Saturday, 12 December 2009

Rage Against The Machines

When I was sixteen, I had to take a multiple choice test on mechanical reasoning. This was a trial of a new exam, our class was told, and we should not worry about our results: the examining board just wanted to get an idea of our mechanical aptitude. There were diagrams and illustrations depicting screws, levers, rotating belts, pulleys, widgets and gizmos in various machines with arrows pointing up, down, clockwise and counter-clockwise.

I sweated blood over that exam. I chewed my pencil down to a stub and wracked my brains over every single question, finally turning it in with a sigh of relief.

When we got back our results, I immediately put my paper away so that no one would see it: my score was 15%. The principal actually called me into his office over it. He wasn't upset, he quickly assured me; I wasn't in trouble. But how could I get only 15% right? Had I felt ill when I took the test? I blushed and shook my head. Well then, maybe I'd gotten mixed up; maybe I'd thought number 3 was number 4, say, and just carried on, making mistake after mistake? I shrugged. Maybe. The principal stared at me and frowned; he couldn't figure it out. It wasn't statistically possible for someone to get only 15% right. And it was very strange, considering how good most of my other results were. In fact, he went on, I was the only student in the entire school with such a great discrepancy between verbal skills and mechanical ability.

I let the principal think that I might have gotten mixed up and filled in the wrong answers. It was easier than answering any more questions. The truth, I suspect, is that the part of my brain where mechanical reasoning skills should be isn't just a yawning, cavernous blank, it's a carnival house of distorted mirrors where everything is twisted up and put in the wrong way around. It's like I have some mechanical dyslexia that makes me muddle everything up. And it isn't dependable either. It's not as though left is right and right is left: some days counterclockwise is clockwise, but others it might be straight down in a corkscrew fashion.

Fortunately, life isn't all about machines. I've coped through pretty well with my disability. I've mastered the rudiments of bicycle, typewriter, copy machine -- even automobile. In my life-after-children, I've actually figured out how to use a mobile phone and a laptop. And I'm a teacher, not a mechanical engineer: as long as I can operate a Xerox, pop a video into a machine, produce sound on a CD player, print out worksheets on a computer, I'm home free, right?

If only! A few years back, our school purchased what they call smart boards. These are essentially huge vertical laptops with a king-sized pen (really a 'mouse') that the teacher can whisk all over the board, or screen, to do all sorts of clever things. No longer do you have to stand at the blackboard, patiently writing out sentences with an aching arm, breathing in chalk dust. No more filling up board markers with messy ink, no more brushing up against whiteboards and ruining your clothes.

But smart boards fill me with terror. When I use my own laptop, only my family is around to witness my screw ups. When you teach with a smart board, you've got a whole room full of kids to witness what you do. Kids, I might add, who are a lot more computer savvy than I am. Who are bound to sit there, watching me flounder about and think smart board, dumb teacher. And no matter what anyone tells me, I know that smart boards are not problem-free. Just as computers have made the writing process far more convenient, so do they bring a near-infinite supply of headaches. No one will convince me that smart boards aren't just the same: even technologically savvy teachers tell tales of breakdowns, blackouts, and weird glitches they can't figure out, and I've heard them. The same goes for using laptops with projectors and speakers: sure teachers can do plenty with them, but is it worth all the hassle? I remain unconvinced.

So I breathed a huge sigh of relief when the smart boards were assigned to a chosen few (i.e. young) teachers and we old-fashioned types were allowed to use the classrooms with whiteboards. I breathed another sigh of relief when I knew that I wouldn't have to teach the class that is using DVDs.

Then they went and changed our schedules. Why do they do that?

Last week, I was handed a DVD and a book. I was given a laptop, a projector, a pair of speakers, an extension cable, and a whole crap-load of nasty things to connect bits to other bits. A kindly colleague helped me haul it all down and showed me how to set up. It didn't work, so she got another teacher to help us. Between the two of them, they finally got it working while I watched in horrified bemusement.

