Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Five-Paragraph Essay & PowerPoint Presentations: Fossils from the Past

In may, I became an official Mac User. This occurred after being a PC user whose experience with computers began all the way back to MS DOS and Windows 3.1. My first personal computer was a Windows 3.1 Dell computer whose processor was less powerful than those found in phones, and you can purchase flash drives that have more storage space than my first hard drive.

If I really confess about my own computer experiences, the very first computer that I used was actually a Mac. Back in the beginning of my teaching career, our media center at the high school where I taught had a Macintosh lab which included 25 Macintosh SE computers, networked together, complete with a Mac printer. I was one of the few teachers in my building that constantly brought students into the media center to use these machines. Mind you, this was before there was a single Internet connection in the school, so we primarily used these computers for the creation of printed documents. My students created some real flashy brochures, newsletters, and magazines for their in-class projects.

Looking back to that experience now, almost 25 years later, there was an excitement in those classes. My students, most of which at that time would have not had computers at home, were excited at being able to engage in both the use of technology, and in the use of that technology to create original content. As a teacher, I was excited as well because my students and I were engaged in learning quite different from what any other teachers and students were engaged in in the entire building. The excitement of being pioneers and pushing learning beyond the edges motivated both my students and myself. We literally monopolized the computers and the computer lab because at that time, no one else saw any future in it.

Today, my lesson plans in 1988 would hardly be considered integrating technology into learning, and rightfully so. Just getting students to do what they could without technology hardly means capitalizing on technology. Today, teachers who subject their students to endless PowerPoint presentations are hardly getting students to actively use technology. Even getting students to create their own presentations is no longer really engaging students in using technology to push the edges of innovation.

In some ways, PowerPoint presentations have become the "five paragraph essay" of yesterday. Most of us who've taught English for more than fifteen years remember that monstrosity. The five-paragraph essay was an attempt to standardize writing in order help students mold their writing to fit standardized test scoring. Needless to say, as a teaching strategy, it was more about getting high scores on state writing tests than about students expressing original ideas and thoughts. It certainly wasn't about creativity and innovation. PowerPoint presentations as projects in many ways have replaced those five-paragraphs essays; they are simply as standardized way for students to present information.

Looking back to my own experiences with the old Macintosh SE lab, our excitement about learning was about possibility and promise. When you explore new technologies, you experiment and innovate; standardized products don't exist yet, because you are exploring the edges of what can be done. The technology itself does not cause that excitement; that excitement comes from what you can do with the technology. The exciting thing for me, and I suspect for students, is not the technology itself; it's the act of creation. With technology, we can create in new and unique ways. We can bring into existence things that never existed before using tools in ways they perhaps have never been used before.

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