it justice.

So that no one claims that I am gaming the system by not meeting technology specifications, etc., here is what I can tell you about what systems we are running, etc.:

I am not a tech-y type person, but I had her do this on an iPad3, I think it is.  Maybe it’s an iPad 4.  I’m honestly not sure.  Anyway, my iPad is one that has 128G of storage and a lightning connector.  I bought it in June of 2013.  It is running the latest version of iOS 7 (iOS 7.0.6) (I checked).  It is a wireless-only iPad, so I was using its wireless connection to connect to our home network, which is a Verizon Fios network with a Verizon-provided wireless router.  I generally experience little-to-no lag on my iPad or home computer, and can stream movies, etc., with ease.  The point of all of this is that I really don’t think that the problems you will see with the lag and the website are on our end.  I really don’t.

According to the PARCC website, the “computer operating system and web browser requirements for viewing the Sample Items are the same as those for the general TestNav platform” (whatever that is).  There is a link to a “complete list of supported systems.”  The formatting is slightly different for reasons that escape me (although I just copied it with copy & paste), but this is a table that appears on that link:

Tablet/Other OS TestNav App
iOS 6
iOS 7
Must be running Chrome OS 33



So again, my daughter did this on a recent iPad running the latest version of iOS7, which is a supported system according to the test makers’ own website.

Here is a screenshot of the problem she worked on in the video.

This problem isn’t particularly hard, right?  In fact, I think it’s about right for 3rd graders.  

For Part A, we know that Elena has 5 beads, and that Damian has 8 more beads than Elena.  So Damian has 5 + 8 = 13 beads, right?

So far, so good.  Now we also know that Trish has 4 times as many beads as Damian.  Since we know that Damian has 13 beads, we know that Trish has 13 x 4 = 52 beads.  

For Part B, we know that Elena has 5 beads, Damian has 13 beads, and Trish has 52 beads.  In addition, we know that after distributing the beads, Mrs. Morales had 10 beads left.  

Therefore, Mrs. Morales started with 5 + 13 + 52 + 10 = 80 beads.  

Her problem was not the math.  Her problem was not figuring out the right answers (although we do see how having to switch back and forth between paper and screen is distracting and more likely to lead to transcription and/or careless errors).  But perhaps that is a skill we’re also trying to test the third graders for?  No?  Well, it’s not a terrible skill to learn.  

Her problem, however, was typing what she knew into the iPad program.

Did you see how many times she had to switch back and forth between various entry formats?

Did you see the lag when she tried to type in her explanation of the problem?

Did you see?

I named this blog “Parenting the Core” for a reason: my primary intention is to write about teaching and learning in the era of the Common Core from a parent’s perspective.  Because it was education-related, I wrote and posted my teacher’s manifesto, which went viral.  But while I do not pretend to understand the pressures faced by our children’s teachers in the current environment, I can speak to the pressures I’m seeing in my house as a parent — and that my child is feeling as a student.  

And what I am seeing (which you’ve all hopefully seen now as well) is that I have some serious issues (simply from a technological perspective) with the proposed PARCC assessments.  You know, the ones that over a million U.S. students will be field testing two months from now.  The ones running on a platform that apparently fails to register letters or registers additional letters as our kids try to type.  The ones that require our third graders to switch back and forth between various input formats numerous times as they try to answer a math problem.  

The ones that made me, an adult, so frustrated that I wanted to throw my iPad out the window.

The ones I never would have dreamed in a million years of opting my daughter out of.  At least not before today.