Q&A: Why Digital Tools Will Never Matter as Much as Good Teaching

November 26, 2013
Kelsey Herron
Common Sense Media
San Francisco, United States
CATEGORIES Digital Citizenship, Digital Literacy, In the Classroom

Librarian Lynne Carlton has spent the last 15 years teaching students in grades K-5 how to read in a changing technological landscape. Her time is now divided between two largely rural schools, Alvin S. Hatch Elementary and El Granada Elementary in Half Moon Bay, Calif.  Despite limited access to technology at both her schools, she is teaching her students to navigate a digital world, including helping them negotiate new worries like cyberbullying. Using our online curriculum offline, Carlton inspired the kids to step into one another’s shoes. The kids, she said, floored her. “They were honest and insightful in a way I was not expecting.”

Our conversation with Carlton underscores an essential truth: it is not the digital tools that matter as much as good teachers using whatever is available to inspire and teach a new generation.

Common Sense Media: What technology resources are available at your schools?

Lynne Carlton: I have almost no technology in either of my libraries. I’ve sat in professional development sessions where I feel like I am cooking over a campfire, while everyone around me is at Le Cordon Bleu. At Alvin S. Hatch I have a computer to work on, but no student technology. I happen to have a second computer at El Granada, and I have a projector so I can run a DVD to a larger group. I also have access to a 35-student computer lab there, but I have to schedule my time in advance. The school doesn’t have any research databases of its own, but the public library of San Mateo County has allowed our district’s public schools to access their online databases.

When you do take students into the labs, what kind of material do you cover? Do you talk about things like digital literacy?

I mostly use lab time to reinforce researching skills with students. Last year, I was asked to give a presentation on social media and bullying to fifth graders, so I attended a Common Sense Media anti-bullying session. Sadly, I did that presentation without technology, although I did use the Common Sense Media curriculum.

The specific curriculum that I followed was about cyberbullying. We acted out a scenario provided by Common Sense Media, and talked about how each person involved would feel in a situation where someone was being bullied. We’re trying to get kids to learn the kind of language used in those lessons -- the difference between a bully, a bystander, and a victim.

How did students respond to the lesson?

They were really brilliant. I had each kid talk about how they were feeling as the bystander, the victim, and the bully, and we made charts listing the emotions. They were able to show empathy for all parties, and brought up how bystanders can feel afraid of social stigma, and how a bully might feel left out. They really developed a sense of empathy for all parties involved. They were honest and insightful in a way I was not expecting -- we’re talking 9- and 10-year-olds.

I found that they were more incensed at the bystanders, although they also understood why someone would be a bystander in the first place. I had them count the number of bystanders compared to the number of bullies, and asked, “Who’s the majority here? What if every one of those 20 bystanders said something? Do you think they would override the bully?” It really made them think.

A lot of other educators are in your position. What advice do you have for them?

I would say that educators need to search for ways to make learning happen even with a limited scope. A lot of this comes down to self-educating because, let me tell you, those kids are more connected than I am. My own kids laugh at the cellphone I talk on.

Today’s youth are learning how to find information, rather than having it stored in their heads. We need to teach kids how to search for information, rather than memorization.  I think we need to be showing kids how to safely and accurately go out and find that information. We also need to teach them that there are different perspectives that accompany those sources, and that they need to look at information from different viewpoints. Those things are important, even if you don’t have the most cutting edge tools.

I would tell educators: Make it relatable for your students. Even with just one little computer in my library, I’ve found ways to make lessons magical. For example, once we pulled up a video of the northern lights -- something my kids have never seen -- and I had them relate it to something they know, like a surfer on a wave. Then we related it to books we had in the library, like Native American poetry that described what it was like to see the northern lights for the first time. Look how a book broadens what we see in a video, and the other way around. Basically, I’m trying to take a transmedia approach with what I have.