Statewide Teachers’ Strikes

I’ve been following the spate of teacher strikes with interest. West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona, Colorado, North Carolina – there’s a reason many are calling this “America’s Education Spring.” Too many think that this is just about pay. Pay matters, and I believe that teachers are generally underpaid, a problem that has grown in the last ten years.


According to the Brookings Institution, “[t]eachers in the U.S. are paid about 30 percent less than other comparably educated workers in the economy, and this gap is larger than most other industrialized countries. Combining these salary reductions with increases in health insurance premiums and contributions to retirement benefits—both of which have fallen more on teachers’ shoulders over the last decade—means that most teachers have significantly less in take-home pay than they used to. Though teachers have for a long time worked second jobs at a higher rate than other full-time workers in the economy, it appears that the pinch is inducing even more to moonlight—potentially to the detriment of their students.[1] “Nationally, teachers today are paid on average $60,483 annually—17 percent lower than America’s typical college graduates, according to a recent survey conducted by the National Education Association.”[2]



The numbers are worrisome. “Nationally, average teacher salaries are down nearly 5 percent after inflation is considered, and some states are down even further.”[3] By 2015 school funding had not returned to a pre-recession levels in 29 states.[4]  No wonder many striking teachers, like those in Arizona, demand not only a raise, but also increased school funding. And most of the states enduring state-wide strikes have teachers’ salaries set by the state, creating a laser focus.


But I suspect that there is more at work here than even these compelling numbers. The pressure on teachers has increased dramatically since my first teaching job in 1970. Accountability laws, helicopter parents, a wide range of student abilities and levels of achievement, and – too often – a lack of respect and support discourage some of the best teachers I know. People who still think teachers work a short day and a short year clearly have never been a teacher or had a teacher in their


When I was still teaching [and, admittedly, when schools were better funded in general], research suggested that teachers sought respect, decision-making about curriculum and policy, leadership opportunities, and recognition and appreciation of effective work. Changing school culture won’t replace decent pay, but it will enhance the best of what’s happening in schools.


As a nation we often give lip service to the importance of a public education. We need to fund our schools adequately, ensuring reasonable and competitive teacher pay as well as funding for materials and professional development to help teachers continue to grow and serve their students. We also need changes in school culture and the attitude of parents and the public toward teachers. Only then will teachers be empowered to be their best selves in the classroom, a key to helping students become their best selves.






[4] Ibid.

Technology as the Spawn of Satan

Back to the issue of technology in the schools… The recent spate of books condemning technology and insisting that it’s ruining our kids continues to grow. In Glow Kids, Dr. Nicholas Kardaras argues that “age-inappropriate screen tech, with all of its glowing ubiquity—has profoundly affected the brains of an entire generation.”[1] An addiction expert and former professor, he looks at brain imaging and clinical research to prove the negative neurological impact of the epidemic of tech usage. In Reset Your Child’s Brain, child psychiatrist  Dr. Victoria Dunckley ascribes many behavioral issues of children to Electronic Screen Syndrome (ESS) from the everyday use of interactive digital devices. She prescribes an extended fast from digital devices.

I have just finished exploring  Screen Schooled: Two Veteran Teachers Expose How Technology Overuse Is Making Our Kids Dumber by Joe Clement and Matt Miles. They, too, insist that overuse of technology has harmed students, and that schools are complicit in their commitment to technology regardless of its purpose and the harm it causes. They claim that American teens spend almost nine hours a day on screen time and too often see knowledge  as information without a context. They point out that teens ages 12-18 go through a significant period of growth and pruning in the prefrontal cortex that’s very important for higher-level cognitive skills. If they’re underutilizing the portions of the pre-frontal cortex used to solve problems or think critically, teens could end up pruning that section and grow synapses used for gaming and social media instead.[2] They write, “If you consider the fact that technology is designed to solve problems for us, it should be introduced only after students have mastered the ability to solve problems on their own.”[3] They argue persuasively about the value of inactive time to support thinking. Like the other books mentioned, they do offer action steps to help parents reduce school and home use of technology.

