This week, I spent an afternoon in a “good” high school. I was there to show the English department some tech tools they could bring into their teaching. The afternoon started with the usual stop at the front desk to sign in. At this school though, they don’t don’t just look at your license, they take it. The young woman at the desk earnestly explained that it was for my safety and the safety of the school. I asked how her holding my license had anything to do with school safety. She had no answer but her smile was bright and cheery.
The halls were wide. The floors gleamed. The walls were concrete. Beige. Outside the main office, a few glassed cases held vivid student art. As I walked further into the building, only beige, punctuated by the occasional classroom door. Inside each square concrete classroom, the teacher stood in front of rows of students. Dutiful, silent, students. As I walked, a teacher’s voice floated after me, laying out key dates and what sounded like assignments. I was back in my own high school and with each step further into the building, a little bit more of me died. I reminded myself that I would leave in only five hours.The students, however, would come back tomorrow.
In a class I was visiting before the faculty meeting began, the walls of one side of the room were lined with big posters of book covers: The Scarlet Letter. Antigone, several others. There was technology in that classroom, a lone computer where the teacher sat to enter attendance. TurnItIn, attendance– most of the school technology was used for policing.
About an hour before the workshop, I settled into the computer lab, which was about a billion degrees. I wanted to bring up all the sites I would talk about with the teachers. Two-thirds of the sites, all of which I had asked about the week before, all of which had been accessible then, were blocked. By the time the miracle-worker technology specialist had arranged for access, I had about twenty minutes to get organized.
You see, nothing I was going to do that day would counter the culture of the school. The assembly line would keep rolling, spitting out kids at regular intervals. Never mind that outside the cinderblock walls, the world doesn’t work that way any more. I told the teachers about the TV commercial I had seen the night before, where the guy had spent the entire day out of the office, conducting complex business via his cell phone: conference calls with clients in different countries, information funneled from one part of the business to him, him adding his chunk before sending it on, meetings scheduled, documents sent. “Out There,” I said, motioning toward the windows, “outside these very fixed concrete walls, that’s what’s happening. How does what we’re doing in here match up?”
I don’t know if they got it. Oh, some did. But I suspect they’d already gotten it before I’d arrived.
Three moments stand out for me. One, the sound of a coach on the field outside our window, screaming at a student.
Next, showing teachers screenjelly.com and talking about how a colleague of mine uses it to comment on student work. “Oh, man,” said one teacher, rolling her eyes, “can you see us telling them what we really say about their papers?” She turned to the friend sitting beside her and pretended to be recording. I couldn’t hear what she said, but I will tell you her tone was mean, spiteful.
Finally, back in the faculty office, the Wordle moment of truth. A teacher had entered the text of two long poems and printed out the results. She laid them on her desk, positively giddy with excitement. “These are tomorrow’s quiz,” she said. “All they have to do is write the title, the author.” Another teacher let out a hoot. “You’ve found a whole new way to get ’em,” she said, shaking her head in amusement. “Only you….”
We all joke about our kids. Cynicism is a great way to make it through a bad day. But in this so-called “good” school, I got the feeling that many of the teachers just didn’t like the kids. No, not just that. They didn’t hold them in high regard. They just plain didn’t love them. What they did love was their subject, the poems, the plays, the literature, and they were going to beat it into those kids if it took four years.
This “good” school– it’s what we’re aspiring to as we Race to the Top? Scream for merit pay, “better” teachers?
My teensy, secret satisfaction is simply this. You bring web-based technology into a classroom and the balance of power is bound to shift, if only because one person cannot control the spirit of twenty kids who now have the power to create.
I’m rooting for the kids.