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Do Our Students Have Access?

Written by Katie McKay
January 27, 2012

Today, the integration of technology in public school classrooms is as much about teaching for equity as it is about effective pedagogy. True, technology motivates my English Language Learners to learn the curriculum and helps me differentiate for diverse learners. Yes, digital media provides an audience for my students’ passions, convictions, and stories.

But, no, innovative pedagogy is not the primary reason why I must put digital media to use in my instruction of English Language Learners.

In a former school where I taught, where most students did not have computers at home, I saw a lab of brand new, flat-screen, fully-equipped desktops sit empty for a year while students practiced rote memorization and performed test practice after test practice. My efforts to use this technology were met with the belief that I was exposing my students to an add-on rather than integral to their core learning. Such lessons, I was told, showed that I did not understand the “sense of urgency” to address our students’ “many curricular gaps”.

The unequal access to high quality education in classrooms and to technology in our society is undeniable. Furthermore, the two problems of unequal educational opportunity and unequal access to technology cannot be seen as mutually exclusive. As educators, we can no longer view the use of technology in our classrooms as simply innovative pedagogy left to tech-savvy teachers. Today, the integration of technology in classrooms of marginalized student populations is the difference between giving students access to future opportunity and denying them from it.

Educators who approach the use of technology in the curriculum as an imperative find ways to seamlessly integrate high quality application of multi-media tools.

For example, when I was under pressure to help our Texas school to climb out of a low state rating, our country was electing its first African American president. My students were glued to the news coverage with clips of civil rights marches and the unifying of masses of youth behind our first president of color.

We delved into a study of discrimination in the history and present of our country. Students read articles, engaged in group discussions, and wrote scripts for iMovies in which they took on roles of agents of change in unjust scenarios. My English Language Learners recorded in confidence, able to learn English and cover curriculum while also learning to use digital media as a means for making change.

Under similar pressures, Philadelphia Writing Project teacher Robert Rivera-Amezola also turns to technology to engage his English Language Learner students, pull together curricular goals and teach around high-interest topics of change. In listening to Robert speak about a project in which his students used a myriad of technological tools to advocate for the environment, we hear resounding themes of service and justice.

In Robert’s videos, we see his students master the use of such tools as podcasts, blogs, internet research, and PowerPoint to educate and persuade authentic audiences. Robert makes sure that his students have their own email addresses and use doodle polls to vote on topics about which to explore in depth as a class. There is an undeniable brilliance in Robert’s pedagogy.

Additionally, I believe that the above examples of the integration of technology are how Robert and I are fighting for equitable access. Students in our classes are connected to the same technology that is quickly dividing our nation into stratified classes: those who have access and those who have not.

When I compare my experiences in Title I and affluent schools, the inequities glare at me. I have attended conferences and read articles, engaged in discussion around the issue that tech-savvy educators call the “digital divide”. However, the words digital divide seem too gentle to me. The alliteration of the soft, polite d’s irks me.

The term ‘digital divide’ is as unacceptable as its definition. As I type a blog post on my laptop, simultaneously catching up on the news on my desktop and responding to text messages on my smart phone, the harsh word ‘chasm’ seems more fitting. Today, without the thoughtful, effective integration of empowering technological tools, no gap will be closed. Instead, without technology in classrooms, the divide too quickly becomes a gorge.

However, when I watch Robert Rivera-Amezola’s video, I see the possibility. I see the teaching strategies that not only address the curriculum, but also empower students to upload to, rather than simply download, all of the knowledge that is at our fingertips. When I think of my students working with digital tools, whether it’s iMovie, wikis, prezi, or glogster, I see glimmers of a bridge that we, as educators, have the chance to build.

I do feel the sense of urgency. And what’s more, I take the responsibility for preparing my students for a future that we cannot yet fully comprehend. When we teach students who are marginalized in a society that is more and more dependent on digital tools, we are the digital service providers for our students. Therefore, when we plan for each day, we must ask ourselves:

Do our students have access?

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