I am concerned when I read these tomes [often on an e-reader, I’ll confess!]. I am concerned when colleagues describe their students’ insistence on using phone screens in class and secreting them well, making intervention challenging. Technology has changed the classroom – we can all agree on that.

But I find the one-sided arguments of these books frustrating. Clement and Miles complain that technology encourages a false sense of multi-tasking and hurts focus. That may be true, but then isn’t this a teachable moment to teach focus directly and counteract that tendency? We need to counteract our society’s vision of multitasking for everyone, and focus should be a significant part of the curriculum. The authors condemn a shift from problem-solving to lessons in how to use technology – but that’s an avoidable choice. Schools could and should commit to teaching problem solving effectively. These authors also point out that it’s easier for students to plagiarize without acknowledging that it’s also easier for teachers to identify that plagiarism. The real problem is not the technology itself but its misuse by well-intended but perhaps misguided districts and educators. With effective guidance, schools and teachers should be able to identify opportunities for technology to enhance teaching and learning, and limit its use where that enhancement doesn’t exist.

So… what to do? For me the turning point was reading that Clement and Miles would have students first learn mathematical processes without a calculator. I came of age during the slide rule era and confess I never fully grasped its conceptual base. We can and should teach learners the basic mathematical processes, but the amount of time students like me spent on computation seems pointless now. My husband argues that his strong pre-calculator background helps him recognize likely errors and estimate in his head. We can still teach learners to do that. But I’m far more interested in whether they can determine what numbers to explore to solve a given problem than their ability to compute those numbers freehand.

Technology can be transformational for teachers and learners. I’ve written before about its impact on my own writing and the way I taught writing. The ability to connect with students and parents improved my rapport and their understanding. If teachers post homework and students persist in bothering them to find out the assignments instead of checking the post, then teachers need to practice tough love and send them to that posting. Technology has created numerous challenges and frustrations for teachers – I get that. But it has created great opportunities to transform teaching and learning at the same time. It’s up to all of us to figure out how to mine those opportunities even as we limit the distractions and waste. We need to engage young people so they are less prone to turn to their screens mindlessly. My parents limited television viewing time; my son and daughter-in-law limit screen time. They also provide appealing alternatives. Teachers can and should provide appealing alternatives. Wholesale dumping of technology is neither realistic nor productive. Let’s work to use it wisely and set limits on it use. That’s a win-win scenario.

[1] Amazon review

[2] Screen Schooled 59.

[3] Screen Schooled 70.

Why Teach?

Last week several encounters reminded me of why I chose to spend my career teaching and learning with young adults. First, the articulate students arguing for meaningful curbs for violence moved the needle more than adults ever have. Their fierce determination to make the world safe for all students inspired me. Their courage and resilience kept them from backing down in the face of adversity. Their unwillingness to be silenced helped to bring about change.

And they reminded me of the students who had inspired me as I fought to help establish Gay/Straight Alliances in my district. They, too, refused to back down. Their articulate demands, their fortitude, and their mutual support inspired me. Because of them I did not back down. Because of them, the GSAs are still going 18 years later.

And I had three delightful encounters with former students. On Tuesday night one of them joined my writing group. She and I had reconnected before – in fact, I blogged about her in “What’s Behind the Mask?” She contributed to our rich discussion so effectively. When I smiled and said, “You must have had good English teachers,” she replied, “But, of course.” I’m delighted that she’s decided to join us. The next morning I finally had a much delayed coffee date with the former student I’d blogged about in “Relationships Are a Two-way Street.” The delays had been my fault, but the wait was worth it as I discovered this vibrant young woman as an adult with an interesting life and entertaining stories. I look forward to seeing her again, too. And the very next day I saw, as I so often do, yet another former student as I checked in a friend at the gym. This lovely young woman and I first connected there in a Zumba class, and she now works the front desk. Every time she’s there when I check in, her smile of encouragement inspires me to work out well.

