Tabula Rasa

Deerfield Magazine Winter 2014

By Naomi Shulman 

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It was early fall, and classes were already in full swing. Cheri Karbon’s days were packed with new Spanish students, and her mind was more on them than the faculty meeting she was sitting in. “I wasn’t really focused,” she confesses. But near the end of the meeting, as a ripple of discussion worked its way around the room, she snapped to attention: Karbon’s colleague, Spanish teacher Steve Taft, had laid a gauntlet for Deerfield’s language faculty. The school was exploring the role new technology would have—if any—in Deerfield classrooms, and the language classes would be the guinea pigs. Despite the fine film of dust veiling the language lab, despite the fact that plugging in a DVD for her students made Karbon sweat, despite the fact that foreign language acquisition depends more on human interaction than just about any other topic, members of the Language Department were going to lead the technological way.

To say Karbon was skeptical is to understate the case. “I kind of hung back and just kept teaching as usual,” she recalls. But, “as the year went on we kept talking about —‘What are you doing?’ ‘Well, what are you doing?’” When Karbon arrived on campus fifteen years ago, she was fresh out of college; this was the first job she’d really sunk her teeth into. “I figured out what worked for me in the classroom, and it seemed to work well,” she says modestly. Why change what was working? Karbon’s new iPad
sat on a shelf for months. 

mYsT6CrHuc2kAZXCuaV33Bx2EbQzNC7_ufGQlpnveGMJohn Taylor, dean of faculty, sympathizes with Karbon’s initial hesitations. After all, this is Deerfield—literally old school. “We have certain routines and values that we’ve held on to: family-style meals, the way we conduct school meeting, class dress.” These habits, and the values that underlie them, are not going away, Taylor explains. “But we’re also increasingly embracing innovation. It’s not just technology—we’ve developed a culture in the school where people are more willing to embrace change.” One might even say that Deerfield is renewing its tradition of change by integrating technology into daily life; after all, from the change Mr. Boyden wrought—remodeling a sleepy country day school into a world-class institution—to the Academy’s return to coeducation, change itself has been a tradition over the years.   

For several years now faculty have been working to stem the tide of buzzing phones and glowing touchscreens as they encroach the campus, and to be fair, they’ve done an outstanding job. Smartphones are not in sight as students move from class to class, and personal interactions are alive and well . . . but: “The Huns are in the castle,” acknowledges Peter Warsaw, academic dean—tongue partly in cheek. Some faculty see the gadgets as pesky irritants, some see them as something more sinister, and some see them as valuable tools, full of opportunity. No matter what, they’re not going away—so, some argue, why not use them to good effect? “Technology is a frightening tool, and the early word on it was that it was a distraction, all these negative things, that it was taking away from our kids’ attention,” admits Sam Savage, teacher of Latin and Spanish. “But the conversation is shifting: How can we harness it so it becomes a positive for education rather than a competing interest?”

Subbing 

QVbb_OTxANiUCyLQ6WLwD0Jrdm05K_ohk8k4atQffeETechnology in the classroom is a hot topic in pedagogical circles—whether they be public or private, primary or secondary. And even though the conversation is decades old at this point, the tools are constantly changing. “[Language Department Chair] Virginia Invernizzi and I came up with a plan not only to give all the language faculty iPads, but to ask them to submit proposals of what to do with them—and to release one member of the department to offer professional development to the others,” explains Taylor. For this, Taylor and Warsaw tapped Spanish teacher Steve Taft. 

While the Language Department may not seem the obvious choice for a technology experiment—these are not computer programmers, after all—Warsaw says once you know the players, it makes perfect sense. “This is a group that already really likes hanging out with each other,” he says. “Because of the social connections, it was an opportunity to have more of a grassroots feel to the initiative.” So when Steve brought the iPads—or at first the idea of the iPads—back to his colleagues, they were able to voice their concerns openly, which opened the floor to discuss potential opportunities as well. 

“We could work on anything we wanted to do,” Taft points out. “Proposals were written for John Taylor’s office, but they went through me, so we all did some kind of technology curriculum development that summer with great independence. We were quite happy to let not-so-technological teachers think about just one thing and take it at the pace they were comfortable with.” Meanwhile, other faculty were a little more intrigued. “Someone like Sam Savage—he was just, Kaboom! Let’s go!” points out Steve. 
“But really everyone went forward.”   

