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Distance learning across the Digital Divide


By Iris Kirsch

Educators are the perpetually unsung. I’m glad that grocery store workers are finally getting the recognition they have always deserved, but it stings to see teachers and PSRPs working their fingers to the bone, trying to meet the needs of our students and be told they’re lucky to have a job and a paycheck and then forgotten. I thank you from the bottom of my heart, and sincerely hope we can be with our students soon, providing the care and instruction they need.

As educators across the country scramble to teach students at a distance, much has been made of the digital divide—the gulf between those families with consistent internet connectivity and enough computers for each family member to be online simultaneously and those families with one smartphone and a neighbor’s internet password. While this is a very real concern, we should consider whether computer literacy is our top priority, or whether we can make better use of this sudden, unstructured time to help our children grow into the adults we want in our future.

There is a lot to be said for including robust technology education for all students. When my high school students hear that they will be required to turn in certain assignments typed, many panic. Even when they can use computers at school or at the library, their typing skills and general computer literacy are so lacking that the task seems impossible. And telling them that, in 1999, when I started college, the expectation was that all assignments, including journal entries, would be typed, always results in a few students blurting out “That’s why I’m not going to college!”

But seeing the students learn to navigate these tools and improve their typing skills and email etiquette is very rewarding. And many students have thanked me (some even by email) for preparing them for the digital world of college and careers.

As educators, we are constantly pushed to think that what we do this semester will make or break our students’ lives. But as union members, we know that holding out for better conditions is a strong move. Now more than ever, we need to push back and insist that a few months of slower instruction that prepares the district for future success is far better than exhausting precious resources on gadgets that will make it harder to change course later.

The BTU, along with other agencies in Baltimore, has embarked on a campaign to secure funds from Baltimore City for more technology and internet access. This is an excellent medium-term strategy which could prove very useful for many students and educators (one of the paraprofessionals I spoke with was trying to interact with her students but had no laptop of her own!) both in the coming months and the coming years, without expending funds from Baltimore City Public Schools (BCPSS). However, it should be paired with a rethinking of the current and future ways we teach our children.

Driving my children to a park the other day, my daughter asked, “does that little boy have a computer?” Indeed, a tiny child, no more than 6, was walking down steep steps clutching an opened laptop. First, I was worried this boy was going to fall. Then, I thought of the resources that went into making that machine, the money BCPSS spent on it and how useful it could be in certain capacities in schools if it isn’t smashed on the sidewalk. But most of all, I looked around us on that beautiful Spring day, seeing geometry in the architecture, poetry in the trees and wisdom in the face of the boy’s caretaker, and felt so sorry that the big lesson he was getting is: if you want to know things, you need a computer.

There has been a scramble to get computers to students. The district has distributed laptops to hundreds of students as have many schools. But is more technology what we want? The new “21st Century” buildings are hardwired with SMARTBoards and microphones everywhere. These, like the laptops we are now handing out, are designed to be obsolete within a few years.

When a company invests in training and developing workers, those workers become long-term assets for the company. The BTU is constantly fighting an uphill battle to get North Ave to put more effort into retaining veteran educators. If we want our students to get the education they deserve, there is no investment that will bring us there like keeping the great educators we have and carefully, slowly recruiting more Baltimore-bred, primarily black people into our ranks. Every dollar spent on computers is a dollar we don’t have to retain and attract the best educators.

This may seem like a false dichotomy. If we get the funding we deserve, and Kirwan may be taking us in that direction, why can’t we have both? 

The sad truth is, as teaching goes online, teachers become expendable. Aldous Huxley recommended making films of “the best teachers on every academic level,” and simply showing those films in every classroom in the country.  He claimed, in 1956, that the “time has now come for these mechanical resources to be exploited systematically.” It almost seems funny until you think about the SMARTBoards and audio systems in the new buildings, and how much teachers are being encouraged to rely on technology. We are told that students won’t be engaged without something up on the screen, but many of the best educators know that’s simply not true.