The class was like something out of hell. Even with all the blinds closed and the lights off, it was too bright for us to see what was going on. We ended up having to project the image on the wall opposite the whiteboard, and as all the chairs are bolted down, students had to swivel around and strain their necks to see. The sound was distorted and out of sync with the actors' lips. Every time I tried to pause the DVD to ask a question, I ended up turning off the whole thing. There were so many twisty, tangly bits of cable running all over the place that I ended up tripping on one and disconnecting the entire system. A student knocked over the projector when he got up to put something in the bin. The only thing the class managed to learn was that their teacher can't operate a laptop without swearing, which segues nicely into the only vocabulary I ended up teaching them. Everybody went out of class saying death, hell and poison. And worse.

The second class was just as bad. The third class -- the third class I don't want to talk about.

I have two more months of this, three days a week. Hell couldn't be much worse.

A friend once told me about a colleague of hers who taught in Bhutan. His classroom was in a cave. There was one blackboard, a carefully hoarded supply of chalk, and clean drinking water. Sounds ideal, doesn't it?

I wonder if there are any openings?


Suelle said...

Excellent post! I'm in the "OK" range when it comes to technology, but when I somehow lost my journal that'd I'd kept for a year you should have heard me scream at that damn computer! I haven't kept a journal on a computer since.

K. Erickson said...

Mary, everyone has their unique gifts. I have been fortunate to have a multitude of talents, but casual conversation is not one of them. Group speaking? No Problem. Writing? Ditto. One on one conversation? Train wreck. It's the same way with everyone I think. My mother is one of the most gifted pianists I've ever know and a great teacher, but we don't let her loose with any tools much less power tools.

Charles Gramlich said...

Some day they'll figure out that such technology is actually a hampering to the learning process. Other than the ability to show better pictures and handwriting than many faculty can muster, the use of smart boards, PCs and videos clearly decrease the learning experience overall.

Nora MacFarlane said...

LOL! I'm you in reverse! My last school had loads of technology. I used it all the time. My current teaching assignment leaves me with the cave, blackboard and chalk. I MISS my internet resources! Trade ya?

Marian said...

Oh Mary, I hear you about modern technology. I'm not a Luddite. I fully support innovation and improvement. But somehow it takes me forever to become familiar with new developments.

Last year I bought a new computer from a friend, and he said he would throw in something for free. Then he handed me this small white oblong... thing.

"What is it?" I said, puzzled.

"An iPod."

"Oh. What's an iPod?"

He stared at me for a long moment before telling me that it was what modern people used to listen to music. What did I use?

I replied in a small voice, "A Walkman."

After he stopped laughing, he said, "Marian, the '80s called. They want their technology back."

Vijaya said...

Don't even get me started ... I do classroom visits and there's no regular board. I had to use a smartboard. Once I was doing a math lesson, and all was well until the teacher showed me exactly how smart the smartboard was -- it made the graphs for the kiddies! I wanted to take that mouse away from her. Whatever happened to the basics such as reading, writing, and 'rithmetic?

Robert the Skeptic said...

Some things in our life should not be ported to New Technology just because they CAN. White boards are great because you can hand the pen to a student to participate in the lesson.

As far as technology failure, nothing could have been more embarrassing than Microsoft CEO Bill Gates who was demonstrating the latest version of his operating system monopoly at a huge publicity event and it failed miserably.

With four different remotes to run our various television appliances and no easy way to connect my computer to the TV, technology has a LONG way to go yet before it will truly be useful to the rest of us.

Kim Ayres said...

In each class there will be one or more students who will be able to whizz their way round it in a matter of minutes.

You need to figure out who it is in each class (probably the one who speaks the least amount of English and rarely turns up) and recruit them to be your operations manager.

Mary Witzl said...

Suelle -- Thank you for visiting my blog!

