One of Those Days

Mitch Newman, the technology coordinator at Jackson Middle School, and his assistant, Katie Dietz, struggle to help the faculty integrate new technology into their curricula, while the entire school also wrestles with statewide education standards.

Mitch Newman, the technology coordinator at Jackson Middle School, talks with Neal Jensen, a member of the school’s technology committee.

It appeared that it was going to be one of those days. Mitch hit the snooze alarm too many times and missed his chance for his morning run. He’d picked up the running habit during four years of ROTC during college and six in the Army. This ritual usually geared Mitch up for working the rest of the day as the technology teacher at Jackson School. It was a tough job, but he was used to “being in the trenches” from his time in the military.

Today Mitch was groggy and distracted after spending most of last night filling in the carbon copies of report cards he needed for his 150 students in the computer class. He couldn’t wait until the grading process was automated by the new student information system he was ordering with the school technology committee. He hoped that automating the grading process would provide him with more time to develop lessons plans responsive to the “technology standards of the month” his district was advocating. He also hoped it might free up more time for sleeping!

A bus arrives at Jackson Middle School

The sun was already up when Mitch arrived for morning duty. His slow start made him miss a meeting with Katie Deitz, his technology aide and paraprofessional. It was his only chance to strategize with her before a meeting she was holding with some teachers later in the day. “Ah well, I’ll just have to catch up with her later,” he thought. Already, buses were lurching into the school parking lot. Crowds of students congregated around the school grounds chatting in excited and anxious packs.

In the last few years, crowds had become as common as drinking fountains in the halls of the Bluefield Schools. Following tax breaks granted by the state legislature, several high-tech companies had moved to the area. They hoped that Bluefield’s beautiful scenery and low cost of living would help attract the best and brightest “techies” on the market. As they anticipated, many talented, new employees were drawn to the beautiful, rural New England area from places like Silicon Valley. The businesses had prospered despite problems with the national economy and were anxious to “give back” to the community.

But Bluefield had paid a price for its prosperity. The population had grown by 5,000 people in the last two years alone and was expected to top 20,000 soon. Even with a growing tax base, the local school district had had difficulty dealing with rapid influx of school-aged children since it took time for school buildings to be constructed. “Learning Cottages,” the school committee’s quaint name for the temporary modular classrooms, had sprung up on school playgrounds as fast as toadstools after a spring rain. And the district had become more and more concerned about meeting state standards because of pressure from their business benefactors.

Most teachers complained about the growing class sizes, increased emphasis on standards, the “new kinds” of parents and kids, and the lengthening of the school day, but Mitch’s opinion of the situation was mixed. He couldn’t help acknowledging that the substantial business donations of brand new computer hardware and software had dramatically changed his day-to-day activities. Since he first started teaching in the district five years ago, his lab had been completely transformed. The 15 dusty old PCs with 256 color monitors and 386 processors had been replaced with 35 top-of-the line units connected to a district-wide network and loaded with any software he requested. Of course, he’d had to learn how to use the new machines and figure out what could be taught with them, but as a young, single person he had the time and energy to do so. And he had seen rigid standards work well in the military. He couldn’t imagine what harm they could do in a school.

Mitch had also been thrilled to be granted a full-time assistant. Katie Deitz had been hired two years ago when Mitch’s responsibility increased due to an agreement between the school district’s business partners and the superintendent. There were now mandated computer classes for all students in all grade levels. Working with Katie lightened Mitch’s workload and his step. Mitch had known Katie for years. He’d first met her through a local hiking club and found her to be charming and bright. He was delighted to discover she’d been hired to work with him. Although she, like Mitch, wasn’t a certified teacher, she had more current technical expertise with networking than Mitch. Mitch’s experience in the military had made him an expert with software applications like spreadsheets and databases. Both Katie and Mitch were enrolled in classes at a nearby college with the hopes of fulfilling their teaching certification requirements. Often they drove to class together and commiserated about how uncomfortable they felt with the “teaching” part of their jobs. Neither had any idea about the right way to plan a lesson themselves. Trying to get teachers to plan lessons responsive to the state curriculum standards using appropriate pedagogy was even more daunting.

