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A School That's Too High on Gizmos

What's truly disconcerting is that the technology overkill is turning off talented young teachers. As one of the best here -- someone whom parents seek out and students love -- put it: "There's a lot of things I like about the computers, but we're being forced to do an unreasonable number of computer activities. Many of them don't fit my teaching style. We have so many hoops to jump through that some days I come in and I'm not excited to teach. All the computer activities just take us away from students."

The administration doesn't seem to care about that. Recently, we English teachers had to get substitutes for our classes and attend an all-day technology session. An e-mail from the central office informed us that we would "examine methods for integrating technology to deepen student understanding by increasing rigor, creating relevance and building relationships with students and among students."

Apparently administrators really do believe that computers are the key to building relationships. The human voice and face-to-face contact have been replaced by e-mail and Blackboard, a computer program that allows teachers and students to communicate via the Internet. I've always thought that in some ways schools should be like families, but as one experienced teacher puts it, "We're becoming like a correspondence school where all communication is faceless."

You can walk around T.C. and peer into offices and classrooms and see administrators, guidance counselors and teachers staring at their computers instead of interacting with students. To some, T.C.'s principal of two years seems more comfortable in cyberspace than in face-to-face interaction. His preferred method of communicating with teachers seems to be via e-mail, and some say they think he doesn't know who they are or what they teach.

I love my computer and all I can do with it; on the few days when it's been in for repairs, I've felt a bit lost at first, the way I do when I can't find my cellphone or my TiVo remote. But as classes go on, I feel much closer to my students without the distraction of the laptop.

Of course, the big question isn't whether teachers like spending their time learning one new gizmo after another, but whether a parade of new technologies will help kids learn. From what I can see, that's not the case. Says one math teacher: "Math grows out of the end of a pencil. You don't want the quick answer; you want students to be able to develop the answer, to discover the why of it. The administration seems to think that computers will make math easy, but it has to be a painful, step-by-step process."

A social studies teacher agrees. More than ever, he says, "our students want to push a button or click a mouse for a quick A, B or C answer. Fewer and fewer of them want to think anymore because good thinking takes time."

I see the same thing in my classes, especially when it comes to writing essays. Many students send their papers in over the Internet, and while the margins are correct and the fonts attractive, the writing is worse than ever. It's as if the rule is: Write one draft, run spell check, hit "send" and pray.

Alexandria isn't the only school system bitten by the technology bug. Many rushed into giving every student a laptop in the hopes of finding a quick fix to the technological and academic performance gaps between the well-to-do and those less so. But now, a number are abandoning the programs, saying there's no evidence that the laptops are helping students academically -- and that they may even be a distraction.

North Point High School for Science, Technology and Industry in Waldorf went with ceiling-mounted LCD projectors but nixed the idea of laptops for all students. "Our philosophy is to have whatever technology our teachers want to do their jobs better available to them," Principal Kim Hill told me. "Technology is just a tool, not an end in itself. It will never replace good teaching."

Are you listening, Alexandria?

Patrick Welsh has taught English at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria for more than 30 years.

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