When Integrating Technology, Just Have a Beer with John Dewey

Back in the late 90s I was a beginning first grade teacher who started realizing the impact of real world experiences in the classroom for student  learning. In college I had read about John Dewey but those were just theory floating in my head until I experienced teaching for myself.  I was just starting to discover the benefits of using  student prior knowledge as well and I was constantly experimenting with anything that would gain me my students’ attention. In early literacy, the movement at the time was called print immersion. Teachers saved real text from the environment of the students and used this text to teach reading which was based on Dewey principals.  For example, students would bring wrappers from food to look for numbers and read words they knew. This instructional practice swung on the pendulum toward whole language instruction rather than isolated phonics instruction in early literacy methods. I remember reading about print immersion and decided to add a center to my classroom decorated as a store with real food boxes and a trading card center made from Pokemon cards which were popular at the time. In this center, I would ask the students to choose a card and describe a character in their writing or to write a story about this character.  I observed that the students loved these cards and watched the television show about the characters every day.  I decided to apply their background knowledge for their writing and their interest level would motivate them to accomplish more challenging work.  I was successful with this center and writing improved as some students brought their own cards to school to use for journal writing. I started to create math problems using the numbered strength of the characters that was presented on the cards, as well to motivate, especially the boys in my class. However, my students, along with others, started bringing these cards to the cafeteria. In this noninstructional setting, fights and arguments broke out as students traded their cards with each other. Parents came to the school and wanted cards back that their child gave to another. The principal was inundated with conflict brought about by the love of Pokemon cards campus-wide so soon after my instructional strategies started showing positive results, the cards were banned in the school. I would never forget my fledgling attempt to interact with my students and instruct with meaningful text from their world such as Dewey suggested. I continued to search for ways to motivate my students.

Soon after the ban of Pokemon cards, I recall a day after school with a student named Josue, in which I had tried for the hundredth time to help him add two groups of teddy bear counters that were supplied with the math curriculum. I had asked his mother if he could stay after school so we could accomplish this task, as I was determined to help him finally grasp the concept of addition. After Josue guessed the answer again and again, I realized he kept staring at the teddy bears and did not understand what I was asking. I finally asked him what he counts at home. He told me he did not count anything, but I told him I knew he counted something. Did he count cookies with his brothers to make shares equal? He shook his head. Did he count the times he could jump over cracks in the sidewalk? Again, he stared with no response. I then asked him what he did when he left school. He said that his father picked him up and took him to the local bar. Here Josue would sit and make sure his dad did not have too many beers to drive home. I asked him how he knew when his dad had had enough. He said he kept count of how many beers and stopped him after he had drunk five beers. That was his experience! I had it. I told him that he could add but just did not know it. If his dad drank two beers and then had two more, how many did he drink? Josue answered quickly, excitedly, and correctly. Since it was time to go, I asked Josue to bring me the tops of the beer bottles the next day. He brought more and more every day and he used them to work his math problems until he did not need the manipulative, just like the other students grew away from using the school-issued teddy bears. Since those bears had no meaning for him, the concept did not relate to his experiences. That day Josue learned he already knew how to add and I learned that Dewey was correct, the best learning happens when the teacher can take advantage of the needed symbiotic relationship of learning in the classroom and the experiential learning gained from the outside world, and his learning changed me as well.

I relate these stories of some of my first teaching experiences not to judge the parents of this child, but to explain real teaching  experiences and my path to becoming a technology integration specialist led there by my relationship with John Dewey’s authentic learning theories. Soon after this story, with the drive to try anything to help my students, I started to see the tremendous motivation behind the earliest educational technologies available to me. Since I was willing to try anything, I became one of the first teachers to start going regularly to the school computer lab and using the simple software of the day such as drawing programs with stamps to create math story problems or writing prompts even though I had never drawn a picture on a computer myself. It is this spirit to be able to experiment and be borderline controversial that has served me well so this week when I was asked,  “What characteristics of new teachers predict technology integration?” I said having an explorer spirit and to be able to use technology that they do not know everything about. So my advice is: Experiment with new digital manipulatives such as Web 2.0 tools that focus on authentic learning, even if you do not know how the lesson will turn out. When integrating technology, sit back, relax, and have a beer with Dewey.