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Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Technology Trek

Long ago, when I was a special education assistant in a multi-grade classroom, I learned that our school had acquired a computer for student use. It was housed in the kindergarten room, far far away from our classroom. But one early morning I stopped in to see the teacher, and the computer, and asked if I might borrow it for a morning, to introduce it to our students, and she agreed.

Students are very intuitive with technology, and far more willing to try things out for themselves. I wheeled the black Apple into our classroom, and asked who would like to figure out how to make it work. I had three volunteers, two boys and our only girl. Within a few minutes it was plugged in and whirring.

"We need a program," they advised me, almost in unison. I asked what a program looked like, and they giggled. I had a very rudimentary knowledge of BASIC, and so I sat down and typed in "10: print 'my name'. The kids began to ask me to use their names, and so I typed "20: print 'their names' and they howled in protest, but I continued. I then typed 30: print 'everyone', and then typed 40: run.

The green screen began running the three repetitive lines up the screen over and over and over again. I looked at the kids after a few minutes, and asked,
"Does anyone know how to make it stop?" and one of them pulled the plug, to more howls of protest from the group.

Later that day, I returned the computer to the kindergarten teacher, and asked whether we had any programs for it, and she said no, but that some were coming eventually.

In a few weeks, we received some simple color recognition and number programs, which were fine for the kindergartners but didn't hold much allure for my students. The extent of my understanding of BASIC had already been exceeded by their own curiosity, and they were content to give simple commands to the screen. The next program we received was a typing training program. In time, we began acquiring slightly more sophisticated programs that quizzed them on basic math facts, spelling, and word definitions. We began using the computer for a few mornings each week.

The next year, our black Apple was replaced with a beige Apple IIe, with 64K of memory (as opposed to the 16K of the black Apple II) and more sophisticated programs, as the Apple people were becoming invested in elementary programs that supported learning. One of their favorites, in fifth grade, was "The Oregon Trail," which involved planning supplies, encountering challenges on the route, and shooting wildlife for food. The shooting portion involved using the arrows and the space bar to aim and fire at moving targets on the green screen. Years later, "The Oregon Trail" would be a vastly different computer game, but retained much of the original social studies learning.

Color screens came when the Apple IIes were loaded with 128K and then an astonishing 256K of memory, and two external floppy disk drives instead of one internal drive, to allow spell check with the second diskette holding a dictionary of words. Bank Street Writer was an early word processing programming, later replaced by Applewriter.

But the most intriguing program that we encountered in those early years was introduced in Seymour Papert's Mindstorms book: it was a language called LOGO, which required not only that the kids were understanding line segments and angles, but also true programming concepts such as procedures, sub procedures, super procedures ... and that led to understanding acute angles, obtuse angles, polygons, and more.

Eventually I became one of the teachers, and the Apple computers were replaced gradually with mouse driven software, starting with the Apple IIGS, and then ultimately 'The Mac' line. Applewriter was replaced with Clarisworks, incorporating more sophisticated word processing with spreadsheets and data bases into the students' repertoire.

All of this progress took place while Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were still working together. But much more was ahead, and I learned quickly that the easiest way to learn each change was to let the kids discover it through trial and error. They are fearless, which leaves them open to learning, and they then taught me every step of the way.

More later this week on Terry's Travails along the Technology Trek.

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