Pressing the “Any” Key

I had a life once…now I have a computer. —Author Unknown

While Christa McAuliffe famously noted that “I touch the future.  I teach.”  It’s a common motivational meme that teachers like to stick on things (pencils, pens, coffee mugs, etc…).  What rarely gets addressed, however, is what would happen if the future decided to punch back.

I got punched this week.  No, I didn’t have a disgruntled student hit me.  Nope, instead, I experienced what has become a concern as the movement towards full implementation of the new Common Core Standards:  how to implement the intent of computerized standards-based assessment?  

The most problematic capacity issues will be at the schools themselves, Mr. Russell said. If an Internet router can’t handle 60 or 70 computers at once, for instance, problems could arise if a social studies teacher decides to stream video for her class while large groups of students are taking tests elsewhere in the building, he said.

This week, my lone MacBook was having trouble even accessing the internet at my school, much less trying to give out a standardized assessment.

My school site dates back to 1949, one of the first local schools built to meet the onrush of the first set of baby boomers.  It went through a physical sprucing and modernization at the turn of the century, and then, a bit later on, classrooms were wired for direct internet access, and, eventually, wireless access was added.  Our attendance records became computerized (we take class roll call via the internet), we became more dependent upon e-mail, and eventually, software was written for our report cards–which, turn, was made web-based.  Finally, when money was granted to my school for the purposes of turning it into a magnet school, the campus was then wired to add document cameras which eventually replaced our dated overhead projectors;  document cameras that also allowed us to connect our desktops or laptops also worked with those same projectors to replace our old television sets.  (I often marvel at the historical images I have of having watched, along with 3 other of my colleagues who were early to school that morning, the 9-11 attacks on an old, heavy television, and then 6 1/2 years later, showing Barack Obama’s inauguration on my classroom’s projector screen, as if it was a movie.)

So while all of this sounds marvelous, somewhat wistfully romantic, and nostalgic, this was also the week where I felt like Jim talking to Bart in “Blazing Saddles”:

What’s a dazzling urbanite like you doing in a rustic setting like this?

Since being moved to 6th grade, my classroom is a trailer that resembles one that looks like FEMA rejected it for use during Hurricane Katrina.  I am out on the edge of the field, feeling like, at times, like I should be colonizing Australia.  Except this past week, at least I knew the Aussies were getting internet access, and I wasn’t.

Why?  Well, it rained this past Monday.  And, because of the way in which our internet cable was laid, for whatever reason, we lose consistent internet access on a rainy day.  When I couldn’t get consistent wireless signals on Monday, I attributed it to that, and dealt with it.  Tuesday was dry, as the weather began to shift, but still my issues with the internet, I again attributed to the fact that now the wiring had to dry out.  By Wednesday however, with temperatures nearing the high 70s, and ground pretty dried out, my failure to be able to get internet access was now becoming frustrating, particularly since I was getting kicked off the wireless network every time I downloaded a page.  What should have been a 10-minute digression to talk to my students about Owens and Mono Lakes here in California (as Science background on ecosystems) became a 20-minute nightmare.  Ok, now what? I was worried.  Progress Reports were slated to go home on Friday.  I wanted to work on them at school, as you would think a teacher should, but when I pressed for an explanation, I was told:  “Sun Spots”.  Problem:  since our report card software is web-based, no internet access meant no work at school on them.  I couldn’t stay connected long enough to be able to access the web for any length of time.

Grumbling to myself, I took my work home.  Thanks to a balky knee and some back issues I’d been having, I went to work on them after I had gotten the child to bed, but fatigue and distractions enabled me to only finish 23 of the reports.  I had 10 more to write, but the wife pointed out that I shouldn’t be expected to completely work on something that should have been and could be done in my classroom.  Given that I still had some time, and when I’m focused, progress reports don’t take *that* long, I packed up and took them back to school.

Fail.

Internet access remained intermittent, and now, under the gun, I had to start complaining–and loudly.  I have been hounded about report card deadlines in the past, and while I haven’t missed one in 2 years, I was taking no chances, particularly since I should have access to be able to actually DO work while AT work!

By the end of the school day, I was breaking out cables and using my smart phone to get independent access.  Off I went, finally making headway, with only 2 more to get done…

Then the district took the report card maker off-line.  I was denied access.  I couldn’t get back on.  At first I thought it might be my own connection, so I switched back to the school’s wireless, miraculously got a signal, and tried to log on to the report card maker.  Nothing.  Denied.  Since I was now late to go pick up Kate for a dentist’s appointment, I quickly gathered up my stuff and marched up to the office, where I emphatically pointed out that I was desperately trying to get these things done.  I was told to not worry about and that “it’s ok to get them to me on Monday”.