Aside from Katie, Mitch had trouble identifying with his colleagues. For the most part, they were much less enthusiastic than he was about the rapid changes. Many had been with the school district for years. They were pretty content with their school, their community, and their lives before recent changes. After all, the people in this remote area of the state were not accustomed to rapid change. Tourists following fall leaves—yes, but change—no. Most teachers Mitch worked with were pretty overwhelmed by the new equipment they had received this year. The superintendent and school committee, in a move to impress the increasingly technical school parents and high-tech business partners, had placed five computers in each teachers’ classroom. Some teachers subscribed to the opinion that the additional equipment just took up more space in their already crowded rooms. But Mitch suspected that many teachers had more troubling reasons for resenting the new equipment.

Mitch talks with Neal Jensen.

As Mitch zig-zagged between the chattering students on his way across the school grounds, he noticed a slick black pickup truck in the line of cars waiting to drop students off. When the large vehicle pulled up to the steps in front of him, several giggling teenagers spilled out of the vehicle. Mitch looked up and recognized the driver. Neal Jensen, a member of the school’s technology committee lowered his window.

“Hey, any idea when our next committee meeting is? I looked on the school web site last night but couldn’t find anything about it.”

Mitch felt somewhat embarrassed. “Well Neal, to be honest, things have been pretty hectic lately. I haven’t had a second to update the site in weeks. I’m thinking of getting my eighth grade web design students to do a lot of the work.”

“You know, several of the tech committee parents would be happy to take on the web site. Shirley Stanley’s been itching to take it over since the beginning of the year. She’s a web developer at ‘High-tech Tots.’ You should take her up on her offer. She’d be great! At the very least, she’d make sure that all the words on the teachers’ web pages were spelled correctly. Have you seen Mr. Jablonski’s P.E. page? After Shirley told me about it I had to take a look. On one page, he has five misspelled words! Doesn’t he know how to use a spell checker?”

“Hmmm. I taught him to use a free web editor. It must not have a spell check feature. I thought he was doing well just to get the page up with the sports schedules on it. I’ll think about Shirley’s offer. Maybe we could bring the school web site issue up at the committee meeting tonight?”

Neal was pleased. “Sounds great! I’ll call around and make sure everybody knows we’re on for tonight. A few of us were talking at the soccer game about what we could do to get the teachers moving along with their new machines. Seems like some of the teachers haven’t even figured out where the computer’s power switches are! My kid said that her homeroom teacher told the class she won the “Golden Apple Award for Teaching” before computers were even invented and doesn’t think she needs any computer to improve her teaching. And that’s fine, but she could at least use the computer to keep up with parents. She’s not answering emails at all. Joe Davidson, that “big wig” at the computer manufacturing facility, is a bit miffed. Sounds like he gave her an earful when he ran into her at the grocery store last week! Gotta love living in a small town!”

“You’d better get moving or else these parents will give YOU and earful for slowing down the drop-off line! I’ll see you tonight at seven, Mr. Jensen.”

“And that’s another thing. . . the rules for pick up and drop off procedures should be on the web site too! This operation is an accident waiting to happen!”

Mitch talks with several students—Candice, Mei, Jessica, and Brittany—about the ways computers are being used in their classes.

Familiar faces stood out in the crowded hallway as Mitch walked in the school building after his morning duty. He used to know all the kids in the school. Now he was lucky if he knew half of them. Mei, Candice, and Jessica, three seventh graders he’d taught in the fall, and Brittany, an eighth grade student in his class this semester, waved him over.

“Hey Mr. N. Good to see you!” a tall, thin student named Mei shouted.

“Yeah, we miss your class,” added a short, redhead named Jessica as she snapped some chewing gum. “I wish we could get computer as an elective more than once every three semesters.”

Mitch gave Jessica a stern look and she quickly swallowed her gum to avoid a reprimand.

Mitch winked and said, “Sorry ladies, but you know there isn’t enough space in this school to put in another computer lab, and even if we could, we’d have to hire another teacher. We’re lucky to have Miss Deitz as it is!”

Candice replied, “Yeah, we know. It stinks. We try to see you during the open lab time at lunch but the guys always beat us to the sign up sheets. They’re such jerks. Girls never get a chance to get in the lab with them around. And they hog the computers in class, too. Not that we use them very often.” As she continued, she grew increasingly melodramatic, “Between them and my parents, I’ll end up a bag lady, homeless, living on a curb because I don’t know how to use a computer!!! What will become of me!?”

Click here to see data on computer and information sciences degrees earned by males and females.

Mitch laughed in response saying, “I think it’ll be okay, Candice. What’s with your parents? I thought they worked for E-laminate.com.”

