Tales from the Front Lines - Blog by Paul GamboaI remember the exact moment I realized technology was completely beyond anything I could have imagined.

In August 2005, I was sitting in Friday rush hour traffic on I-55 heading into Chicago. My phone, pre-iPhone, started frantically buzzing. When at a dead standstill, I looked down and noticed there were several messages from a friend who was living in Scotland. It just cryptically said, “This place only holds 100 people!!!”

Attached were some media files in form I didn’t recognize. Against my better judgment, I opened the files. Much to my delight, I quickly realized they were audio files of a Scottish band we both liked playing brand new material at an impromptu show in their hometown of Edinburgh.

How amazing this was wasn’t lost in the moment. I was stuck in my car in traffic and someone 3,700 miles away was text messaging me live recordings of a pub across the Atlantic. After this point, I never looked at technology the same way.

My teaching career began in September of 2000. When I was student teaching the previous fall in another district, they wired the room I was teaching in for the Internet midway through the first quarter. It was so new at the time that there weren’t even filters on the connection. When I got my own classroom, my room had an Internet hookup, strongly filtered, and I put to immediate use.

I remember in one of my first conferences, a parent was questioning me about how often I was having the kids look for things on the web. At that time, the kid-friendly website “Yahooligans!” was all the rage. I explained that the sites were all filtered and secure. I reminded them that they had signed the paperwork that allows their student to use the web. Skeptically, they agreed to allow this to continue, but I got a lot of questions throughout the year about asking kids to find information online. While this wasn’t the last time, obviously the trend disappeared fairly quickly.

It’s funny how just 15 years ago the Internet was viewed as a foreign and terrifying concept and is now something most of society can’t live without. It’s interesting to look at what my most recent students are capable of doing, and the almost infinite amount of knowledge at their fingertips at every waking moment.

As we all know though, being constantly connected and having instant access to all information has a downside. It made teaching Internet safety critical. The world is not a walled garden with layers of safety protecting kids when they’re online. Being safe is a skill that needs to be taught. I took great pride in getting this message across to kids and helping make them more responsible citizens in the Internet world.

My district recently took some important steps in the world of technology. Realizing that we would never be able to keep up with the speed of technology in the outside world, my district adopted a “bring your own technology plan” four years ago. After carefully researching and observing other districts which used this, my district went ahead and slowly started piloting. My classroom served as a guinea pig. It completely changed the way I taught.

My reading groups were never the same. As all devices had to run through the school’s servers, all searches were filtered so students could search for information they needed.  In one lesson, a story about a family in Japan, I saw one group looking up words in Japanese and another researching the foods mentioned in the story. Another group found a website with maps of 19th century Japan and they were trying to locate the town. Another group was making a video of themselves, re-enacting a ceremony celebrated in the story.

Lessons and moments like this became the rule, not the exception, and it was incredible to see. There was a wave of self-generated, needs-based creativity that blew my mind, reinforcing my belief that technology is something we shouldn’t be afraid of. No, we need to embrace it.

These kids have never lived in a world where they didn’t have instant access. It’s very easy to proclaim, “That’s not how I did it and I turned out just fine!” These kids will never do it the way that we did it. It’s not bad, it’s just how it is. Our students live in a different world than I grew up in. I grew up in a different world than my parents did. It is contingent upon us to adapt to the learning styles of today’s students and not try to force them into a mold that may no longer fit.

This, of course, leads to the inevitable conversation about the resources available to kids across the state and the country. I taught in an area where many kids had devices that they could use. While not all, I could supplement the ones who didn’t have them with extra technology in my building. We were fortunate enough to have PTA money and money from our district to make sure we had resources for all kids to have these devices at their fingertips at all times.

My kids were lucky. A growing number aren’t, though, and the upcoming PARCC assessments aren’t helping matters. Forcing districts to invest money in computers that only serve one purpose is a waste. Sadly though, I’m hearing about more and more districts investing money in technology, but not to directly increase student learning. It’s mostly so they can have banks ready to administer the PARCC tests. Sadly, they fear releasing the computers in non-testing windows in the event that something happens.

That is asinine. There are limited resources already. Now, there’s another mandate that carries a massive price tag and, of course, it goes unfunded.  It’s not hard to figure out why this makes many educators so upset. We need the tools to give kids the best public education we can. Instead, here we are, pouring more money into another accountability measure.

That’s really disheartening. I’ve gone on record as being staunchly pro-Common Core (also known here as the Illinois Learning Standards).  I wholeheartedly agree with the standards and what they were intended for.  Sadly though, it’s becoming increasingly clear that separating the PARCC test from CCS is becoming almost impossible. People have chosen sides with the same fervor as arguing politics, the Android vs. iPhone debate, or an exponentially increasing number of other topics in this country: impossible to discuss civilly.  Instead of a healthy debate, it’s polarizing. You’re on one side or the other. No middle ground exists nor will one be tolerated.

There is one thing that both sides can agree on: the money that should be spent on getting more technology into schools and into the hands of as many kids as possible shouldn’t be diverted to pay for more testing. It should be spent on learning.

Sadly, it again comes down to a matter of continually dwindling resources. We need to make sure we continue to advocate for what we need in our classrooms and try to get the message across to legislators and the public that we want to teach 21st century skills. It’s hard to do it, though, when we don’t have access to the means to teach it.

We know what our kids need and what we can do to best meet their needs. We must continue to be both the leaders and voice for our students, and embrace that today’s kids need different things than we did when we were growing up. Technology is not everything, but not embracing it is doing our kids a disservice. The world that we live in, and they are growing up in, requires us to be connected.  It isn’t going to get any easier.

As always, I welcome your comments below and follow me on Twitter @paulgamboa.  Thanks!

Paul Gamboa is a teacher who is currently serving as president of the Indian Prairie Education Association.