As I type this, even after my attempts to get on to the report card software all day Friday (along with the lousy internet access), I still can’t log on.  I am told that it’s in use by another “user”, and I can’t work on them.  It’s cold comfort that I’m not alone in this frustration, as one of the 4th grade teachers is also having the exact same issues.

The internet issue bugs me so much.  My MacBook works fine on other networks, and I don’t trust the district people to troubleshoot my laptop to see why I can’t connect.  Of even greater concern is that I have to get my Progress Reports finished as we’re in mid-trimester.  Why the district chose to take the reporting system down the day before these forms had to go home to parents is beyond mine or anyone else’s pay grade.  And while I grumble about stuff at school constantly, just because, I feel that in this instance, my outrage is wholly not misplaced.

But it goes back to where we started–what happens when these standardized tests are slated to go on-line for Core Content assessment purposes?  My school just happens to be wired, but I know that are some that still aren’t connected.  To paraphrase California State Superintendent of Schools, Tom Torlakson:

Torlakson acknowledged that computer-adaptive testing may be a challenge in California, which he said is ranked 47th in the nation in its use of technology. But he said he plans a technology initiative that will call on businesses like Comcast to assist schools and will include technology components in the next state school bond issue.

While Torlakson is specifically addressing the issue of adding the basic infrastructure to be able to  accommodate the need to upgrade school’s computer infrastructure, I’m worried about the quality of the infrastructure already in place.  I doubt that money could be spent fixing the issues our school already has, especially if it means that money gets taken away from a school that has less than what we have.  My own issues this week notwithstanding, my school site has far more than other schools when it comes to computers.  Each classroom has several computers already in them.  Each teacher was assigned a laptop.  Lastly, we have a mobile cart filled with a classroom set of laptops, to go along with a classroom with over 30 computers in a computer lab.  You would think, therefore, that we are far from being left behind on the information superhighway.

ELMO document camera, similar to what is found at our school site.

But just like there are cars on the freeway that could suffer mechanical issues without warning, our school, as this week brought home to me directly, can suffer “blow-outs” at inopportune times.  For me, for example, I have become so dependent upon my ELMO document camera, that there is no “Plan B” if it goes down.  I know better, but that doesn’t mean I plan for it.   What struck home this week was that with technology, the flighty nature of trying to mass wire-up the school site is going to lead to technical issues that will answer to Murphy’s Law at the worst possible time.  I needed access to get my progress reports done, so naturally I couldn’t do so while battling the triple terror of rain getting the wires wet, sun spot outages, and a bored guy over in our district’s IT department messing with the report card software for poops and giggles.

What happens if this access issue occurs during the state testing window?  While the window by 2014-15 will be expanded to the 12 weeks leading up to the end of the school year, ostensibly to allow for students to retake tests to improve their score, schools still have to put routines in place to ensure that all the students get tested.  My school site currently has over 550 students (last time I checked, anyway), and some 300 of those are eligible to be tested.  Realistically, we therefore have to come up with a schedule that can funnel these guys through their battery of tests with the 30-something computers in our lab (not all of which are working at any given time, in addition to the fact that some are 4-5 years old), and, maybe, the mobile laptop cart in a classroom (these are much newer, but they depend upon the wireless to get internet access).  My wife, who is spearheading the transition to the Common Core in her own district pointedly asks, “What do we do with the other kids at this point?”  She also points out that you need to pity the poor classroom group that has to go take their tests in the afternoon, when attention spans are waning with the end of the day coming, not to mention that it’s warmer at that time of the year, and the kids are coming in from recess.  Just imagine…”now let’s go take our state tests!”

So much for keeping the testing conditions optimal.

I am worried about the logistics.  While I am quick to be the gadfly to complain about just about anything at my site, these concerns about the Common Core computerized assessments are not me going off just to hear my head rattle.  Our decisions as to how to wire up our school site were made long before the push to adopt the Common Core, and while it’s easy to adopt the Bush-era mantra of “No one could have anticipated…“, we really didn’t anticipate this direction.  Our school didn’t, nor did our district.  When this went down, the district had the money to spend.  Now, in this political climate, there’s really none to be had.  I can’t imagine what will transpire if the choices for funding use means teacher jobs, or student materials versus internet wiring.  Ugh.

Nevertheless, as I finish typing this post, I still can’t access my progress reports with the software. So tomorrow I will go back in, continue my complaints about it, harangue the boss about the internet access, and, while I am it, remind her that I am also still waiting for a bank of classroom lights that our custodian ordered for my classroom over a year ago, leaving a corner of my trailer somewhat darker than the rest.  While it harkens back to a romantic time of learning by candlelight, it’s an 18th century solution for a 21st century problem.  I mean, I am charged with teaching Ancient History as a 6th grade teacher, but this is getting ridiculous.

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One thought on “Pressing the “Any” Key

  1. Pingback: The Any Key Presses Back… | ACTS OF TERRIER

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