I always hated the old joke that the three best reasons to teach are “June, July, and August.” I used to think my reaction stemmed from the work I did most summers: curriculum work, reading new materials, teaching teachers about problem-based learning.  And I resented the way it diminished the unreasonable pace of the school year which made some summer time recovery a necessity. I now realize, however, that my antipathy stems most of all from its diminishment of what really matters, the students. They provide the real payoff for teachers.

I became a teacher to impact students, and I hope I did. I expected to teach them, and I did. But the true gift of being a teacher comes from learning from students and the many ways they impacted me. Reminders of those lessons filled my life last week.  I feel incredibly lucky to have spent my professional life with students.

The Time Is Up for Guns, Too


I’d intended to stay on the theme of technology and the challenges it poses, but the Parkland, Florida, school shooting and the remarkable response of the students there needs attention first. Not surprisingly, adults retreated to their partisan corners and the President flip-flopped once again. For the first time, though, I have hope. The activism of young people won’t let this go.


I am adamantly opposed to arming teachers. Not only would this change the atmosphere in the school and create additional danger – most of  my high school students could have disarmed me – but a locked-up handgun, even if retrieved quickly, is unlikely to prevent mass casualties from an assault rifle. In a December 2012 statement, the National Association of Secondary School Principals said, “Firearms in principals’ and teachers’ hands might do more harm than good. To be effective, schools must be perceived as safe havens.”[1] Teachers can only make schools a safe place to learn if they focus on teaching. They cannot be the police force. And at Parkland, the police officer, trained to protect people and carrying a gun on his person, failed to stop the shooter. Could we expect more from teachers? Should we? I say a resounding no.


So what can we do? The Washington Post argues that the perpetrators are “disappointed loners, motivated by grudges, seeking fame and planning their violence carefully.” To keep guns out of their hands, The Post offers several suggestions:

  • Police task forces to identify and track prospective shooters
  • Higher age restrictions on getting guns
  • Better limiting of gun ownership to people exhibiting warning signs.
  • Better education on warning signs
  • Media norms against using the names of mass killers, which only encourages their deadly performance art.”[2]


To that list I would add banning assault rifles and bump stocks. Why do we allow weapons of war in civilian life? These weapons did not exist when the Second Amendment was written. Their only purpose is to kill as many victims as possible in a short period of time. They have no place in our society.


These suggestions only offer a starting point. The Rand report on “Gun Policy in America” acknowledges that we need more research to identify best solutions, but it asserts that background checks do reduce firearm homicides and suicides, that gun prohibitions associated with mental illness reduce firearm violence, and that child-safety measures reduce unintentional injuries and deaths.[3]


On another front, I personally believe we need to elect Senators and Representatives who will not succumb to the financial power of the National Rifle Association. We have that opportunity this November.


And in a New York Times Op-Ed piece, David Brooks insists that, “If there’s one thing we’ve learned, it is that guns have become a cultural flash point in a nation that is unequal and divided. The people who defend gun rights believe that snobbish elites look down on their morals and want to destroy their culture. If we end up telling such people that they and their guns are despicable, they will just despise us back and dig in their heels.”[4] He writes about the group “Better Angels” that works to bridge the partisan divide on all issues and shows how they bring people with opposing views on gun violence together to really hear each other. And he offers our greatest hope for finding common ground and reasonable policies: “We have one big tribal conflict, and policy fights are just proxy battles as each side tries to establish moral superiority. But just as the tribal mentality has been turned on, it can be turned off. Then and only then can we go back to normal politics and take reasonable measures to keep our children safe.”


Just as the “Me, too” and “It’s About Time” movements are bringing about a cultural shift in norms and behaviors once thought impossible to achieve, we can cause that shift about gun violence. It’s about time that we protect our students and teachers and staff. It’s past time.


Every American who is concerned about gun violence in general and the mass shootings that have become our norm needs to speak up. Call or email your Senator and Representative. Check the positions of your candidates in November. Consider joining a “March for Our Lives” rally near you on March 24. We can keep the momentum going, and the momentum can lead to incremental changes. We can best honor the victims of mass shootings by supporting these activist students and becoming activists ourselves.






