Teaching World Geography at Las Montanas: Mr. Darcy and Laptops

Those who have never taught high school have missed the delight of teaching ninth graders at 7:45AM. Twenty-six 14 and 15 year-olds, for the most part, are neither especially alert nor swift moving at that time of day. Mr. Darcy knows that and he is prepared. The agenda for the first period lesson is on the whiteboard. He has wheeled in the cart of laptops from the media center. He says “good morning” to each student, is bouncy, and full of energy in asking questions and listening to students before the bell rings. A veteran teacher, Darcy’s World Geography class is about to begin a two-lesson mini-unit on oil in Southwest Asia.

Students on one side of the room sit in four rows of four desks; they face a teacher’s table in the center of the room upon which rest his laptop and a LCD projector . On the other side of the room another four rows of four desks face the table. Thus, students sit in rows facing one another. In the front of the room is a large whiteboard and screen.

He spends a few minutes introducing the two-day unit on oil and then asks the class about software applications “Keynote” and “Comic Life.” Most of the students say that they have seen teachers use “Keynote” but only a few had ever made a presentation. Four students raised their hands that they had used “Comic Life” either at home or in another class. He announces to the class that each student will create a multimedia presentation that uses both pieces of software. He describes the different kinds of content that has to be included in the presentation. They can use their textbooks, he says, to help them with content as well as the Internet. He then demonstrates different features of both “Keynote” and “Comic Life” before passing out the laptops to each student at 8:05 and telling them to begin work on their presentation.

Since I was sitting on one side of the room I had clear views of about 12-14 students working on their laptops. Most seemed familiar with both software applications and the tasks they had to complete in the two days. I asked four different students what they were working on–two were doing searches of oil in Indonesia and Malaysia–two others were already downloading photos for the presentation and making captions. Mr. Darcy moved around the room asking questions of different students, answering ones from students, and helping out when glitches arose.

At 8:30 Darcy gave the class a “ten minutes more” notice, alerting students to save their work in their “digital locker.” At 8:35, he announced “five minutes more” and within a few minutes of that, one student started collecting laptops and others began returning the machines to the mobile cart. Students started to line up awaiting the bell to end class. Bell rang, students left.

Before the next class came in, Mr. Darcy and I had a few minutes and I asked him a question:

Cuban: Why did so many 9th graders know what to do with the laptops and two applications?

Darcy: Most of the students used laptops in middle school. Also I have been using laptop carts every week and the kids help one another when they are stuck. Also don’t forget that their science and English teachers also use the laptops weekly.

Clearly, Darcy was integrating software into two lessons giving students opportunities to be creative within a teacher-established structure of work expectations and specific tasks. For some tech enthusiasts who want teachers to do creative teaching with these new devices, Darcy’s lesson would be seen as, perhaps, unspectacular even unimaginative. Listen to John Merrow who criticized an Arizona teacher’s use of technology described in a recent New York Times article.

“One teacher gave a true-false quiz but handed out wireless clickers for students to record their answers. In other classes, kids were playing a math game (“Alien Addition”) and an interactive spelling game, while other students were videotaping a skit that they could as easily have simply performed for the class. In none of the examples presented were teachers using the technology to burst the boundaries of their classroom to connect with students in other cities, or even elsewhere in their district. None were using the Internet to do original research.”

Not only Merrow, a top-notch journalist, but many other high-tech enthusiasts grind their teeth over teachers’ limited use of exciting new hardware and software including increasingly sophisticated games that could, nay should, be integrated into lessons and “burst the boundaries of their classroom.”

I wonder if Mr. Darcy would agree with such critics or simply smile and shake his head at the utter lack of understanding of classroom teaching in 2011 that they display. I would bet on the head shake and smile.

2 Comments

Filed under how teachers teach

2 responses to “Teaching World Geography at Las Montanas: Mr. Darcy and Laptops

  1. Cal

    I always wonder how technoenthusiasts would sneer at my use of tech. This year, I was mulling how to do homework I didn’t do much homework in the last two years, because most students don’t do it and I don’t want to waste class time on a ritual that only affects a few students. Furthermore, checking homework and getting it back to the students is always a time consuming process–I want the students to have a good set of worked problems, but since homework isn’t a big part of my grades, I don’t want to devote a ton of time to getting homework on a quick turnaround.

    Happily, my son had talked me into getting an Android last March. So here’s what I do: First, I post the homework answers every day, so the students can correct their work and see if they understand the material. The kids correct their homework and keep it in their notebooks. They take a picture of their work and text or email it to me with their cellphones. If students don’t have a cell phone, I take a picture of it for them. The students know that if they have any questions, they need to see me, that the copy they sent to me was just for bookkeeping. I review the homework (and am continually behind). With many students, when I spot an error, I text/email them if it’s significant, and set up a time to discuss (or do it in person if I don’t have contact info). Other times, I just look for common misconceptions and address them at the class level.

    There’s no paper–I’m checking email, messages, and my own gallery, but that’s pretty easy. I delete the messages once I process it.

    This has also been very valuable for distributing homework assignments. Rather than give book problem numbers, I just create 5-7 problems of varying difficulty and subjects, and post it on my website. I also put it on the document camera (displayed through my pc), and the kids come up and snap pictures of it, or copy it down (many kids with cell cameras still copy it down, and other kids without cells have friends email it to them).

    All of this is very low tech, and a bit klugy, but I’ve noticed that my homework completion rate is slightly higher. It’s far, far less work for me, and it allows me to instantly reach out to the student in a medium they’ll read, rather than write comments on homework that will never be seen.

    I’m certainly not bursting the boundaries of my classroom, alas.

    • larrycuban

      Cal,
      Thanks for describing your use of the smart phone to manage homework. You show how the device helps you and students do what is done weekly more efficiently.

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