Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Frustration Learning

What has this robot got to be happy about? Certainly not how well his software is running where I work.

I don't teach in a gym anymore, but I do teach in a computer lab.

Scott School is short on space. There are not enough classrooms for the students we already have, and we actually had to add a class this year. Meanwhile, arts programs are expanding: music is now year-round, and we just added a part-time art teacher for half the year. This forced an issue that should have been addressed last year when, as I reported consistently, the gym proved an impossible place to teach music. Over the summer, there was a realignment of facilities, and the English Language Development classroom was shut down, with one third of it turned into a computer lab and, on the other side of a divider, the rest of it now the music room.

This is still far from ideal. For the most part, teachers choose the other computer lab, off the library, when their students need some screen time, but occasionally that one's occupied, and their class is in my room at the same time I'm teaching music. That's not too bad. What is bad is when, for the last 20 minutes of my morning teaching schedule, there's a class in there for Enrichment and Intervention, which is a fancy way of saying let's have the kids sit at a computer while a not-very-computer-literate specialist tries to figure out why Imagine Learning isn't running well, and ultimately tells the kids to just play on one of the approved game sites.

Imagine Learning is a comprehensive reading program that has loads of bells and whistles. Students play games that evaluate their progress, which is then supposed to be reported to the specialist in charge at the school so he or she can run targeted interventions on those that are struggling with English. In theory, it makes wonderful sense: harnessing the power of the internet to get kids the individualized help they need. In practice, unfortunately, it's very different.

For 40 minutes a day, I have E&I duty, like that I just described, but in a sort of auxiliary computer lab in the library, using laptops. Two different classes are there for twenty minutes each. Along with another specialist and an instructional assistant, I go from computer to computer helping kids figure out why their log-in isn't working, why their headset just shut down, how to click through the constant Microsoft System Update requests, and if we get through all these, explaining that Imagine Learning has frozen yet again because it just got to a video segment and the district's network just doesn't have the bandwidth for that. At that point, I direct them to pick an "educational" game site and go there. The games they like best are Flappy Dragon and Run 2, which may be teaching them some minor skills about manipulating space, but appear to have no other educational value.

I don't know how much the district paid for Imagine Learning, but after three weeks of watching students struggle with it not because they're having a hard time with the lessons but because the software just doesn't run well on our equipment, I have to wonder what the point of it is. I understand they are scheduled this way so that classroom teachers can have their contract-mandated 40-minute uninterrupted lunch (which I get to take after I'm finished with E&I duty). But one the kids are stuck on the same unit, every one of them, because it always resets back to the beginning, presumably because they're all making mistakes in the tests, and yet the specialist who's supposed to be intervening is on leave right now because trying to figure out how to use Imagine Learning stressed her so much she had to be relieved--and that's when the software's working; half the time it just locks up--it seems to me that all we're really doing for those twenty minutes is teaching children to stick with a product that doesn't work. There's no enrichment happening here, and no intervention without someone trained in using the administrator side of the software, so what's the point? Considering the emphasis on reading, couldn't this 20 minute block for each class be better spent with an actual book that won't freeze, lock them out, or keep resetting back to page one unless they actually want to reread it?

Lest you consider me a total Luddite, I'm actually a technology fan. I'm not a first adopter of any innovation, but if it intrigues me, I get in on it as early as I'm convinced it will be reliable. I do all my writing and bookkeeping on computers, keep my calendar on my iPhone, am frequently checking either it or my iPad for news updates and information about friends and family members, I compose and arrange music on my computer, and I've been known to play video games obsessively. There's a lot more I could throw in here, but really it's quite simple: I use the stuff a lot. I think it's good for children to be computer literate, and there are whole worlds of information at their fingertips that I only came into once I was in college, and then only through exhaustive research. Screen time is not a bad thing in and of itself.

Where I draw the line, though, is school. I'm not convinced we need to have kids using computers for anything other than research. There are so many things that can go wrong with the Imagine Learning program, and the capital investment is so huge--laptops, charging stations, beefed-up broadband and modems, increased server capacity--and don't forget the additional investment needed to train specialists in every building, that I have to wonder how the decision to implement this was made. How much is this costing us? And how well does the company stand behind its product, which up to now has been a near total dud at my building?

The answers to all these questions remain to be seen. For myself, I'll just have to keep crossing my fingers that whoever's running the E&I time during my kindergarten classes can keep the frustration out of his or her voice as the program freezes up, or the network goes down; and I'll keep reporting to the library at 11:10 to help children with the equipment problems I can do something about; and to tell them, over and over again, to go on ABCya or Arcademics for whatever time they have left.

Stupid robot.

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