The Future Is Now

I have been MIA because I’ve been recuperating from a serious illness. My time at home has given me much time for reflection. My problems started with a recurrence of an illness from 27 years ago, and the difference in my constrained world startles me. Although confined to my home, the world is still at my fingertips. I maintained contact with family and friends, even from my hospital room, through emails on my tablet and texts on my smartphone. There was no additional charge for long distance calls. I was on two different floors in five different rooms during my eight-day stay, yet I remained totally accessible because of my smartphone. When I ran out of books to read, digital downloads from the library refreshed my supply on both my Kindle and my tablet. My caregivers recorded every detail on laptops and scanned my hospital bracelet to coordinate the information. Free high-resolution large-screen television offered nearly infinite choices for entertainment, including calming images and music. My return home offered me whole house DVR, Netflix and Amazon Prime entertainment. I could surrender my brain to distraction at the flip of a channel. What a change in less than three decades!

Twenty-seven years ago my husband made frequent trips to Blockbuster’s [remember them?] to rent movies, and he didn’t have a mobile phone to let me participate in choosing them. He went to the library and guessed at choices there, too, and I struggled to read hardcover books at night in bed without disturbing him. Expense limited long distance phone calls, and the days dragged. Technology allowed this recent recuperation to pass far more quickly and easily.

I found myself thinking about Ray Bradbury, my favorite science fiction writer, who feared technology and its ability to dehumanize us. I’d loved teaching Fahrenheit 451, challenging my students to consider the role of technology in their lives. We’d talk about the way the wife of Montag, the protagonist, responds to his request that she turn “the parlour” [the three screens of media] off so he could connect with her. She resists, replying, “That’s my family.” The thoughtful reading of books as a proliferation of culture gets replaced by mindless entertainment and increasing isolation. Frighteningly, media becomes a source of oppression, all too real an issue in today’s world. Bradbury repeatedly warns us about technology. Time magazine quotes him: “We have too many cellphones. We’ve got too many Internets. We have got to get rid of those machines. We have too many machines now.” (August 17, 2010). To the Huffington Post he says, “There is no future for e-books, because they are not books. E-books smell like burned fuel.” Written in 1953, Fahrenheit 451’s prescience is chilling.

Bradbury is not alone in his concerns about the impact of technology. Einstein claimed, “It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.” Daniel J. Boorstein warns, “Technology is so much fun but we can drown in our technology. The fog of information can drive out knowledge.” According to Max Frisch, “Technology is a way of organizing the universe so that man doesn’t have to experience it.” From Omar Bradley: “If we continue to develop our technology without wisdom or prudence, our servant may prove to be our executioner.” Chilling warnings from fine minds…

But I like John Naisbitt’s view: “The most exciting breakthroughs of the 21st century will not occur because of technology but because of an expanding concept of what it means to be human.” I’m grateful for the ways technology improved my medical care and eased the boredom of my recuperation. As a teacher I loved the opportunities technology offered me to transform teaching and learning, even when those changes were off-putting, inconvenient, or seemingly unmanageable. Benjamin Disraeli asserted, “Change is inevitable. Change is constant.” Technology will continue to transform our world. The world that Bradbury envisioned is very like the world in which we live today, and continued transformation remains inevitable. It is up to us to harness those changes, to benefit where we can, to work to limit harm where we can.

Drafting this blog on my computer, seeking appropriate images on the internet, preparing to upload the blog digitally to a cloud where my readers can see it – these are changes I embrace.


Relationships Are a Two-Way Street

Recently, as I was standing in line to purchase a Christmas gift for my granddaughters, a vibrant blonde kept turning around to look at me. She seemed familiar, so I shouldn’t have been surprised when she blurted out, “Is your first name Ellen?”

