At quick glance, Amy Geyer’s first-grade classroom doesn’t look much different than classrooms from decades past.
But reminders of what’s changed surface as the Norton Creek Elementary School teacher demonstrates the Ladibug document camera that has replaced the overhead projector; shows how YouTube videos can be projected from her laptop to the dry-erase board; and explains that previous generations of students likely sat in rows rather than in clusters, as her students do.
Geyer, who has spent 43 years at St. Charles School District 303 – as a student and as a teacher – said she likes the changes in technology.
“You have to keep up with it,” she said. “Education is constantly changing, and you just have to keep up with all of those changes.”
Education’s evolving nature – coupled with rapid changes in technology – makes it difficult to encompass just how school has changed since the parents of today’s students were in school.
“Even in eight years, we’ve seen huge change,” Steve Kohlhagen, a fifth-grade teacher at Heartland Elementary School in Geneva, said about educational technology and its impact on student learning.
Innovations of years past
When Wild Rose Elementary School in St. Charles Township opened in 1966, a brochure for its open house highlighted several of the school’s features, including listening tables for records and tapes, classrooms with movable walls and a kindergarten room with a checkerboard floor.
“An innovation in this room is the use of the floor to help teach numbers, letters and color,” the brochure states.
Seventeen years later, in 1983, the addition of a computer lab with 21 Apple II computers warranted a mention in the St. Charles High School yearbook. The computers were used for typing, introduction to business and introduction to computer programming.
“All freshmen math classes spent 10 days gaining awareness of how the computers operate,” the yearbook states.
“The board of education set several goals which they hoped to be achieved in the lab: computer awareness for freshmen; the teaching of data processing skills; the teaching of executive secretarial skills; and the expansion of students’ programming skills.”
In Batavia, computers were introduced to the high school library – now known as the learning resource center – in 1995, LRC Director Daniel Russo said.
“It is amazing that in my time I’ve gone from actually bringing the first computer into the library to now having every student having a computer all the time,” he said. “In 20 years, that’s been a huge change.”
Russo, who previously taught English, recalled how difficult it would be for former students to find resources for their American literature research papers.
“It was truly a struggle because you were limited to what was in the four walls of the library,” he said.
With subscriptions to numerous databases, the school library is no longer just a physical space, Russo said. Students can access the databases wherever and whenever they have access to a computer.
A big part of his job has become teaching students how to use the databases, which recorded 27,487 log-ins and 75,166 searches in the first semester this year, Russo said.
“You can find information on anything, but the problem is – or the challenge is – how do you deal with so much information?” Russo said.
Students need to know to weed through the information and that their first search result isn’t necessarily the best result, especially since many search engines rank on popularity, he said.
When researching, students need to know their purpose, Russo said. Are their teachers expecting them to use authoritative sources selected by an academic journal, he said, or are their teachers looking for popular culture sources?
Noticing a globe in one of his coworker’s classrooms, Kohlhagen said he can’t think of the last time he used such a tool.
But ask him and the other Heartland fifth-grade teachers how often their students use their individual, school-provided computer, and they’ll say whenever the kids feel they need it.
The fifth-graders use the devices to take notes, listen to stories, make presentations, update their blogs – which their classmates can read – and connect with other students across the country and the world, teachers said.
“We don’t even go to the [computer] lab anymore,” teacher Laura Ross said.
Principal Adam Law wrote in an email that the fifth-graders have been working with one-to-one portable devices for two years. With the technology, he wrote, students are more connected beyond the school, and they are assuming greater ownership of their own learning and are thus more engaged.
“The teachers are not teaching ‘the technology,’ “ Law wrote. “Rather, they are teaching the curriculum using the technology as a tool.”
While tangible items have been phased in and out of schools, District 303 Area Assistant Superintendent for Elementary Education Becky McCabe noted an intangible quality classrooms generally lack today: quietness.
In recent decades, she and others said, educators have embraced the concept of cooperative learning. Students now tend to sit in clusters rather than rows and are encouraged to collaborate with each other, educators said.
Such a setup is a departure from what Geyer experienced as a student, she said, explaining there was an expectation to not talk or look at one’s neighbor.
As a teacher, she recognizes the value of kids working together.
“I may not be able to explain things to them like they can to each other,” Geyer said.
Batavia High School is launching a business incubator class for the 2015-16 school year designed around collaboration. Based on a Barrington High School program, the entrepreneurship course will have students work in teams to create and develop a product or service, Chief Academic Officer Brad Newkirk said.
Noting that business is a popular field of study at the post-secondary level, Newkirk said the course came about because Batavia School District 101 was looking for ways to “really teach” the concepts of business.
“It’s putting the theory into action,” he said.
Although Geyer has taught only first grade, the specifics of what she teaches have changed.
When she began teaching in the 1980s, she said, a big part of her job was teaching the students how to read. Now, she said, her focus is on reading comprehension.
The students’ writing also is more advanced than what it was 31 years ago, Geyer said.
At the end of first grade, she once wanted her students to be able to write three sentences that went together, such as this: “I have a cat. He is black. I love him,” she said.
Now, Geyer said, as she recently pointed to a student’s opinion writing assignment, her class uses a writing organizer and talks about such elements as an opening, supporting details and a closing.
“Is there a cost in that?” Geyer asked about younger students becoming more advanced academically. “I don’t know that answer.”
Geyer said students have lost other, non-academic skills. For example, she said, she has less time to include arts and crafts projects in her lessons, and many kids have difficulty holding scissors and cutting.
“There isn’t nearly as much creativity as there used to be,” Geyer said. “There’s so little time for that.”
When students do have the opportunity to draw pictures, they will sometimes want to print clip art so they can trace around it, said Kristen McAvoy, a fifth-grade teacher at Heartland Elementary School.
But there are students who appreciate the technology that they have had access to in their K-12 career.
Eileen Ruppel, a 2014 Kaneland High School graduate who attends Augustana College in Rock Island, specifically mentioned her keyboarding classes, noting her parents don’t know how to type.
“It’s hopeless,” she said.
Caitrin Mills, an 18-year-old Kaneland senior, said she is glad to have instantaneous research tools rather than relying on outdated books.
“A lot of the modern technology has changed education a lot,” Mills said.
On the Web
Visit KCChronicle.com to watch video of Amy Geyer, a St. Charles School District 303 teacher, in her former kindergarten classroom at Lincoln Elementary School.