1991 Chiselhead

A story, by Tom Smith (1991)
ChiselHeadOnce upon a time there lived a history teacher way up north, in far away Randolph, Kansas. Up not too far from the famous Dorothy of Oz. This teacher was very comfortable in the little school of Blue Valley. Some days, as he was teaching history, it very nearly got exciting, but alas, very nearly it was not really exciting. Some students were nice to this teacher and said it wasn’t too dull, “it was better than math”. We must know, like most history teachers, it was comfortable and not difficult.

Every day the students came to class hoping they would not, repeat not, have to read the darn book, or work on worksheets, or Heaven forbid, write a research paper. Each and every day the students gave this teacher a great many suggestions on how to make the class interesting and break the monotony, and that got monotonous to the teacher.

Welllll, one day a student teacher came to this history class with a new tool and a new method of learning. History at Blue Valley is now never dull, frustrating maybe, but not boring. And even worse the teacher is no longer comfortable. If you want to stay comfortable and have an easy time teaching, tune out the rest of what I am going to say….

Ancient ScrollTraditional Themes – No More (or) Chiselhead
Traditionally man began writing to record for history. Our first writing instruments were very awkward and storage was a major problem. Sometimes we are overwhelmed with all the storage that is needed for our paperwork today, especially in the classroom. Use your imagination to visualize how many stone tablets or how long an old sheepskin scroll would have to be in order to store just one Steven King novel. I’m sure it would take a gymnasium of old stone tablets just to record a school dictionary. Of course that method would be impractical, but that fact alone is not why we no longer use stone tablets.Ancient stone tablets

There are hundreds of reasons we moved forward from stone tablets to something else. Each one of these reasons may or may not have been completely adequate in themselves to justify each move. Just as sometimes the move we make in a classroom to “progress” may or may not justify itself, if the move has to stand alone.

We have to look at progress as a constantly moving experiment. Some things work for some people and some don’t, not a very profound or original statement, but very true. Many times the act of using a new piece of multimedia equipment may seem awkward, ungainly and time consuming, but as we learn this new method it will eventually make things much quicker and more efficient.

Feather quillThe ancient man that was happy using a chisel and hammer could find a great many things wrong with using a feather quill, ink and this dang new-fangled paper. After all, you know the feather would break if you used too much pressure, and you had to keep dipping the quill into the inkwell. “By gosh,” he said to himself, “I can use the same chisel for months. When I store stone it stays stored, that new paper stuff can blow away at the slightest breeze. Besides, everyone knows this new stuff will never last. Can you imagine Moses coming down from the mountain carrying paper with commandments written on it? How ridiculous ! You have to write so small no one could read it.”

Some of these chisel minded people are still living today, or so it seems. You may even have a couple in your school, masquerading as teachers or students or even in the administration. There is not much we can do with them, just try to work around them as best we can, and of course feel sorry for them or ourselves, whichever the case may be.

I won’t go so far as to say I was a chisel head type person, but…I was not an extremely progressive minded history teacher. History teachers as a whole are on the conservative side of most issues. I am not an exception. We have a few computers in school, mostly Apple GS and IIE’s, and three Macintosh machines. I had been using my Apple GS as a word processor, as most do, and did not fully understand the capabilities of how computers can enhance teaching and learning, and I wasn’t going to try this new stuff on a whim.

Another problem with myself, and I’m sure many others have similar problems, is the available time to learn how to use these durn things. Sure, it is relatively easy to learn to word processor, (really it’s just typing), but how to operate a mouse and that little Macintosh really couldn’t be all that much more powerful, so I thought.

As I was preparing for the upcoming school year my Principal, Dave DuBois, asked if I would be interested in having a student teacher the next fall. I said sure, thinking maybe it would be a young guy that could help me with our football team. Dave then said it’s a middle aged fellow who is a computer hack and is interested in experimenting with multimedia and its uses in the classroom. “Welllll….. OK”, I said, “but I don’t want someone coming in here and using the VCR all the time”. Of course I said this and completely exposed my ignorance of multimedia.