Taft was made available to help research the capabilities of the technology and guide faculty in its implementation, but exactly what each teacher implemented was entirely up to them. In every case, the result can be plugged into an acronym used in theoretical discussions about the use of computers in class: SAMR: Substitution/Augmentation/Modification/Reinvention. “SAMR outlines the sort of steps that institutions tend to go through,” explains Taft. “Substitution is first, and it’s pretty rudimentary. For example, I always have my kids write with a pencil, but gee, we have word processors, so they can write on those,” explains Taft. “Most of early adoption is using the technology to do the same thing in a different guise,” agrees Warsaw. “Augmentation is when you realize you can do more than you did before. An example would be a blog. If you have students posting on blogs, they’re engaging in a discussion outside of class. That’s not just what you’ve always done—that’s more. And then you might start to think of how you could modify the technology to do something new.” 

This is the path that leads finally to reinvention, wherein the very process of teaching—and learning—is now fundamentally different from what it was before the technology was introduced. Does this trajectory seem vaguely familiar? It should, says Warsaw. “This mirrors the stages of creativity. First you copy, then make variations. It’s a while before you do something that no one has actually done before.” But eventually that’s what happens.

Augmenting 

Pedagogical theories have their place, but they’re not always compelling for the teachers who are in the trenches. They might be especially suspect for someone who’s been around the academic block and has seen trends come and go. Take Claudia Lyons, long-time French teacher to generations of Deerfield students. Lyons has watched the technology conversation ramp up on campus, and while she’s had computers in her classroom for years, she also has concerns about the tradeoffs of the newer machines. Her first response to the iPad was . . . chilly. “‘I’m not going to have my kids with their heads down, looking at screens,’” she recalls thinking. “Language is between people.” But Lyons gamely took an iPad home with her, and as the weeks and months ticked by, she started to explore its terrain. Did she end up incorporating it into her classroom? No, not exactly. And yet it did make an impact on her teaching, because as she explored it, she discovered technology she could use elsewhere. 

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“The iPad was essentially a gateway into doing more without the iPad,” she admits. Lyons’s French Honors students now use a program called Collaborize Classroom, and she’s assigning projects to students using PowerPoint or a presentation app called Prezi. “For example, I put my French 4 students in pairs to do a project that required them to research Paris and two other French cities. Then, they were told that they could present their ‘travels’ in PowerPoint or Prezi.  What they chose allowed their creativity to shine: They embedded videos, voiceovers, and clips that they had made,” says Lyons. “The happy result? The students learned about the culture of their cities, they learned how to navigate in them, and they learned how to create a presentation that was more than a series of photos/images.” But, crucially, none of this was at the expense of human interaction, Lyons says. “They had to talk to each other during the presentations,” she points out. “There was also plenty of face-to-face conversation going on, too.”

So far, Lyons’ uses of technology are mostly examples of substitution, but another app she uses moves into the realm of augmentation—or even modification. Edmodo is an education site whose interface mimics Facebook, which is, for better or for worse, very familiar terrain for students. “I’ll have my French I kids write five questions using a certain tense and vocabulary,” Lyons says, which is certainly something they could do in their notebooks, but because Edmodo is a social medium, it takes things a few steps further. Everyone’s work is shared; everyone learns from each other’s mistakes. 

“I can splash their work up on the whiteboard and say, Okay guys, where are the grammatical errors? Let’s go.” What would have been a single student’s learning opportunity now takes place across the classroom. “And then they’ll pick three questions to ask each other. We’ve gone from a really neat way to reinforce things for the visual learners to a comfort zone when they’re working with their partners . . . but a little less comfortable, because they’re talking. And then we close those computers”—Lyons claps her hands in the air—“and it’s show time! Layering these relatively simple technologies has really helped kids with their different styles of learning.”

Modifying  

All in is how Sam Savage, a Latin teacher in his fifth year at Deerfield, describes his approach. “To some extent I’ve thrown out old models of what it’s like to be in the classroom,” he reflects. “I don’t even consider writing on the board anymore.” The Wheelock Latin text can still be found in Savage’s classroom, but its relevance is diminishing. “It’s a useful container for a few things,” he says. “It has drills that are good, a set of vocabulary that I think is useful, and the sequences it lays out are helpful.” But, Savage says, “if we were to use it as a traditional book, we’d just be consuming what someone else has already done. I’d rather have us create the framework instead of reading a book about it. I’d rather write a book about it.” More to the point, he’d rather have his students write that book. Which is exactly what they’re doing.

“Mr. Savage explained to us on the first day of Latin I that we wouldn’t be using an actual guided text, but would be creating one ourselves,” explains Hawa Tucker ’15. “It sounded cool but I was worried . . . how would that work?” Hawa wasn’t alone. “My reaction at first was a bit skeptical,” agrees Will Sanford ’17. “But I’ve also taken Chinese, and I found that writing things down has worked really well for memorization and things like that.” 