I keep my journal on my computer and have done this for the past five years. But for some reason, that very thing happened to me too, just last month, for the very first time, and I still can't figure out how it happened. It really is beyond infuriating.

K Erickson -- Oddly enough, I'm pretty good with a belt sander and hot air gun (simple, fairly uncomplicated mechanisms), and I can hold my own at casual conversation. But group speaking is quite a different story. I feel exactly the same when I'm trying to merge with the traffic flow, coming onto a freeway.

Charles -- Ooh, yes -- I'm sending you a cyber high five! In fact, the handful of my colleagues who are able to use technology in the classroom use it very effectively. For someone like me, though, it absolutely decreases the learning process. And it certainly increases my misery.

Nora -- Yes please, let's trade! You send me your cave and you can have my laptop, speakers, projector and all those horrid fiddly cable thingies. Especially all those cable thingies -- they are YOURS. Is your cave air-conditioned?

Marian -- I'm a selective Luddite. In my dreams, I go around smashing all the smart boards and projectors in our school. (Umm...if any of my colleagues happen to read this, I am really NOT the one who wrote on the smart boards. 'In my dreams' I said.)

Love your iPod story! I couldn't tell an iPod from an MP3 player. Eighties technology was great, wasn't it? I was working for Sony when the Walkman came out and we all thought it was the hottest thing off wheels. Whoever thought it could possibly be surpassed by newer, slicker gizmos?

Vijaya -- I LONG for those basics! I feel like such a boring old thing, so totally out of touch. I want to kneel down and scratch numerals in the dust with a stick and use small stones and shells to count groups of ten. And if I've GOT to have graphs, then I want to make them all by myself.

Robert -- How sick am I that the thought of Bill Gates sweating it out in front of all those hundreds of people cheers me up no end? It's all his fault this technological stuff happened anyway!

Back in the 80s, all a teacher had to do was pop a video into a machine and press a button. Pausing the video was easy, too. Now, it's supposed to be so wonderful that we can use laptops to show DVDs, but for simple souls like me it's infinitely more complicated.

Kim -- I found that very student in all three classes, but it was still awful! They couldn't make the sound fit, they couldn't get the room darker, and they couldn't figure out when I wanted to pause the damn thing -- in fact, one techno-whiz kid kept assuming I wanted to pause at the very wrong moment. I miss my VHS video machine.

Postman said...

I think I'd rather teach in Bhutan. At least caves keep a constant temperature. Death, hell and poison...ha!

Patrick said...

LOL! Well, some of my high school teachers are like that too.
Better luck with those 'machines' in your next classes! =)

Falak said...

The last time I tried to put songs into my ipod I went and deleted all the songs that it previously held. After that I fiddle with it only under my brother's supervision. My brother who is 3 years younger to me and not yet out of school. Only last week my uncle got a cd home and asked me to load the songs into the computer. I was the joke of the household till a few days back.

Bish Denham said...

I'm with you Mary. I'm no techo-geek either. I sometimes wonder if today's kids will ever know how to do things in their heads or on paper. I mean, there was no such thing as calculators when I went to school. Only the smart kids (like my sister) used a slide-rule. Anyone remember them? We had to memorize things, build our own graphs, solve math problems on paper so the teacher could see our work. Our spell checker was the dictionary. Amazing.

I've had an iPod about 10 months. Still haven't figured out how to use the d**n thing....

Mary Witzl said...

Postman -- Me too. I can imagine a cave classroom would have a lot of advantages to the traditional types. If I taught in a cave, I wouldn't have the problem of students CONSTANTLY going to the windows to open or close them or adjust the blinds. But I'll bet slamming my head against the wall would hurt a whole lot more...

Patrick -- You're young and techno-whizzy, aren't you? It must be so neat to be young and techno-whizzy! My kids can sort out i-Pods, DVDs, laptops, and CD players in mere seconds.

