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Work in Progress

A Work in Progress
Head for the Edge, April 1998

Word processing is usually the first, and often remains, the primary use of the computer by teachers. Teachers are writers – of worksheets, of study guides, of student comments, of curriculum guides, of letters to parents, of tests, of rubrics, of checklists, of announcements, of newsletters. You name it, we write it. Our schools operate primarily through the medium of print, and those who are successful in school – as students, teachers or administrators - tend to be those who read, write, and speak well.

I have never lost my delight with the writing freedom the word processor has given me. I can remember from my first years of teaching the painful evenings spent typing tests on mimeograph paper, carefully removing the inverse waxy errors I’d made with a razor blade, and quietly praying the faded blue print from previous years’ worksheets would last for just one more run of 90 copies. My handwriting is also bad so not typing student materials was never an option. (Plus I had to walk ten miles to school – uphill both ways. But that’s another story.)

My poor typing was in fact a disservice to my students. Each November, I’d pull that faded Macbeth test from my file cabinet and look through it. Spelling errors, missing words, and haphazard alignment of foils made the test harder than it needed to be for my students, but even worse were the questions that just didn’t work because they were ambiguous or irrelevant. Each year I would look at that test (all nine pages, 60 odd questions) and vow to type a revision of it. And each year time would get short and I would use the old test, orally prefaced by an ever-lengthening set of corrections.

The word processor changed that. Finally I could keep the questions that worked, and only change the problematic ones. I could run a fresh mimeograph sheet through the dot matrix printer every year. And, Oh Happy Days!, I could check my words with a spelling checker. Suddenly the gross unfairness of the world judging a writer’s ideas by how those ideas were spelled could be eliminated. I was liberated and I couldn’t wait to start freeing up all the kids who suffered from the same problems I did. Those same feelings of empowerment also came from databases, spreadsheets, presentation programs, video editing, email, the World Wide Web, and intranets, but word processing was my first true digital love.

This early experience with the word processor taught me a few things.

First, because of the digitization of information, EVERYTHING can be a work in progress. Unlike like my Macbeth test, teacher produced materials can be easily modified and improved each time they are used. Spelling and grammar checkers can improve professional communication as well as student writing. And truly proficient computer users soon begin to take advantage of their word processor’s desktop publishing features to add explanatory graphics, catchy fonts, and visual emphases. The homemade materials become indistinguishable from commercial materials. Oh, other than the small fact that they are tailor-made to meet the needs of the individual class.

This work in progress phenomenon is extending its reach. Curriculum can be continuously revised and guides (along with collections of teacher produced support materials) can be published on the school’s Intranet and continuously updated. Student performance reports can be revised daily and shared with parents who given on-line access. Long-range plans can change as technologies, funding, or philosophies change.

The benefits of an organization (or world) which views itself a continuous work in progress are readily apparent, but the unfixedness can also be unsettling and challenging. Librarians have been discussing how the World Wide Web might be cataloged and sites reviewed. Finally the expression “like nailing Jell-O to the wall” makes sense. How does anyone review and catalog an information source that may change its location or content at any moment without notice? What skills do users of information need to work effectively a world of such fluid data resources? How does one keep up with the pace of change? Please let me know when you find out.

The second thing learning to use the word processor taught me was that teachers really do need to experience the power of technology on a personal level before they can successfully introduce it to students. Spreadsheets are wonderfully involving; databases can be as intriguing to build as any model; and hypermedia shows can buck up the most reluctant speaker. But it takes an enthusiastic teacher to get kids away from the computer games and drills, and into these “knowledge construction sets.” That won’t happen unless teachers have taken the time and made the considerable effort to learn the software and use it meet a genuine need of their own. Teachers need technology first.

Oh, the word processor gave me one last insight. It’s OK to be a pretty terrible writer, so long as you are a great reviser. (Or should that read, “One can be a poor writer, but great reviser? Let’s see if I eliminate that, and move this, hmmmmm.)

Most of my Head for the Edge columns, updated and edited, can be found in my latest book. Buy it and I might be able to afford a nicer nursing home one day. Thank you.


Posted on Saturday, July 7, 2007 at 08:19AM by Registered CommenterDoug Johnson in | CommentsPost a Comment

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