When this new guy, Mr. John Hogue, came to discuss next year and started blowing all this computer smoke at me, I thought to myself, “Sure, try this on our kids and they will blast you out of the water!” To say I was slightly skeptical would be a vast understatement. My hard chisel head just knew this stuff would not work in a small rural school. And I have had a number of student teachers with wonderful and grandiose ideas on how to change schools and make the world a better place to live and learn, they quickly find, some not so quickly, that usually the tried and true ways of doing things work, because they always have worked and will keep on working in spite of the student teacher. I was looking forward to the next fall, not hoping for failure, but knowing that I would always be prepared to jump in and help when he got into trouble.

1984 MacintoshJohn came to our school in September, in the middle of the football season, and we began. I gave him some advice and loaned him my lesson plans. We then began to team teach for a few weeks to get his feet wet and feel at ease with the students and himself. After about three weeks of this he seldom mentioned computers but he brought his own computer to school and set it up in the classroom. I knew it was coming, I could feel that machine just sitting there ominously. I felt like a character in the book “1984”, and that Macintosh was Big Brother. As he worked himself into the flow of the classes he asked if he could introduce the Macintosh into the class environment. I snickered and said, “Yeah, go ahead.” And as I expected, the students came to me, on the side, and complained about having to learn computers, after all, this was history, not computer literacy. But I gave them no sympathy, they had to adapt to the teacher. I was going to give John Hogue all the rope he needed to hang himself before I straightened him out. But to my surprise, after the initial complaints, the students seemed to begin enjoying themselves. Whoa, this wasn’t supposed to happen.

John even tried to get me involved with those darn things. But I said, “No thanks, I’ll just keep on using my chisel, I mean my word processor.” After all I was over 40 years old and too late to teach an old dog new tricks. But a funny thing happened. About three quarters of the way through John’s student teaching I began to see some amazing things happen. Students began wanting to stay after school and work on history projects, on their own time, even some of the below average, struggling students. What the heck was happening, was this guy using illegal drugs or what? It almost seemed as if the computer, especially the Macintosh, was an equalizer.

computer toolsNot that it necessarily brought the poor students up, but rather it gave them a tool that made them equal to most of the others. When I saw this happening I thought to myself maybe this new stuff has some merit. I began taking more of an interest, not completely converted you understand, I had to be a little sneaky, I couldn’t just come out and say well maybe I was wrong.

I grabbed John Hogue by the arm one day and asked him to show me a couple of things and he just smiled, a little smugly I thought, and we began and it hasn’t stopped yet.

I haven’t learned everything and never will. That’s one of the nice things about computers, you can keep learning forever. And it’s so easy to get the students involved. I had to work twice as hard as my students to catch up to them, and I still haven’t, but I don’t tell them that. They enjoy learning and working with this new-fangled equipment. Now I give them projects and direct them which way to go and they run with it. Many of the brighter students have far outclassed my meager ability and I have began using these students as aides to assist some of the other kids.

Usually I assign projects to small groups of three or four students and they work with each other and they work off each other similar to what teachers can do in class discussion to stimulate ideas from each other. This group work seems to be the best way to use computers, especially since we only have access to two Macintosh computers. A class with four groups of four students is nearly a perfect size. Two groups work on the computers and two groups do research or put together new ideas and use other resources.

HyperCardIf anyone has an interest in how we do things just give us a call and we will be glad to tell you our ideas of how to work with Hypercard on the Macintosh. The main thing about Hypercard is it gives the ability of programming to students without knowing how to program. It is difficult to explain. The best way to learn it is to do it. Kind of like the Nike shoe commercials, “Just Do It”. I have been very fortunate in having John Hogue as a student teacher. We are greatly assisted by Mr. Kent Unruh, of the College of Education at Kansas State University, our resident computer expert. Our student experts are Stacy Larson, Marie Anderson, Danny Peters, Cyrena Kellogg, Kevin Suther, and Melanie Hemme. These students are the ones I mentioned as helpers to our other students and they would be more than happy to share any ideas they have with you and would appreciate any ideas you may have for them

Tom Smith
Technology Coordinator, USD#484 (Retired)
Apple Distinguished Educator, 03
Fredonia Unified School District
916 Robinson Street
Fredonia, KS 66736

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