Sigh. I can tie shoelaces, though. And if they're ever stuck without calculators, I'll get the answer faster through long division. (Smile. Or -- since you're young -- :) )

Falak -- My husband did the very same thing just the other day! It drove him mad: he'd just downloaded a whole slew of wonderful stuff we all like and in a second it was all gone. Even people who know their technology manage to do things like this!

I'm still the joke of the household though. My kids will never let me forget the time I got a CD mixed up with a DVD.

Bish -- My parents were really old-fashioned: I still remember 78s, 45s and 33 1/3s along with slide rules, shoes with laces, and going to church every Sunday whether you felt like it or not.

My husband still insists that the kids in his class show the process they use to work out math problems, and I think a lot of his colleagues do the same thing.

I'm so glad to hear about your iPod! Makes me feel better about the MP3 player I got for Christmas a few years back. It's still in its box.

nanmarino said...

I love your term "selective luddite". I'm one of those too. I haven't mastered a smart board and am in no hurry to. I'm kind of fond of Skype (but that one seems easy to get the hang of)

Robin said...

Oh, man, I would feel exactly the same way, Mary. And, I would be just as facile with the equipment.

My equivalent hell is the constant threat of making everyone have computerized records. I actually take notes while people talk, so I can remember what the heck is happening. You can't type on a laptop while people talk. It would look demented. Plus, I'd delete everything by mistake. I know I would.

MG Higgins said...

smart board, dumb teacher. Heh.

Your post actually makes me feel much better about myself, because it reminds me that we all have our ability black holes.

laura said...

Death, hell, and poison are pretty tame compared to what I could have taught them!! I once dropped the F-bomb over the phone to one of the computer support people at my work place! It didn't help that this particular computer company was a small business run by very religious people! BTW, my cell phone isn't capable of texting and I couldn't be happier!!

(You need to email me your address! I have to send your bag to you! Click on my 'about me' picture and my email is right there!)

Mary Witzl said...

Nanmarino -- Thank you for visiting my blog!

I was so proud of myself when I first managed to communicate with people on Skype. That was before I knew all about smart boards, power point demonstrations, and cell phones that connected to the internet. No sooner do I figure out some seemingly unfathomable new thing than something even newer and more complicated comes along.

Robin -- I had another high-tech lesson today and it was horrendous -- I left the classroom gritting my teeth, drenched in sweat. I'm starting to feed cables into sockets in my dreams.

I'm glad to know that you stick to pen and paper when you take notes. I'm pretty sure my doctor in Scotland talked to me over a laptop. I thought he was multi-tasking, surfing the net while getting me sorted out.

MGHiggins -- If I explored all my memory black holes, I'm sure I could make everybody feel great about themselves.

Machines, directions, and names are my biggest ability black holes. Sometimes I really wonder what possessed me to go into teaching in the first place.

Laura -- Please get in touch with Charlie Callahan (of 'Hounded') who often posts here. He is looking for a mobile phone that does nothing but make and receive phone calls!

I almost never swear (especially when I'm away from home and don't really need to), but during these classes it gets so hellish that many words come unbidden to my lips. Death, hell and poison were just to give you the general idea of my warm up. Once I got started, I really let fly. Good thing those kids never remember anything I say.

Someday..... said...

I teach 5th grade in a small rural school. 3 years ago - our district entered what I like to call"techno gate". All 7th - 12th graders were issued macs (with internet and CAMERAS), teachers now have smart boards, elmos and projectors in their classes along with clickers and air liners.
I don't mind the technology, but the problem is WHEN do I have time to learn and utilize all the new stuff? I use the elmo and projector daily - My student use the air liner (basically a wireless notepad that allows them to mark on the image projected on the wall - or interact with it using the smart board technology when we do sentence diagramming or corrections).
I like the technology for the fact that it engages kids - makes them excited to use it and learn. However, the same is true of the art projects I utilize to teach grammar - application is at the top of the learning hierarchy - but if I don't have the TIME to learn it, it wastes time on my classroom trying to figure it out....and I already work a lot of hours for free...
Good luck -
it gets easier with use....