I nodded. Eagerly she asked if I’d taught at Glenbard West. I nodded again. “Oh, Mrs. Ljung, you were my English teacher!” Her enthusiasm caught the attention of clerks and other shoppers as she told me her maiden name, resurrecting my memory of this delightful honors student. Her gusto pleased me, and I realized how central relationship-building had been to my teaching. When we try to estimate how many students I’ve taught over the years, the numbers blur. Some took three of my classes at West, while others I only knew for a semester. The figure hovers between 2500 and 3000, so sometimes the memories of an individual are slow to return. But the pleasure, the human connection – that’s what made teaching so special to me.

I tried to be real for my students as well. Photographs of my family filled my room, as did rocks from our kayaking journeys, artwork, and treasures from travel. Students knew when each grandchild was born. They knew my husband from pep rallies, Faculty Follies, and prom. When my grandson, now a high school senior, visited me as a toddler, my students showed him around, and he talked about the “school for big kids” for months afterward.

Coming to recognize the way the culture prevented my gay and lesbian colleagues from having that kind of relationship with their students began my activism for inclusiveness and safe space. In hindsight, I realize that had I been a lesbian, I, too, would not have been out, but I’ve come to understand that the culture deprived not only those colleagues but also any students who themselves were closeted in any way. That injustice fueled my activism.

Highly effective teachers tend to know their students well enough to figure out how to reach them more. I believe that teachers who let students know them as individuals, with lives outside the classroom, build those relationships better. Boundaries are important and many require more privacy than I do, but I believe human connections require a two-way street.

I hope that relationship-building made me a more effective teacher. I know it made teaching more fulfilling for me. In August of 2011, having avoided Facebook for years, I finally made a personal page because we kept hearing how necessary a FB page was for our glass art business. Over the years our business page has shown limited impact, but the personal page led to reconnecting with so many former students! One wrote, “Yay FINALLY!!!!” and another, “Hath hell frozen over, Ellen Ljung on Facebook!” Both were students I knew well, but many others showed up over the years, writing comments on my timeline, resurrecting memories, filling me with gratitude.


The Yin and Yang of Reading and Knowledge Acquisition

A November 25 New York Times article by Daniel Willingham, “How to Get Your Mind to Read,” raises important questions for educators, parents, and learners. Because reading does not happen in a vacuum, true comprehension requires more than accurate decoding. Willingham writes:

Current education practices show that reading comprehension is misunderstood. It’s treated like a general skill that can be applied with equal success to all texts. Rather, comprehension is intimately intertwined with knowledge. That suggests three significant changes in schooling.

Full understanding of the text requires background knowledge and context. If you know nothing about the game of soccer, for instance, an article about soccer will inevitably be more opaque.

Willingham prescribes three changes:

  1. Reverse the trend of spending more time on literacy instruction and less on knowledge acquisition; at least use high-information texts.
  2. For accountability, use assessments that match the kind of background knowledge for the particular student population.
  3. Finally, “the systematic building of knowledge must be a priority in curriculum design.”

As a retired reading consultant whose career veered off into constructivist learning, I find myself struggling with Willingham’s vision even as it makes sense to me. I have come to believe that content and information can be acquired when there’s a purpose for knowing them, but that skills trump content. The whole thrust of problem-based learning requires a tactical approach to locating and using knowledge based on critical thinking skills.

Yet I agree that, even though I’m a proficient and prolific reader, I struggle with materials for which I have very limited background information. Reading about them requires delving beyond the immediate text. If I struggle, what must it be like for inexperienced readers?

Perhaps the best answer is a recognition that we needn’t make an either-or choice. I choose to believe that knowledge acquisition can occur when learners have a genuine need for that knowledge and the skills to locate and use it. But educators should support emerging readers by helping them build a broader knowledge base to improve their deep comprehension. Can’t we come at these issues from both directions for a win-win?



Learning to Fly

I recently had lunch with a delightful young friend who has had a successful career teaching people how to use industrial chemistry equipment. He’s tired of the travel and loves the teaching, and he lives in a state with such a severe shortage of STEM teachers that some science courses are taught by teachers certified in entirely unrelated areas. Although he could easily walk in the door and get a job based on his knowledge and experience, he’s choosing to go through an alternative certification program to be better prepared. He has his content knowledge down and he has volunteered in a program with young adults, but he wants to learn more about being effective in a school classroom.

