Pandora’s Box

First grade teacher Maxie Ferndon tries to overcome her jealousy when her colleague Judith receives a SMARTBoard to support her ESOL students. Maxie is forced to collaborate more closely with the object of her envy to meet district expectations for technology-enhanced instruction.

First grade teacher Maxie Ferndon envies her colleague’s skill at procuring technology for use in her classroom.

It felt a little strange being envious of Mrs. Shearborn, when I’d spent years feeling rather sorry for her. But there it was. The green monster.

ESOL teacher Judith Shearborn was looking forward to having her own classroom for the first time in years.

Mrs. Shearborn sure didn’t seem like anyone I’d be jealous of. As Gloucester’s one ESOL teacher, she serviced students in each grade, meeting with them for part of each day in the pull-out model our district followed. Taking a few students from each general ed classroom, she’d focus on language skills before sending them back to class. For years, she’d traveled from room to room, using a cart overflowing with puppets, books, and videos to engage her students, some of whom had almost no previous exposure to English, and some who had never been to school before. She always looked tired to me as she rushed with her brimming cart down the hall to whichever closet-sized room was her next scheduled classroom.

But it was a new Mrs. Shearborn I saw in the halls these days. She seemed so excited and proud the first time she unlocked the door opposite mine, and that didn’t change as the year went on. That’s right – as our immigrant population burgeoned, she finally got a classroom last year, and her teaching was rejuvenated as a result. It was terrific for her and terrific to see. That wasn’t the problem. Technology was.

See Gloucester Elementary School Demographics below:

We all had at least one computer in our rooms as part of our district’s technology initiative, and I was pretty proud that I’d managed to pull together four more from cast-offs and donations. My room had a learning center that could accommodate five students individually, and I usually rotated students through as the rest of the class worked on other things.

See Gloucester’s District Technology Initiative below:

Mrs. Shearborn had gone one step further. She’d spent what must have been all of her planning time plus hours at home writing for grants and had come up with enough computers to equip her entire classroom. Of course, she had at most a dozen students at any one time, about half as many as I usually had. That didn’t really bother me, though.

What woke my green monster was when an enormous cardboard box was delivered to the teacher workroom in mid-August, addressed to Judith Shearborn. Impossible to ignore both because of its size and location blocking access to the copiers, I was enormously intrigued. When I finally found her cell phone number the next day and reached her at her beach house, she sounded completely nonchalant about it.

“It got here? Great! Would you mind moving it into your classroom until Monday? I promise I’ll take care of it first thing.”

She didn’t add any details, and I didn’t feel like I could ask, so I had to wait until Monday, which arrived soon enough. After the usual fanfare of the first faculty meeting of the new school year – new t-shirt and mug, donut overload – we headed down the hall to my room.

When she saw the box, she actually giggled like one of my first-graders. “I can’t believe it’s so huge. I always forget how much stuff they throw in to protect these things. What fun!”

And with that she grabbed a pair of scissors off the desk and began the unveiling of what turned out to be the source of my envy. Swathed in Styrofoam, it was mainly most impressive for its size, but as she talked, I realized just what it was that she had achieved.

Alexandria recently arrived from Russia and would soon be joining her new classmates at Gloucester Elementary School.

“You know Colby Martin?” The name was familiar, but I couldn’t quite place it. “He owns the dealership out on Route 7, the one across from Taco Bell. Well, he and his wife adopted a little girl from Russia last spring and I think” – here she crossed her fingers – “they’re just about to pick up their second child there as we speak. Anyway, the girl, her name is Alexandria, will be starting with us here and so the Martins were in to see me in June. And they were saying how they really wanted to do something to help her learn English better and faster and remember that SMART Board conference? I mentioned it to them and,” she was talking faster and faster as she undid the final layers of wrapping. “And they said they’d donate one to our school!”

“Just like that? Aren’t they thousands of dollars?”

“I know, must be nice, right? But they want the best for their daughter and they want her at Gloucester, so they put their money where their mouth is, so to speak. I wasn’t sure they’d really come through until I got your call. Just in time for the new year!”

Some of what I was feeling must have showed on my face. Glancing over at me, she added, “You can borrow it when I’m not using it with my students. Really, you’re my partner, right?”

I nodded, feeling guilty about the little collaboration we did as “partners.” The administration was careful to schedule at least some overlapping planning time during the week to supplement the weekly after-school team meetings we were required to attend, but other concerns always seemed to take precedence. Our collaborations usually ended up being little more than me handing her a copy of my plan book for the week. Still, it seemed to work out well enough. She was good at reinforcing what we were doing in class and quick to follow up on my concerns about individual students.

I helped her lug her sleek new SMART Board across the hall and position it at the front of the classroom. “Won’t the children be so excited when they see this? I just think they’ll love it.”

Despite her reluctance, Maxie is forced into a more collaborative role with Judith Shearborn.

I surreptitiously snuck a glance at my watch. My team had been reviewing student concerns for the past hour, and what had begun as a valid discussion had turned into a cross between a gripe session about difficult students and gossip about tragic ones. At least they were winding down now. Maybe I’d have time to fit in a work-out between school and home, where developing my new science unit plan would eat up the bulk of my evening.

Just then, Judith Shearborn made a rather breathless appearance. “So sorry I’m late. I was meeting with Helen Washington from downtown. She wants me to present at our next inservice about the SMART Board. And she wants us to track its effectiveness. Actually,” she gave a self-deprecating grin which failed to hide just how pleased she was, “she wants to use me as a test case. You know, getting research on improvements in students’ ESOL progress using a high-tech teaching approach versus a more traditional format. We’ll use my reading test results from two years ago and compare them to student scores this year.”

