By A. G. Moore September 13, 2011
I have always been grateful that Mrs. Birdsall knew my family, that she was aware of my home circumstance and that despite my dismal academic history, she maintained an attitude of diligence and hope in my educational training. Mrs. Birdsall was my third grade teacher. I cannot imagine any computer or assortment of technological tools that could have improved upon or emulated the success of this intuitive and highly motivated woman.
On September 3 of this year the New York Times reported on the outcomes of an experiment in technology in an Arizona school district. Despite a great investment of resources – pedagogic, student and financial – the results of this innovative exercise were disappointing. Standardized test scores in the district stagnated, though state-wide, Arizona saw improvements in both reading and math achievement.
According to the Times article, the controversy over classroom technology centers partly on the apparent practice of replacing a teacher-centered instructional modality with computers: as laptops are introduced, class size increases. Thus, the Times explains, the teacher becomes a coach, overseeing and prompting while the computer leads the way.
I caught myself physically shaking my head as I read this article. I recalled the year Mrs. Birdsall taught me to read and redeemed my academic future.
The school in which we met was the central school in a rural farm community. In some ways this school retained the dynamics of a one-room school house. The demographic of my class changed with the seasons. In spring and fall the room was filled beyond capacity as children of migrant workers joined our ranks. During the months of harvest and planting, we had as many as 39 children in the room. For the rest of the year, the number of students never fell below thirty.
We were a heterogeneous group – not only socially and economically, but intellectually. There were two third grade classes and between them they split equally the slow and the quick, the able and the apparently hopeless. My second grade teacher had cast me as a member of the latter group and as I entered Mrs. Birdsall’s class I languished among the two or three other souls who had given up on themselves — and on their academic futures.
But Mrs. Birdsall had taught two of my older siblings. She had a good relationship with my mother and early in the year sent a note home describing my sorry academic situation.
Then Mrs. Birdsall went to work.
I don’t know what she did, except I remember that she talked to me. She responded to me. With every change in my academic profile she made an adjustment to my academic materials. She introduced phonics. She encouraged and offered a safe place to struggle.
Like a toddler learning to walk, I made baby steps. With each step I gained confidence. All the while Mrs. Birdsall kept an eye out. (How? With all those students in all those different groups?) I don’t think she saw potential in me; she just refused to believe there was none.
Of course, this story ends well, or I wouldn’t be telling it. I wouldn’t be contributing to my own website and wouldn’t have the audacity to analyze and opine on world events.
By the end of the third grade, Mrs. Birdsall found the butterfly within; with the wings she gave me I soared for the rest of my school career. No computer could have had her face or her grace. There has never been a technology with the heart to respond to my heart, to inspire courage and faith in my own intellectual integrity, no matter how meager or rich.
I didn’t need a coach when I was in the third grade. I needed a teacher. I hope those students in Arizona are given the privilege of having such a gift before the experiment in educational technology is exhausted.
The New York Times
University of Massachusetts
American Psychological Association: