Catherine Martinez: Schools vault from chalk dust to technology marvels

The problems that Florida schools suffered when glitches halted administration of computerized state tests highlighted the intimate relationship between education and technology.

I was reminded of this marriage recently when I visited a replica of a 1935 Florida classroom at the Yesteryear Village. I was suddenly transported back into the mid 60s classroom of my beloved English teacher Mrs. Munson, her hair pulled severely back into a bun and a lace handkerchief clutched tightly in her hand. Jeans and a T-shirt: impossible to imagine her wearing such clothing. She seemed impossibly old at the time, but was probably the age I am now. She likely started her teaching in room that looked very much like this one.

I was struck by the thought that the cultural and psychological distance between the 1930s classroom and those mid-20th-century classrooms was much less than the distance between the 1970s classrooms where I began my career and the classroom of the early 21st century where I plan to finish. I feel a little like my grandfather must have felt; he was born before the automobiles and planes that transformed American culture were a common sight and died in the mid 80s at the dawn of the computer age.

Chester Carlson invented something he called electrophotography in the 1930s, and Xerox was formed in 1961. But the impact of the photocopier was not felt immediately educationally. In my first years teaching, reproducing worksheets and tests was done with “spirit masters,” an alcohol-based system. Teachers had to type their own worksheets on special sheets or order them pre-printed as part of their textbook. They could also draw directly on the master sheets. The process filled teacher production rooms with a penetrating, even intoxicating odor. The spirit masters were only good for 20-30 copies – about one class worth, requiring teachers with large classes to type up multiple masters.

For a large run, a teacher could use a mimeograph machine, which forces the ink through a stencil placed on a drum. Mimeograph stencils could make several hundred copies. The disadvantages were that the stencils were delicate and could tear or wrinkle easily. The teacher had to type each one. Mistakes had to be covered with a sealant and retyped. The ink was also very tacky, hard to wash off and impossible to get out of clothing. At the school I worked at in the Dominican Republic, we tended to save tests and reuse them, rather typing up a whole new copy every time. I suspect that ex-students kept secret files of our tests and passed them around. Photocopying or “Xeroxing” was just coming available but it was much too expensive to use for large runs for class materials. However, by the time I left there in the late 90s, most private schools were switching over to photocopying. Public schools due to limited resources were still using the old technology.

Very few schools in the Dominican Republic had computer technology for the teachers, much less the students. I had my computer, a cumbersome, heavy “laptop” Tandy with no hard drive. I used it to keep track of student registration and figure out grades but I did not have a printer. It also could not connect to the Internet as its capacity was only a few kilobytes, probably the size of an average document today. Shortly before I left, I acquired a dial-up Juno email address but could only afford to connect briefly to get my messages from a public computer center.

When I returned to the states in the late 90s, computers were just starting to be used in the classroom. Our first grading system was a cursor style DOS, no Windows. We still had to do our final grades and attendance on scanner sheets, which a school employee uploaded into the system. Later we upgraded to Windows 95, which seemed such a leap forward at the time but now so incredibly slow. When I taught AP Art History, I had to scrounge some slide projectors and relevant slides, which I showed on a portable screen.

The next year I created transparencies on a printer from pictures I copied off the internet ands showed on an overhead projector. My art room was a cavernous concrete and steel, post-modern designed room with exposed ductwork and struts in the high ceilings that could not be retrofitted with a drop down screen or a permanent LCD projector. I was occasionally able to check out a portable one the last years I was in that room. We were using photocopies but the machines were clunky, slow, and constantly breaking down. To do two sided copies, we had to run one side and then turn it over and run it through again on the other side.

When I had the opportunity to move over to a new school with integrated technology, I did not hesitate. I have an LCD projector connected to my computer, which has revolutionized my teaching. I also have a DVD player which makes showing educational videos very easy. We have several mobile laptop carts and a mobile iPad cart plus three computer labs, one for each floor. I could use a Mobi pad if I needed it. I have an audio enhancement device.

A couple of months back, I was reminded of how important technology has become in a teacher’s normal school day. For some reason, the school’s server was out, but the electricity was still on. I could turn on my computer, but could not access my documents or email. I could not send my attendance, which is supposed to be done electronically in the first fifteen minutes of class. The program, where I enter students who are tardy or out of dress code would not work.

I had sent a file to myself by email from home but I could not access it due to the email being down. I could not show my power point to start the class with the notes, vocabulary and review question. I could not play the instructional You Tube video, showing the students how to do the assignment. I could not show an example from the power point.

I had planned a Brain Pop video/worksheet for a later class I could not use. I could not play my easy-listening music in the background while the students were working. I knew I had a meeting later than day but I could not access my calendar to see the agenda and find out exactly when and where it was going to be. I wanted to reserve the laptops for a project later in the week but could not access the screen to make reservations. I wanted to inform my colleague about my progress on a mutual project but I could not access my email.

I could not put in any grades or post to Edline while the server was down. Several students were finishing up on a research project and creating a Photo story presentation, but they could do nothing without Internet access. I was in the process of updating my lesson plans, which of course are electronic, and could not access CPalms to copy the relevant standards nor could I put them on Share Point for my administrator.

Thank goodness the phones still worked and we had air conditioning. We had only been knocked back to the 70s, not the 30s.

Martinez Catherine Shore Martinez is a National Board Certified teacher at Pahokee Middle Senior High School in Palm Beach County. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

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