Anne Spollen said...

I have a very similar story about a mechanical reasoning test -- and everyone in my family is amazingly good at that stuff.

I use a whiteboard. When the dean complained, I told her that I could always rely on the whiteboard to get the notes across. So far she's left me alone about it.

We have smart boards, too. I'm just too dumb to use them.

I so feel your pain.

kara said...

cables are the bane of everyone's existence. well...second next to pestilence.

Charlie said...

It's odd how all these school systems can afford high-tech "teaching" tools, but they can't afford construction paper or crayons. Too 80s, I guess.

And I still use my Walkman, especially for audiobooks. I am dinosaur, hear me roar!

Anonymous said...

Sometimes technology just makes things a lot more complicated than they ever needed to be. For most cases, I would imagine that a blackboard and chalk would be quite sufficient.

But then, I am half-luddite.

Carol said...

Thank goodness Schwarzenegger cut our budget so severely that we won't get Smart Boards. This year. My latest ESL conference presentation was on The Paperless Classroom, which focused on teaching with NOTHING. Like your friend in Bhutan. That's more my style. Mary: email me! I have a Christmas package for you but I don't have your home address! Merry Christmas from Carol.

Lily Cate said...

I can make machines do what I need them to, but I couldn't really explain how. That's the extent of my techie know-how.

Mary Witzl said...

Someday -- Thank you for commenting. And thank you for nailing one of the essential issues here: time. Kids (meaning people around 30 and under) seem to know how to do all of this stuff instinctively. For those of us who are superannuated, figuring out all the technology and getting ourselves to the point where we can use it seamlessly involves a huge time suck. Like you, I put in a lot of hours I'm not paid for. I find it hard enough to squeeze in everything I have to do in my paid hours. And now I've got all this technohell to juggle around. Now I know how my mother felt when they took away her mimeograph machine and brought in a state-of-the-art Xerox machine with all sorts of complicated functions.

Anne -- I'm so glad that there are other technophobes out there; it really cheers me up. I'm surrounded by people who know all about this stuff -- and who roll their eyes when I get CDs and DVDs mixed up.

You took that test too? I've never met anyone else who remembers that test!

Here's hoping the dean won't force the smart board issue with you!

Kara -- I trip over them and get them tangled up with each other and forget what they're all called or what they do and then get laughed at by the savvy. I hate cables with a white-hot passion.

Charlie -- I want a Walkman! I love the idea of how deeply uncool I would look strolling around with one, making my kids shrink back from shame.

I'm a roaring technophobe type too. If we weren't using machines to communicate, I'd suggest we go out for a little machine bashing party.

Gypsy -- You're only half Luddite? I used to be full-blown, but lately I've worked my way down to 85%. But I'm 100% technophobe. And a blackboard with chalk will suit me just fine.

Carol -- Yay, how wonderful to hear from you! When we first started, all we had to worry about was a Xerox machine and a tape recorder -- remember? And what a great presentation that must have been -- wish I'd been there to see it. When we next meet, I will make you do it for me!

I will email you tonight.

Lily -- Most of the time, I can make them do my bidding too, though like you I have no IDEA how it all works. Last year, I happened to read a book about the POWs who worked on the Burma Railway. With smuggled bits of copper wire, glass, etc., they managed to cobble together a radio under the most horrendous conditions. You could give me all the resources in the world, a manual, and a tutorial, and I'd be at it until hell froze over. Sad.

AnneB said...

Mary, I've just solved all your problems about getting the kids to pay attention and learn. Teach them the English cuss words used for a technology (or user) fail!

Mary Witzl said...

AnneB -- (Blush) Unwittingly, I have already done that. One of the kids today called out "Sh*t!" when I managed to lose the Main Menu for the fifth time. I admonished him, saying that he should not use such bad language and he looked hurt. "Teacher, YOU say."

And so I do. Sigh...