Carol Donnelly (pseudonym) has taught 13 years, the last six at Las Montanas. She has been using laptops since 2002 when they were introduced at the school. In 2009, when I interviewed her and observed her classes, she was teaching biology to honors students (one class), regular students (one class), and English Language Learners (ELL) in three classes. She used the same basic lesson for all of her biology classes, stretching out the content for ELL classes while going in more depth in the regular and honors classes (e.g., research papers, PowerPoint presentations, Science Fair projects). She integrated laptops into her lessons once a week.
Every Wednesday, she told me, is laptop day. She brings a mobile cart from the Media Center to her classroom. In one lesson I observed, Donnelly began class with a review of yesterday’s material on photosynthesis. Afterwards she had students open their laptops to watch animations of photosynthesis that she had loaded on their machines earlier. A pop-up quiz appeared after the animations. Donnelly walked around and checked student scores on the quiz. She then summarized the concept of photosynthesis by questioning students. Finally, she collected homework assigned the previous day.
At the beginning of her senior honors class, students usually work on laptops for their Science Fair project. Today, Donnelly lectured on the Calvin cycle of photosynthesis. Students took notes and then viewed the animations and took the quiz as the other class had. Closing activities were similar to the previous class.
Sometimes, she told me, a laptop lesson on Wednesday spills over subsequent days. She recalled a lesson on the plasma (or cell) membrane that took three days. She included exercises that came from Kerpoof multimedia software that had students draw and label parts of the plasma membrane. She showed me a worksheet that she had created to accompany the lesson. She spends a lot of time finding websites, videos, and applications to use with her classes.
Donnelly also has her students blogging. With a laptop camera, students liven up their blog page with photos they take of themselves and others. She reads the blogs and comments but gives no grades on entries. She told me about a prompt concerning Thanksgiving and turkey that mentioned tryptophan with URLs to the chemical and what it does in the human body. Some students, she said, blogged on the chemical after reading the links she had provided.
When asked about benefits of laptops for her and students, she said: “When kids do not understand my directions they will ask me what I meant, raise their hands and question me. In regular, non-laptop classes, kids will just less it pass.” She added: “I have definitely changed my teaching. I do far more preparation now and give kids access to ideas and information they would not ordinarily find.”
She gave an example. “When I asked students to compare the features of a cell to anything they wanted—the high school, family, friends, sports team, etc.—they created stories, took photos off the web, did an Imovie and a Keynote presentation. I was surprised and pleased. I had not expected all of that to be done in one class period.”
For non-laptop days, I observed Donnelly following traditional science lessons that included a wet lab “experiment” with pairs of students working together, her lecturing, students taking notes, short video clips, and students completing worksheets drawn from chapters in the textbook.
Veteran Carol Donnelly works hard in her five daily classes but knows how to pace herself. By her admission and my observations, I see that laptops have energized her. She sees the benefits from using the web to enrich her teaching through other teachers’ lessons, videos, and websites that permit students to dig deeper into content than their text. She sees that students become engaged with the animation, lectures, videos as she skillfully integrates content from the text, websites, and new software activities. Yet her teaching, while remaining within the tradition of teacher-centered instruction has incorporated elements of student-centered instruction–she is creating a mix of instructional approaches.
Nothing new here, of course. Most subject matter teachers in secondary schools, whether affluent districts or ones with largely low-income students, teach within that tradition, one with variations to be sure–what I call “hybrids.”
But for “pedagogical dogmatists“–think of those at Edutopia— there is only one way to integrate technology into lessons: “Learning through projects while equipped with technology tools allows students to be intellectually challenged while providing them with a realistic snapshot of what the modern office looks like. Through projects, students acquire and refine their analysis and problem-solving skills as they work individually and in teams to find, process, and synthesize information they’ve found online.”
Donnelly’s classes remind me that thoughtful teaching and smooth weekly integration of laptops into biology lessons –within a five period workload and three preparations across different levels of students–can be done with finesse, humor, excitement, and-yes- within a blend of teacher- and student-centered pedagogy. Like many teachers, she hugs the middle of the spectrum.