“Yeah, they still do. My dad got promoted and now they’re both telecommuting. So even with two computers in the house I never get a chance to use one. They are always on the computer! And if that weren’t bad enough, they never leave the house anymore! They’re driving me crazy. I wish they still had office jobs!”

Jessica chimed in, “Quit your whining. So, Mr. N., when are you coming to teach with Mrs. Carter?”

Mitch, looking concerned said, “I’m not sure. Any idea when she’s doing another technology lesson? When I met with her a couple of weeks ago she said she’d want my help if she ever did another one.”

A frustrated Jessica retorted, “I bet she never does another technology lesson at all! The last time she used the Internet in class, it was so noisy I thought Carter was going to freak. Thirty-two kids fooling around on the Web and not finding any decent sites. They did find some indecent ones though! Jeremy Fisher ended up finding one by accident and upsetting his parents and everything. That was a mess. I’m sure Mrs. Carter isn’t use to trouble like that. She’s a great teacher.”

“Well,” said Mitch, “Miss Dietz is meeting with Mrs. Carter later today. I’m sure she’ll do what she can to persuade her to try again. How about you Mei? Are you getting to use the computer at all in your classes? What about that accelerated creative writing course you’re in?”

“Well, right now we’re doing a lot of word processing and email. And that’s OK and all. But the teacher keeps saying she isn’t ready to do more than that yet. We want to do a class newspaper on the web. The class we’re doing keypals with in California put up one and its really cool. A couple of kids here already learned how to create web pages from their parents and have server space so they’re making a school newspaper even if the teacher doesn’t want to. (Sounding a bit smug.) I’ve seen it, and its VERRRRY interesting! It definitely has some creative writing. And they’re planning to put up photos of the basketball team and cheerleading squad with students’ names and everything.

“It’s a great way for me to figure out who all my classmates are. I love the page they have with Calvin and Hobbes cartoons on it too. There’s even one cartoon where they’ve made Calvin’s teacher look like Mr. Jablonski!”

Mitch responded, “Hmmmm. I wonder if Mr. Jablonski knows about that. Brittany, things any better in your classroom?”

Brittany, a freckle-faced blonde with blue eye shadow, rolled her eyes. “Well, you know we’ve got the proficiency test coming up in a couple of months. It doesn’t look like the eighth graders are doing anything fun until that’s over.”

As the bell rang, Mitch suggested, “Speaking of over, I think you’d ladies better get off to class or you’ll be staying after school for being tardy!”

Katie Dietz, the school’s technology paraprofessional, talks to language arts teacher Helen Carter, math teacher Gerry Hall, and science teacher Jackie Roberts about their plans to use technology.

The break room was quiet when Katie Dietz walked in. Three teachers awaited her arrival sipping coffee. Each worked quietly, putting the finishing touches on their grade cards.

“Boy, I wish I’d had time to talk to Mitch about this meeting,” Katie thought.

On the ride home from class late last week, Katie and Mitch had mused over how they might implement a new charge from their new principal, Victoria Turner. She challenged them to take a more active role in faculty development. Apparently, the education reporter from the local newspaper had been badgering her lately. He wanted to do a follow-up story on the computer donations made by the business partners earlier in the year. Mitch and Katie seemed like the obvious choices to make some newsworthy events happen in the school.

Victoria had offered Mitch and Katie a cash bonus if the newspaper printed two favorable articles about teachers’ use of computers before the end of the year. After spending some time dreaming up a few dozen ways to spend the extra income, Mitch and Katie had agreed that it might be worthwhile to accept the principal’s challenge. They had good rapport with the faculty, and, although they certainly weren’t education experts, they were likely to be able to make enough of a splash to please the media. They agreed to increase their efforts at professional development with their colleagues. They planned to take turns working on their colleagues starting with those they felt might be most receptive to learning a new thing or two.

So, in response to notes in their mailboxes, three teachers, Gerry Hall, Jackie Roberts, and Helen Carter, were here to meet with Katie.

“Coffee Katie?”

“Sure. Seems like I’m drinking more and more of this stuff these days. I think I need it more now than I used to.”

“You know, I think they really ought to consider setting up ‘I.V.s’ in our classrooms. The coffeepots around this school just don’t stay full any more!”