This took me back to my own husband’s journey through alternative certification. After a successful career in physics that included teaching at the University of Wisconsin and Yale University, he decided teaching high school students to love physics would be the ideal post-retirement career. After completing an alternative certification program, he replaced the science department chair at an affluent suburban high school who, as Illinois teacher of the year, had a one-year leave. When I expressed qualms about the two hours of daily driving piled on top of the demands on a new teacher, he assured me that he loved to drive and would use the time to decompress. Besides, he knew that I worked such long hours because I was a workaholic who taught writing. Surely he could be more efficient.

He wasn’t. Five classes and three preps threatened to overwhelm him. He, too, knew his content, but he didn’t always know how to reach students. The substitute department chair had no supervisory training or experience. When Don struggled with classroom management issues, she required him to observe another teacher every day during his plan period. Such observations can be very helpful if they’re accompanied by debriefing and projecting techniques into the observer’s classroom. But that didn’t happen, and the loss of his daily plan period added to his being entirely overloaded. Don learned to embrace retirement and, like so many new teachers, left teaching.

His experience was tough but not unexpected. Being in his late 50s, never having had to deal with not being successful, having been in management – none of these prepared him. My friend’s experience should be different. He’s younger, with boundless energy, and he’s worked with young people the age of his students.

But Don’s experience still provided a revelation for me. My first paid teaching was in 1970. The first special education mandates didn’t happen until 1975 with the passage and initial enforcement of Public Law 94-142. Over time we received training in issues like substance abuse and mandated reporting. We didn’t deal with 504 hearings, which allow students to obtain special accommodations without a special education designation and IEP, until the 1990s. New teachers don’t have the luxury of layering these learnings over time. From the moment they walk in the classroom, they have to manage all of these responsibilities, even as they tend to have the most preps, often the most demanding classes, and often some additional extra-curricular responsibilities. Thrusting inexperienced teachers into those conditions makes their success far less likely. If and when they leave the profession, we are all poorer for it. Although teacher attrition has dropped from the earliest years of this century, when 40-50% of new teachers left the profession within their first five years, the current rate of 17% still seems far too high. Teacher training is expensive, and this waste of human resources might be reduced if we provided more realistic assignments and proper support to our newest educators.

I feel optimistic for my young friend and grateful for the students and school that get him. But I worry about the future of public education when we fail to support new teachers and help them reach their potential. We need to do better.


Supporting Change

Last Saturday we had breakfast with an educator who has a powerful position in a major foundation. Part of his work includes developing teams to change curriculum. We talked about how hard change is and how important a supportive cohort therefore becomes.

He’s only known me in the latter part of my career and insisted I must always have been a change agent and constructivist teacher. “No,” I assured him. “In fact, many years ago one of my students told me that I could talk bell-to-bell on fewer breaths than any other teacher!”

She may have meant it as a compliment, but I recognized the downfall of that approach when a colleague working on her administrative certificate used my class and me for a case study.

Recording detailed observations allowed her to quantify the teacher talk. Even in the early 80s, despite my teacher training that focused on students as “buckets to be filled,” I talked too much.

“Ellen, you’ve got to get the kids talking… it can’t be all you.”

“But how do I do that?” I really didn’t know.

I don’t remember what suggestions she may have offered then, but when my visionary department chair introduced our department to problem-based learning, I finally understood. PBL gives students more ownership of their learning, creating situations in which they usst construct and evaluate their understandings. Constructivism made learning more compelling and teaching more exciting – if also more challenging. PBL provided a meaningful structure for that shift from teacher talk to student ownership. I began to seek ways to make even traditional literature study more student-centered.

Changing my ways did not come easily, though. I stumbled through my first training on coaching, at a loss, nearly ready to give up. Continued training experiences and a connected community kept me going. Too much of a “lone ranger” in my own building, I depended on conversations with my department chair and emails with colleagues from the frequent workshops I took.

