Teaching with Technology: Passion, Scholarship, and a Leap of Faith

Bonnie BraceyBy Bonnie Bracey Sutton
Editor, Policy Issues

I always liked that discussion about the body falling down the stairs and how it looked from various perspectives. I consider myself a change agent and that got me called into the office, moved from school to school, and actually allowed me to work for the President of the United States.

The answer is not on the page

KidsNetwork National Geographic and the laser disk programs I had (old technology) made me think in new ways, especially when the kids wanted to know why they couldn’t use the technology that I was using, computers, digital cameras, story boxes, etc. With laser disks, you could capture frames and create presentations. I also had a lumaphone from Hawaii somewhere, and we could see the people we talked to. This was revolutionary. You know what? Even though that stuff is old hat and we have moved on, there are people still looking for the answer on the page.

So what changed was me. I was not looking for the answer on the page. The kids were free to think, read, and use other sources. Dr. Hilda Taba did this without the technology. She used pictures. But that was way before the Internet. There have always been people seeking to create change. Change is chaos to many and quite frightful.

Perhaps you used to be a teacher and you learned what was in the book, so you dropped the book or lost it — easily replaceable — and you could look every kid in the eye while standing your ground. It takes courage to do anything else. I don’t believe I know how classroom management is taught for computer use, nor do I know how people estimate the variables of change over populations not used to being given permission to think, explore, search. That’s a whole discussion for another day.

How do you manage different populations of students using technology?

I learned classroom management for technology through NASA and National Geographic. The Challenger Center and various groups demonstrated and taught as much as they could about different approaches. Earthwatch did some of this too. Everything you teach is not going to be interesting, but there are different ways of teaching.

I made up my own matrix, a game, some books, a classroom display and resources, a field trip, and local and international resources. But I can cheat because I live in Washington, D.C. What expert is not available to me? What gadgets and gizmos, intriguing laser disk lollipops, giant insects, lizards walking on water, astronauts coming in to tell kids how they got started? With the magic of multimedia, though, you can have access to the things that go on in D.C. In fact, most of this stuff have migrated to the web. Now the problem is that there is too much information and too many things to do, and someone has to make choices.

I used the standards that I knew, and the students and I would apply them in reviews of their individual and group projects. Not hard to do except for the first time. I sent home the objectives I wanted to accomplish at the start of every big unit. A mistake?

No. Three things happened. Parents who could help, did. Parents who did not understand or know about the topics asked to come in to learn it and help me. (That was scary, at first.) Kids who were not in my class, unfortunately, wanted in on some of the action. You can see how I was a nuisance.

We did the Challenger Center’s Marsville project in my class. I asked other teachers to be a part of it, but they refused. At that time, I almost had an accident while going home. As I rounded the curve in the neighborhood, I saw a giant Marsville that my kids had built for their friends.

Teaching as a passion

For social studies and geography, I did a study of the Chesapeake Bay, the great shell bay. The Fish and Wildlife Service helped me with field trips; National Geographic had a video and lesson plans, and the map was wonderful. We read sections of the book Chesapeake and learned more than the three paragraphs in the social studies book. We knew the history, the science of the estuaries that lead to the sea, and we seined for crabs, did water turbidity and salinity studies, and examined microscopic organisms. Click here for the lab part — where I work.

school children using microscopes

One teacher told me that when they decide how to do technology and get it right, she would make an effort to learn. I suppose she is still waiting. Another teacher I knew watched me and asked to be a part of the project. So we worked together. This woman was such a good teacher that we joked she could teach the dead to read and write. No kidding, she could get a child up to grade level in about a year. Immigrant kids.


Deloris Davis. What she did was not to do all the work. We had a parent committee who did most of it for us. I never thought of that.

Teachers in Hawaii — I went there to learn about the long canoes. I have a friend from New Zealand who is a book publisher. I studied Hawaii, the islands, and the history in depth because if you are a National Geographic trained teacher that’s what you do.

Lately there is always more to learn

So there is Web 2.0 and the new Blooms Digital Technology and TPACK. You can see why teachers who are used to a book might run screaming from the room.

In Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century, Henry Jenkins talks about the new skills:

  • Play— the capacity to experiment with one’s surroundings as a form of problem-solving
  • Performance— the ability to adopt alternative identities for the purpose of improvisation and discovery
  • Simulation— the ability to interpret and construct dynamic models of real-world processes
  • Appropriation— the ability to meaningfully sample and remix media content
  • Multitasking— the ability to scan one’s environment and shift focus as needed to salient details.
  • Distributed Cognition— the ability to interact meaningfully with tools that expand mental capacities
  • Collective Intelligence— the ability to pool knowledge and compare notes with others toward a common goal
  • Judgment— the ability to evaluate the reliability and credibility of different information sources
  • Transmedia Navigation— the ability to follow the flow of stories and information across multiple modalities
  • Networking— the ability to search for , synthesize , and disseminate information
  • Negotiation— the ability to travel across diverse communities, discerning and respecting multiple perspectives , and grasping and following alternative norms.

The school system did not like National Geographic, NASA, Discovery Channel, and others coming into my classroom to film because it made the other teachers feel bad. The teachers did not want to do the work, which I understood. Converting to technology is no easy task. It requires more than a leap of faith and a loss of total control, in some ways, of the classroom. It requires scholarship, diligence, and willingness to learn, and it also takes an inordinate amount of time. Few people appreciate that.

But it also leads to better classroom work. I was invited to leave teaching with early retirement and a bonus. Innovation and that kind of thing was not amusing to the school system where I worked even if I had worked for the President — which seems to have made it worse.

I was not a prima donna or a diva either. I simply love teaching.