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Savage’s approach goes far beyond drills and rote learning. “Before I immersed myself in technology, I believed in the idea of students making something, but I was never fully satisfied with the model of, you know, making the poster board with the map on it,” Savage explains. He points to two such projects propped against an unused blackboard; they look admittedly retro next to the iPad on his desk. “At the end of the day I was stuck with fifteen poster boards that I didn’t know what to do with.” More to the point, the students didn’t do anything with them. Creating them took time and energy, and presenting them required them to get in front of the room. “All good, all valuable,” Savage agrees. “But in the end it missed some key elements, and one of the big ones that technology allows for is ownership.” In this case, his students have shared ownership of the textbook that they are creating, with the help of an iPad app called BookCreator—and, of course, their teacher. 

The result is a growing “ebook”—filled with relevant images, recordings, and videos. It’s not a static collection of information to be learned, but rather a kinetic presentation of what they have already learned. It turns the traditional textbook/classroom model upside down. Plus, points out Savage, “A book is something that exists and can be shared. The ebooks that my students are creating get put in their bookshelf right alongside Sophocles or Darwin or Shakespeare. I think that’s a really powerful message—they’re creating something.” Which brings us back to that analogy of Peter Warsaw’s: The adoption of technology mirrors the stages of creativity. First substitution, then augmentation, then modification. “But Sam is already moving into that redefinition stage,” says Warsaw. “He sees the potential of these tools to create a new mode in which students can learn.” 

Originality, of course, is not the end goal; successful teaching is. The experiment will not prove itself until the students come out the other side speaking and reading their languages. But so far, the response has been optimis, even excelente. “The philosophy is that if we can write our own textbook, we’re forced to know the information,” says Devon Beirut ’17. “I think it’s working really well so far. We’ve been getting into more mechanics: What kind of exercises do we want to include? Do we want to incorporate the songs we made on conjugations and declensions?” Students did decide to color-code different gendered nouns, and songs are in fact now embedded into their ebook. “Now that we’re getting into more creative things, it’s really cool. We’ve even thought about publishing the textbook for other students.” 

Devon’s classmate Izzy St. Arnault underscores that last point. “It’s like we’re almost teaching ourselves,” she says. “I’ve heard teachers say if you can explain it to your friends, you actually understand it. And I’m finding that that’s really true. If I can explain it in a way that makes sense in a textbook, then I’ve really learned it.”

Reinventing  

Let’s circle back to Cheri Karbon—she who found DVD players intimidating. Thanks to mentors like Taft, who gave her the latitude to explore the technology as she saw fit, and Lyons, who set the example of a traditionalist who could still embrace new techniques, Karbon is finding her place on the technology spectrum. Despite her initial hesitation, a conference she attended at Choate last summer fired her up. 

1Q3A5qmOKwWCWKkIaSZXCRibSKstp03Au7t5hyvQFcM“I was super inspired. They gave us a whole week to explore different ebook tools and we had lots of time every afternoon to work on creating an ebook, so I made a ton of headway on that,” Karbon says. She, like Lyons, is using Edmodo to help extend the classroom beyond the class day. “I assign homework where they continue to talk about something we’ve done in class,” explains Karbon. “Or I’ll post something that they can comment on, using a voice recording app. I might say ‘Speak for three minutes on this,’ or ‘Retell this story that we told in class.’ This way, without spending too much class time, I am able to give a lot of focus to each kid’s oral skills.” 

But despite the whiz-bang gadgetry of the iPad and apps like Prezi, despite the powerful social forces behind shared media like Collaborize Classroom and Edmodo, Karbon still finds that in the end, much of her teaching centers around what might be the oldest technology ever: telling stories. “Studies say the human brain can learn 300 to 400 vocabulary words a year—and that’s pushing it,” she points out. “So I’m working with a different approach: Instead of focusing on textbooks, give the information through storytelling. I tell them a story, and there’s repetition in their questions and answers.” Karbon’s using the technology where it helps and shutting it off when she doesn’t need it.

“I look at it this way: Outside the classroom, we’re using technology, but once we’re in class, we use talknology,” she says. 

If it’s what works for her and her students, that’s the bottom line, agrees Warsaw. “Every teacher I know cares deeply about students and their discipline. In the 21st century, to be a caring teacher is to realize you have a more varied group of students than ever who are learning in radically different ways than you did,” he reflects. “You want your students to have as rich and full a toolbox as possible, in order to reach them better. The object remains the same: To make learning take place.” ••