Katie began, “So, I asked you three to come by today because I want to offer to help you with your plans for computer-based lessons. Ever since the Valley News wrote that story about the new classroom hardware this fall, they’ve been watching pretty closely to see what we’re doing with it. Dr. Turner has put me in charge of helping out however I can. She wants good press if possible. And parents are putting the pressure on too. So, if you need release time or software, Victoria will get it for you. If you want me to help you learn how to use the programs, you’ve got me! After keeping all the workstations and the network running, and helping Mitch with his classes, you’re my top priority!”

“You know Katie, that all sounds fine, but isn’t the Valley News also watching to see how our students do on the proficiency tests this year? You remember that big story last spring—they printed all the area schools’ names with their students’ test results. This year, they threatened to print the teachers’ names too. Jackson didn’t do so well and our old principal put the pressure on us to improve scores. Now this new gal comes in, eager to impress the people with technology. Doesn’t she realize we’re all worried about standards?” Jackie was concerned about tackling too many mandates.

Gerry agreed. “Jackie’s right, Katie. You know I love technology. I mean after all, I’ve had a class web page up for over two years. . . but I’m having some of the same problems Jackie is. I’m really having difficulty figuring out how to integrate the computers into teaching the curriculum standards. Since I’m on the state standards committee, I feel like I have to be an example for how to do this. The other problem I can’t get over is having five computers in my classroom. I figured out how to use one computer with the whole class, and I’m OK when everybody has a computer and is working in the lab; but I don’t have time to experiment with five. I’m not that good at managing or planning lessons with more than one thing going on at a time. And I don’t want to waste my students’ time with ineffective teaching if I don’t know what I’m doing. They shouldn’t have to be guinea pigs for every new innovation that comes into a school should they?”

Helen had a different take on these challenges. “You two can speak for yourselves, but you know the reason I’m not putting those students on the computers again any time soon. They’re not to be trusted. They know ten times more about those machines than I do, and they have a zillion ways to get into trouble when they’re using them. Don’t I have enough trouble managing their behavior without having to worry about what they’re doing on the computer? I’m sure you all know what happened when Jeremy Fisher accidentally accessed that porn site during my fifth-period class. His parents withdrew him from the school altogether. They thought he was better off being home-schooled than being exposed to obscenities in my classroom. I heard through the grapevine that they were also concerned about some of the different types of families moving into the area but I can’t help feeling somewhat responsible. I’ve been teaching for twenty years and nothing like this has ever happened to me before! I feel terrible about it. Jeremy is a bright kid, but I’m not sure his parents are qualified to teach him at home. Plus living as far out in the county as they do, he doesn’t see other kids much except at school.”

“Really Katie, I wonder if it’s really worthwhile to use these machines in school anyway. I mean there doesn’t seem to be any data showing that they really improve learning. I suppose it is possible that it is too soon to tell, but maybe technology in schools does more harm than good. And here at Jackson, most of the new kids seem to have computers at home now. I suppose the kids from families that have lived in the area forever are a bit behind the times, but if you look at the unofficial school newspaper on the web you’ll see that those seventh graders who created it know what they’re doing. I’ve never seen anything like it. Their writing isn’t perfect but they’ve got the technical end down pat! They know how to scan and modify graphics and everything. Did they learn that in your class? They’ve got a hilarious cartoon of Jablonski on one page. It’s not very complimentary, but it is clever,” Gerry added.

Katie felt more than a little overwhelmed by this conversation. She decided to make a quick exit to consult Mitch about a strategy. “I haven’t gotten to modifying graphics yet. I want to make sure I know all the copyright laws before I do. But I’ll have to check that newspaper out. It’s the second time I’ve heard about it today. You know, you’ve made some excellent points and highlighted some really important concerns. Let me think about them, talk to Mitch and the district technology director, and see what we can figure out. Now at least I understand where you’re coming from.”

Katie got up and headed out to talk to Mitch. . .”How do I explain this one to him?” she thought. So much for the bonuses!

Mitch attends a staff meeting at the end of the school day and discusses standardized test scores with a group of teachers.

Katie was relieved when the final bell rang. It had been a really long day. She’d jumped right into to helping Mitch with the seventh period class after her meeting with Jackie, Gerry, and Helen and didn’t have time to talk to Mitch about the outcome of the meeting. It was weighing on her mind as she and Mitch walked through the crowded hallways to the staff room for their Tuesday faculty meeting.

“Hey Mitch, remind me to tell you about the results of my meeting with Jackie, Helen, and Gerry,” she said.

