Written by Kate Hicks, a teacher at Green Dot’s Alain LeRoy Locke College Preparatory Academy in Los Angeles, CA. This post originally appeared as part of the Alliance for Excellent Education’s Digital Learning Day Blog Series.
Watts is a changing community: its population is shifting and the historically African American neighborhood is welcoming families from Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, and even China. Students from all over the world, eager to learn and grow, congregate just north of the 105 freeway in South Los Angeles to attend Locke High School. While the community may be known for some of the largest public housing projects west of the Mississippi, it is also known for the iconic Watts Towers, community-based Watts Café, and a legacy of civic activism and civil protest.
Technology is scarce on our campus and often it is hard to balance which necessities need to be met first: ninety-nine percent of our students receive free lunch and many also are clothed and sponsored by staff members for extra curriculars. Most sophomores at our school read and complete math work below grade level and have six academic classes to help catch up, but no electives for art or technology.
With the transition to the Common Core, we had a chance to let students express themselves and share their learning with the larger community. It was my chance, as an English teacher, to fill in the gaps. Also, in a world with tremendous difficulties students face each day, we needed practice finding audiences for our writing. We needed to celebrate our stories and bear witness to our suffering.
What was a teacher to do?
Using Technology (a/k/a “Break Rules. Sometimes on Purpose. Only for Good Reasons.”)
Our campus administrators do not allow cell phones. Unfortunately, I know our newest, fastest technology is in my students’ hands, even in our high-poverty community. I talked rationally with my administrators and connected our projects to Common Core standards and pre-taught students cell phone executive skills (face down on your desk when not in use, ringer on vibrate). Phones can’t replace computers and not every student had a phone, but we tried apps and made mistakes. Our first videos were short at best, but they existed.
Find the Money
With a taste of technology, I wanted to know how to get computers and cameras, printers and software. Where did the money go? I decided to go to every budget meeting. Every. Single. One. And when choices were to be made, I suggested, urged, and pled for technology. California has special rules requiring community input when spending special funds, which particularly applies to high-poverty, resource-poor schools like mine. Two hours a month brought desktops and laptops to our campus, because I knew we had a right to our funds.
Unfortunately, I realized in our school most of our funding went to valuable teachers’ assistants and students with special learning and emotional needs; I started looking for other options. Enter donorschoose.org.
Choosing the Right Technology
DonorsChoose.org is an amazing organization; they offer regular teachers the opportunity to ask for technology (and non-tech) needs online. While it isn’t the only site of this kind, it is one of the most well-known. People from all over the world donate to teachers’ classrooms every day, occasionally with the encouragement of heroes like Steven Colbert and Oprah.
Just post and wait. Afterwards, send thank you notes to funders (a decent life skill, since gratitude shows our humanity). Time consuming? A bit. But by now, I will enter via any open door or window if it gives my students a chance to learn and to narrow the gaps in technology.
I also learned to write requests for less than $400, because they are usually funded more quickly, which means I aimed for the $100 document camera on Amazon, or the $100 hand-held camcorder that would suffice for a student without a cell phone. I also tried to imagine myself in my donor’s shoes and tried to make meaningful connections between our class work and their donation; they need to know that our kids’ desire for life changing skills and a voice in the world.
Learning to Teach
I realized, about the same time I put a post-it on top of my cell phone to remind myself of a meeting, that I am a digital immigrant. I needed help to make technology meaningful in my classroom. Part of learning and then using technology was learning how to use it to help students build new skills, instead of having just really expensive ways to type up essays. We looked to our local universities. One offered teacher-initiated inquiry grants. We were allotted $30,000 to spend on professional development and tools to make our use of technology meaningful. We met with leaders in the field of critical literacy and educational technology. We relied heavily on our Writing Project for ideas and support. If you can’t write a grant like this one, there are links to many funded through UCLA. Teachers like me are happy to help teachers like you with ideas to make it work.
Finally, and I learned this from Rochelle Ramey of the California Writing Project, ask for help. If you have one cell phone and an idea or 30 computers across campus, ask a friend or colleague to pitch in. As it happens, they’ll usually be just as excited to figure out the wide world of tech as you are. Have a coffee and imagine sharing the load.
The drill team at Locke actually has a cheer, “So hard, so hard to be a Locke Saint.” Indeed. I have remained at Locke because I understand the value of history in the community and realize our need to bear witness to our students’ struggles and successes. I also know that my students often need extraordinary measures to have access to “ordinary” tools; I accepted that truth when I chose to work at my school. Technology provides a way to help us share the stories of students who need to be heard the most.