The Webs We Weave

Fourth-grade teacher Sarah Faraday wrestles with problems of integrating new technologies into her teaching. Whoever said it would be easy? The case highlights the sometimes confusing, not infrequently contradictory relationships among teachers, administrators, parents, students, and colleagues.

Sarah Faraday uses the mobile lab for a student activity period, so she can complete some paperwork.

Sarah hadn’t had a break all day. Report cards were due tomorrow for the 5th grade, and she still had grades to average and comments to write. She’d been planning to introduce a keyboarding lesson during 7th period, but she needed time to get grades done. The kids needed a break, too. They were pretty comfortable with the laptops, so she decided to let them choose their favorite software program to work on while she finished up.

Twenty minutes into the period, Sarah saw Jennifer Harris’s father at the door. He waved to Jennifer, who was busy with the Oregon Trail simulation and explained to Sarah that he needed to pick Jennifer up for her dentist appointment. He then walked over to his daughter, glanced at her computer screen, and asked, “You guys studying the western migration?”

Before Sarah could say anything, Jennifer replied, “Oh, hi, Dad. This is just a game. Miss Faraday told us we could play today so long as we’re good.”

Mr. Harris shot her an intense glance, and Sarah cringed.

This was her first year at Andrew Jackson and her third year of teaching. Her first job had been at a private school, but when she’d relocated to a university town, she sought out a public school with a more diverse student population. Andrew Jackson had more resources, too, including two new mobile laptop labs. This wasn’t a draw for Sarah, though. She was doing her best, but technology integration was pretty low on her priority list as she tackled her first year in such a different setting.

Jennifer spends some time with Sarah before school.

Sarah wanted to follow through on her plans to introduce keyboarding to her students; she really did think it was important that they mastered the basics of word processing, and improving their speed and accuracy typing was the first step. She’d have to take them to the old lab, though, since she was only allowed to check out the mobile lab once each week. At the beginning of the day, she stopped by the lab to reserve space and then headed to her classroom.

Jennifer was waiting for her by the door. “My dad had to drop me off early,” she explained. She grinned when Sarah handed her the keys to unlock the classroom.

As Sarah got organized for the day, Jennifer pulled out her math homework for some extra help. Math was a struggle for her, especially word problems. When Sarah had called Mr. Harris about this, he said Jennifer just needed more work on basic skills. But Sarah worried that Jennifer’s difficulty in math might somehow reflect a reading problem. According to last year’s test results, though, Jennifer was reading on grade level, although her comprehension scores were lower than her vocabulary scores.

“I practice on the computer every night,” Jennifer said, “but the problems are really hard.” She explained a little more about the software her father had bought, and Sarah realized the computer program was probably over Jennifer’s head. She wondered how long it would be before Mr. Harris started pressing her to use the program during lab time.

Sarah teaches her first keyboarding lesson.

Sarah Faraday and her students enter the computer lab.

Before Thursday, Sarah found time to practice using the keyboarding software and she felt confident when she announced to the class that they’d be spending the last period in the lab.

The class was less than thrilled. “I already know how to type,” blurted Michael, one of her more difficult students. “Can’t we just play games like we always do?”

“C’mon, give it a chance,” replied Sarah in an upbeat tone. “It’ll be fun. And it’s really important that you learn how to type the right way.” She air-typed. “That way you can be really fast!”

Once in the lab, Sarah booted up the computer and waited for the projector to power up, but it remained blank. She pressed several buttons on the control panel and checked the cable connections. Finally, the projector screen lit up, but then the computer screen went blank. At least she could get started.

First, though, she had to get her class settled. Michael was bouncing the roller ball from his mouse, and two other kids were busily braiding each other’s hair. “Hey,” Sarah called. “Eyes on me or else we’re going back to class!”

Ms. Faraday’s students in the lab

She demonstrated the software, then instructed students to complete lesson one. Four computers froze immediately, and she had to have kids double up—hardly effective typing practice. Michael was right; he really could type quickly, so she made him work on his math homework to free up a computer. They got through the assignment—all but Jennifer, whose eyes filled with tears when she realized she was the only one who hadn’t finished.

At the prompting of a parent, the principal addresses teachers’ use of lab computers.

Bob Greenway was caught off guard when Mr. Harris showed up in his office.

“I need to talk to you about Jennifer’s class,” he said, even before he sat down. “They’ve been wasting time playing games on the laptops when they should be focusing on basic skills!”

Bob nodded attentively while Mr. Harris went on about the waste of tax payer dollars and ineffective classroom teachers. While Mr. Harris had a point about lost instructional time, Bob thought Sarah was a fine classroom teacher—but he’d never asked her about her tech integration skills when he interviewed her. She was so young, he had just assumed she knew what she was doing.

Sarah’s resume

See the Interview Record Mr. Greenway created following his interview with Sarah last August below:

After saying good-bye to Mr. Harris and promising he’d address his concerns, Bob decided his best approach was to discuss the issue with the entire faculty. He was pretty sure that if Sarah was struggling with how best to use their new computers, other teachers were too. He’d meant to provide support from the start, but their back-to-school in-service days had filled quickly with training on special education initiatives and he’d had to trust his teachers to figure out what to do with the new laptops.