Mitch, navigating through crowds of students responded, “How’d it go? I’m sorry we didn’t get to strategize about it beforehand. Seems like I haven’t had a second to talk with you all day. Isn’t it crazy that we work together for six hours without sharing a constructive thought?”

“Yes. But this is a crazy place. We can talk about it over dinner tonight. . . nah, I won’t want to talk about it then. To make a long story short, Helen, Gerry and Jackie had some pretty legitimate concerns about using the new computers. I couldn’t help sympathizing with them. So, that’s where we are. More later!” Katie said as they entered the staff room.

The room was already full, and Dr. Turner started to talk as soon as they grabbed a chair.

Dr. Victoria Turner

“In today’s meeting, I hope that we’ll get a chance as a team to grapple with an issue I know is important to all of us—our performance on the state proficiency test. Ever since I took this job as the principal of this school, I’ve worked hard to support you and serve our constituents. Last week, it was brought to my attention at a district-wide meeting that Jackson School’s test scores have fluctuated dramatically in the last six years and are currently at their lowest level. In the newspaper, coverage on standards has been about as frequent as it has been on technology. And our academic performance has also been a discussion at most of the the business roundtable meetings I’ve attended with the Chamber of Commerce. So, this makes them an important issue for all of us.

“What I’d like to accomplish in this week’s meeting is an analysis of the pattern of our test scores over the last six years. I’m going to divide you up into groups and ask you to look at some of the data from our student’s performance over the last few years. I’ll give you 30 minutes to analyze. Then I’d like you to take the remaining 30 minutes of the meeting to go into the computer lab and answer some questions based on the data. Each group can do this together and turn the work into me tomorrow morning. Then during next week’s meeting, I’d like you to meet again in your groups and see if you can come up with some strategies for improving our test scores. I’ll provide pizza and pop to fuel your efforts and the group with the best suggestions for improving scores will get an extra personal day. Are there any questions?”

The staff stared at the principal in disbelief. They weren’t accustomed to thinking this way at faculty meetings. No one, Mitch and Katie included, said a word as Victoria glided around the room distributing a packet of papers to each table of teachers and put them to work. She lingered for a few minutes to answer any questions and then headed to the office to attend to other responsibilities.

Mitch and Katie talk with Victoria Turner, the school principal, about the technology committee meeting planned for that evening.

An hour later, Katie and Mitch, worn out from the mental gymnastics at the staff meeting, were silent on their way to meet with the principal to plan the evening’s technology meeting. “This day is longer than the first day of boot camp,” Mitch thought.

The school secretary, a phone to her ear, looked at her watch and waved them into Victoria’s office. Her office was clean and well-ordered, with more than its fair share of diplomas and awards on the wall. Victoria Turner sat poised at her desk with a laptop in front of her. She looked up and smiled.

Mitch spoke first, “So Victoria, how goes it? You ready to plan tonight’s technology committee meeting?”

Victoria replied, “Hi Mitch and Katie. . .I think I’m ready, but before I forget, Neal, that parent on the technology committee, asked if we could fix the problems on Mr. Jablonski’s PE page. Can one of you two go in and fix his page up for him?”

Mitch and Katie looked at each other and exchanged frustrated looks. Katie spoke, “Well Victoria, we’d like to do that. Only since we don’t have a school internet server yet, we told Jablonski to put his PE web page up on a free commercial server. And now he’s the only one who can access it to change it. If we’re going to fix the problems we’ll have to tell him how many misspelled words he has on there and risk embarrassing him. And that might be kind of a delicate situation since we don’t want to dampen his enthusiasm to use technology.”

Victoria replied quickly, “Well, I’ll let you two figure out how to deal with the situation. You’ve been working with Jablonski longer than I have. Just know you’ve got my support whatever you decide to do. I’ve got other problems to deal with. Just today, I’ve put in the order for the new web-based student information system, dealt with two students accused of plagiarizing work from a multimedia encyclopedia, and fielded two complaints from school board members about some “underground newspaper” called the “Jackson Retraction.” Did you two know about it? Some students put it together at somebody’s house after school. I also had a meeting with Helen Carter who apparently got chewed out by some parent at the grocery store because she wasn’t answering his emails. I think I’m definitely ready to plan. What items would you put on the agenda?”

Mitch and Katie looked at each other. Katie responded, “That’s a good question. There’s no shortage of things to discuss…”