Eloise Merton, our lead teacher, seemed thrilled. “Oh, Judith, that’s wonderful. You’ve always done such a good job with the ESOL kids. It will be great for them.”

Then Judith turned to me. “I’ll need your help, too, Maxie. We’re going to have to find time to really plan out our units.”

I raised my eyebrows at that, but she kept right on going.

“Helen’s agreed to pay for a sub to cover your class so you can come observe, you know, see what goes on with the SMART Board, and then figure out how we can link up our curriculums better. Won’t that be great?” She actually looked like she thought she had done me a favor.

I couldn’t believe that she and Helen had planned all this without even consulting me.

After observing Judith’s reading lesson, Maxie is puzzled. Was Judith’s use of technology really that different from more traditional approaches?

“Mrs. Ferndon,” Alexandria smiled at me both shyly and mischievously. “Read the dinosaur book?” She was one of my favorites this year, not only because I was touched by the story of her adoption and prior life as an orphan in Russia, but because I loved to see her sparkle when she opened up a bit. Although she was still hesitant to speak in front of the class or even in small groups of native speakers, one-on-one she was much more conversational, so I usually found time throughout the day to help her individually and regularly paired her with just one peer. Between my class, her parents, and daily time in Judith’s class, her English was developing quickly and I knew she could understand most of what went on. I was fairly certain she’d place out of ESOL by the end of second grade.

Click here to see the English Standards of Learning for Grade One.

Alexandria went to the side book shelf, returning with The Big Book of Dinosaurs and the plastic baggie of felt dinosaurs that went with it. She had read this book a number of times and had most of the information memorized. I’d shown her a few websites about dinosaurs, and she clearly had prior experience with a mouse, as she negotiated the screen quite nimbly. She was most concerned with how each dinosaur escaped from danger, and after reading the book, she’d quietly stage various predator and prey scenarios with the felt dinosaurs. I sometimes followed up with writing activities and the sentences she was constructing were quite impressive. Last week I transcribed, “I ride ornithomimus,” one of the fastest dinosaurs, “to escape if T. rex come after me.”

Click here to view All About Dinosaurs, a site Maxie uses with Alexandria and her other students.

I must say her parents followed up on whatever we did in class, in this instance, taking her to a natural history museum and buying dinosaur books.

But I still didn’t have a SMART Board like Judith.

At parent conferences, we’d talked about ways to help Alexandria, and I’d hinted heavily about how effective technology was at enhancing lessons and providing individualized instructional support. Their response had both puzzled and irritated me.

“Have you used the SMART Board we donated yet?” Her father, Colby, had asked.

“Well, no, it’s in Mrs. Shearborn’s classroom.”

“Can’t you move it to your classroom for part of the day? We really want Alexandria to have access to lessons using it as much as possible. That’s why we gave it to the school.” He sounded a bit exasperated with me.

The thought of disconnecting all those cords, transporting the behemoth across the hall, reconnecting everything, and then doing the same process in reverse, all while monitoring students, sent a shudder down my spine. Did he really think Judith and I should and could share?

But he was serious and he obviously had clout. He’d gone to Helen Washington, Director of Curriculum and Instruction for the county, who had sent me yet another email regarding the collaboration Judith and I were supposed to be working on, along with a copy of our technology standards for K-2 students and teachers. Helen had even gone ahead and hired a sub for the past two Wednesday afternoons so that I could observe Judith working with Alexandria and her classmates. Our follow-up meeting was scheduled for this Wednesday, when we were supposed to develop a more integrated unit than our usual slapdash “plan.”

Click here to review the K-2 Performance Indicators for Technology-literate Students that Helen sent Maxie.

One of Judith’s students interacts with the SMART Board during the lesson Maxie observes.

It had been an interesting experience sitting in Judith’s room as students I normally saw as shy and silent waved hands excitedly and eagerly participated. But, to be honest, it was the SMART Board that held my attention and not what the students were doing. It was just so cool! With its large illuminated screen, it compelled not just my focus, but that of the students as well.

I left Judith’s room abuzz with ideas and full of enthusiasm. If only I had a SMART Board in my room! It just didn’t seem fair that she had the only one.

I slipped back into my classroom to jot down ideas while the sub attempted to finish up the lesson and end the day. Settling into my desk in the back of the room, I opened my notebook and began chewing on my pen as I mulled over what I’d seen. Glancing around the room, I saw that Alexandria had slipped away from the group and was surreptitiously playing with the felt dinosaurs in another corner. As I watched her maneuver the figures, I began to wonder about Judith’s lesson. It was great to see the kids becoming more comfortable with the literacy terms we’d been studying and being able to correctly sort the characters from the two stories. But was the lesson really that revolutionary?

Judith and I were supposed to meet next week. I was sure Judith expected the rave reviews and positive feedback she usually got. I didn’t want her to get defensive, but I was feeling the pressure from both Helen Washington and Colby Martin. If we really were going to integrate both our curriculums and our technology according to the standards Helen sent me, we would have to do things differently.

As I struggled to muster enthusiasm for working with Judith, I thought back to the arrival of the big box last summer. How little I realized then the problems it would create.

Click here to review the Education Technology Standards and Performance Indicators for All Teachers.