Bob emailed Tom Hinkle, Sarah’s team leader and the school’s technology guru, regarding a plan for professional development. Then he added tech as a topic for the next faculty meeting. He didn’t want Sarah to feel singled out, but he wanted to get the message across: use technology to support instruction.

Mr. Greenway talks to teachers about computer use.

Sarah looks on as Mr. Greenway talks technology expectations.

Sarah and Tom plan their interdisciplinary unit on spiders.

“I thought more about the technology goals Mr. Greenway wants all grade-level teams to develop,” Tom said when they met after school. “I have some ideas about using technology for our spider unit.” Tom was so confident. “I think we can make this spider unit a model for other teachers to help them integrate technology. Here, let me show you…” He tapped a few keys on his laptop and turned the screen so that Sarah could see. “How’s this for a starting point?”

Sarah and Tom talk about their unit

Sarah looked at his unit plan. “I can handle teaching them PowerPoint,” Tom added. “Maybe we can brainstorm a list of other skills?”

Sarah had a sinking feeling. She didn’t have the least idea how to create a PowerPoint. But she did know content and pedagogy.

“Why don’t we start our spider unit the same day students begin Charlotte’s Web, really build the cross-curricular connections,” Sarah suggested. “We can do a KWL chart on big poster board and then keep adding to it.” She’d done this before at her old school.

“Or we could have each kid make one on the computer,” Tom replied. “We could use it for individual assessment. Parents’ll love it, and it’ll really help kids master word processing.”

Sarah hesitated. She didn’t have the least idea how to make a 3-part chart on the computer. “Will we have enough lab time?” Sarah asked. They could always use notebook paper.

See a KWL Chart below:

Tom and Sarah introduce the spider unit.

Sarah prepares for the spiders unit

Tom and Sarah introduced their unit the first week of November. Both teachers began with Charlotte’s Web as a read-aloud. As Sarah planned for the week ahead and finalized arrangements for the field trip to the Spider Museum, she was feeling cautiously optimistic about the first days of the unit—things had gone fairly smoothly.

Sarah had assigned her students homework on Friday. “Okay, tonight when you go home, I want you to be on the look-out for spiders. Catch one and bring it in on Monday.” She grinned at Michael. “No poisonous ones, either!”

He laughed, but Sarah was only half-kidding. Michael was smart, but he had a rough home life. According to last year’s teacher, his father was an alcoholic. Sarah had called home several times to discuss Michael’s “progress,” or lack of it, but nobody ever returned her calls. Not that Michael was failing—he was too bright for that. But he rarely did homework and always seemed to instigate problems in class. Sarah felt sorry for him, but he drove her crazy with his constant disruptions.


Sarah’s students begin the technology component of the spider unit.

Kids work in the computer lab

Tom had been working with the class on PowerPoint software, and on Tuesday the students began developing their presentations, the most challenging part of the unit. Sarah borrowed two computers to supplement the mobile lap. They had to be rolled from a classroom down the hall and back again every day after lunch. Parent volunteers worked with small groups of students. When there were technical questions, Sarah usually had to send for Tom. She hated doing that in front of parents.

PowerPoint skills Tom teaches

It seemed like everything was going well enough, but Sarah didn’t know which students were doing what. She’d have to talk with Tom about how to assess them. Their PowerPoints would show one particular spider and information on its anatomy, web making, habitat, and behaviors. Audio, video and page links were allowed according to the outline Tom had made, and Sarah was hoping that she or the kids could remember how to create those. She wished she could’ve been in Tom’s class as he taught how to use PowerPoint, but she was picking things up along with her students.

Michael seemed deeply involved in class work. In contrast to his everyday behavior, he was task-oriented when it came to spiders. His social skills, however, were as bad as ever. When Jennifer took longer than the others to research and organize information on jewel spiders, he yelled, “Just give it to me. It’ll be quicker to do it myself!” Jennifer dissolved, as usual, into tears.

A site students consult

On Friday, Tom and Sarah’s classes went to the Spider Museum. Students seemed to appreciate the presentation and displays, and the museum guide was impressed by their thoughtful questions. Tom videoed the trip so that students could import clips into their PowerPoint presentations.

Students showcase their interdisciplinary unit on spiders at a PTA-sponsored program.

Tom emailed one of the scientists who’d put up a spider site on the web, and Dr. Passez agreed to participate in a webinar with their classes. The students were really excited, but their internet connection went down just as they were starting and they were unable to even begin the dialogue, so Sarah had the students put final touches on their parents’ invitations to the PTA meeting and finish up their KWLs.

See one student’s card below:

The unit finale was the PTA meeting. The entire Harris family was present. Jennifer spoke confidently as she narrated her group’s presentation. She compared the ratio of eggs in an egg sack to the number of spiders that survive and even appeared to understand the meaning of the fraction that represented this relationship. Sarah was really pleased with her progress.

Jennifer, Michael and Tracy’s slide show

Afterwards, as Sarah chatted with parents, she overheard Mr. Harris ask Mr. Greenway about future plans for technology integration. Sarah sighed and felt momentarily deflated. Future plans? She had been hoping that this technology-heavy unit would be enough.