Ms. Moe Roberts, a Pre-K Instructional Para at Curtis Bay Elementary, said “the emotional support, the love,” is what keeps the most vulnerable children coming back to school. She gave out her personal number, because many parents are frustrated and some need support, “On the emotional side,” she told me, “a parent might need to vent.” And parents aren’t the only ones.

Teens are experiencing extreme stress from being away from their peers and from having their freedoms curtailed. They could figure out the class video chat, but many don’t believe they’ll find fulfillment. Despite the allure of technology, nothing motivates pre-teens and teens as strongly as relationships. In the classroom, even with prescribed curricula, educators can modify in real time based on student need. That’s not always possible online.

BCPSS has put up week-by-week curricula for every grade level, maintaining the narrow focus of Common Core despite cancellation of standardized tests. After hearing from a parent, “you’d need a law degree to interpret the guide!”, I looked at these materials. I couldn’t imagine being a parent who has to work, has three children in school, all in different grades, trying to navigate these lessons. It would be next to impossible. Everything is disjointed: what a child in second grade is doing has nothing to do with what her fifth grade brother has to do. And what their tenth grade sister is doing in math has nothing to do with what she’s doing in Spanish. Given the strains on everyone’s time and patience right now, this doesn’t seem sensible.

Some teachers are breaking away from the district’s curriculum. Sean Martin, English teacher at City Neighbors, has created “simple daily reading and journaling assignments that offer young people choice.”  He says this gives “the opportunity for young people to build a genuine, personal daily reading, writing, and thinking habit and then to share it in their own ways and at their own pace with peers.” This is education. This is self-directed inquiry which leads to real growth. But it’s not quite as easy to do this in Mathematics as it is in Language Arts.

Here’s my solution: get together educators from all grade levels, all subjects, ESOL, SPED, paras, counselors, etc. and have them create one project-based curriculum for all students district wide. The first unit could be Genealogy. There would be myriad assignments, each appropriate for different students in different circumstances. Everyone could interview elders in their families. Younger students could write simple stories and draw pictures, older students could write questions and organize narratives that proved points or told stories, blending quotations with their own thoughts. All students could do historical and geographical research about the time periods and places in question.  Children could re-write parts of their story in other languages and publish the stories in many forms, both text-based and multi-media.

Children could learn the science of biology and genetic selection, with different lessons aimed at different levels. Exponential growth of families through generations and time lines both create a wealth of opportunities for math problems for children of various ages.

This structure would allow families to work together, rather than fighting for space and technology. It would center the knowledge of family elders and bring people together, rather than making parents and grandparents “look dumb” as they try to navigate district requirements. And it would give students opportunities to collaborate with their peers from school, who are now often only accessible through online video games full of hidden menaces.

We need not wait for the bosses to implement this. Educators at any school can get together (virtually), create alternative, project-based lessons, and share them widely. Differentiated pieces do not need to be labeled by grade level, as living, breathing children do not develop at the same rate intellectually any more than they do physically. Educators can suggest lessons for each student within the larger framework which, if done thoughtfully, will make everyone feel they have a unique and valuable contribution to make. This will allow us to transition away from chasing down work-packets and fielding requests for tech support and step back into our proper place as educators teaching skills alongside self-love, critical thinking and creativity.

And let’s not give up on in-person schooling. A long-term view reveals that the mental and emotional health of children should be at the forefront of all our decisions. Let us consider the world we want for our grandchildren and work today to create it.

Iris Kirsch has taught English and Creative Writing in BCPSS since 2006. A longtime member and supporter of the BTU, she is now developing Graduate classes for BTU members on Linguistic Diversity and Restorative Practices.

The BTU Organizing Committee is working to close the digital divide that the COVID-19 crisis has exposed and exacerbated. We are collaborating with other groups and pressuring City Government to invest in the acquisition of additional technology and cost-effective solutions to increase internet connectivity in support of the education of children and families and the employment needs of participants in the YouthWorks program. Click here for your free online toolkit full of resources you can use to promote and grow this campaign.