After a couple of years, I had transitioned to such a student-centered classroom that I was now a trainer. Ironically that shift got me in trouble with some parents at a Back-to-School night. The day after I proudly described the kinds of work my students were doing, one of them stayed after class. “Mrs. Ljung,” he said, “My parents are upset about what you told them last night. They asked why you were getting paid a good salary when we were doing all the work. You need to explain it better.”

The next year for Back-to-School Night, I invited my students to describe their work in the classroom, leaving the room while they did so that parents could believe in the authenticity of their words. Students willingly gave up free time to help, so invested were they in this kind of classroom experience. Yet I know I would still be a breathless talker without the support of my peers in shifting my role.

That same visionary department chair started a brain research study group. Learning about new findings from neurologists and their potential impact on teaching and learning invited new approaches, and our conversations and sharing of both frustrations and successes made daring those approaches more accessible.

It is far easier for teachers to repeat lessons year after year, teaching in the same way, regardless of their student population, than to seek new ways to become more effective. Ongoing support makes such a huge difference. Why, then, so schools and districts too often fail to offer teachers opportunities like learning cohorts?

If we truly want to improve schools, we need to help teachers form learning cohorts where they take ownership of their learning and its impact on their teaching. That requires a systemic approach that’s long over

True Innovation in Education

What is true innovation in education? George Couros, educator, blogger, and author of The Innovator’s Mindset, asserts that “innovation is more about mindset than anything.” Educators shouldn’t employ something new just because it is new. We need to ask ourselves where there is value added. Does this tool or approach improve teaching and learning? How can we use it even more effectively?

Too often educators conflate technology with innovation. In the early years of computers in the classroom, my department chair and I attended a technology conference. A dedicated teacher demonstrated how her students had created a spreadsheet of information about inventors like Eli Whitney and their inventions. The information was thorough: name, place of birth, type of invention, year invented, etc.

We asked, “What did the students do with the spreadsheet once they developed it?”

The presenter stared at us blankly. “What do you mean? They created it…”

A spreadsheet like this could prompt all sorts of analysis: Is there a pattern to where and/or when were most prolific? Do different times and/or places generate different types of inventions? But for this teacher and her students, the spreadsheet was an end in itself. Without using its data-sorting capacity to look for patterns, it served as a glorified graphic organizer. True innovation transforms teaching and learning.

The use of computers to teach writing offered me and my students that kind of transformation. While my high school and college papers were handwritten on yellow legal pads filled with cross-outs, arrows, and insertions, my students could save one version of a paper, rename their file, and revise it with ease. Then they could compare the two versions and track their progress. The ease of revision encouraged their willingness to improve their text.

Text analysis went far beyond a mere spellcheck capacity when we became the beta site for Bell Labs’ text analysis program, Writer’s Workbench [WWB]. That empowered my students to assess attributes like their sentence variety and use of passive voice. I never reduced their work to an absolute quantitative judgment, but I did require them to justify departures from the benchmarks suggested by the analysis. Good writing generally varies the openings, types, and length of sentences. While neither Faulkner’s nor Hemingway’s writing would have passed muster, students rarely achieved either style. Conscious work on sentence variety improved the flow of their writing. Passive voice provides for weak constructions and often hides an unclear or unknown subject. WWB identified all passive voice constructions, and my writers rewrote those or explained why. In the computer lab with an administrator’s access, I could comment directly on their work in progress, giving them real time feedback long before they turned in a draft for evaluation. Each class could desktop publish an anthology, giving students a communal document of accomplishment that we celebrated with a signing party.

Computers transformed the teaching of writing. Math teachers will tell you that calculators transformed the teaching of math. But it’s important to recognize that technology only fosters true innovation in education when it changes the work for the better. Couros is right: if any new approach or tool doesn’t meet the needs of learners better, if we don’t use it to make the experience more productive, then we’re missing the point. And learners deserve better than that!