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On Being a Technology Teacher in Newtown

Editor's Note: This special blog piece was written by our Board member, Patrice Gans, who teaches at an elementary school in Newtown Connecticut, five miles from Sandy Hook Elementary School and deals with her experiences during the terrible events that resulted in the deaths of so many students and the educators who gave their lives to protect them.

I live and breathe technology. I have a laptop computer, iPad, cellphone, digital camera, flip camera, and a wide assortment of flash drives. The first thing I do in the morning is check my e-mail, twitter and Facebook accounts. I always believed that technology would never leave me wanting for information.

On Friday, December 14, 2012, when an unimaginable horror was unfolding less than five miles away at Sandy Hook Elementary School, I sat huddled in a classroom with a fellow teacher for 2 and a half hours, clueless. When our head of school announced the lock down at 9:35 am, the first thought I had was "Why?". Assuming it was only a drill, I followed standard lockdown procedure and made my way across the hall to a more secure location, where I closed the door behind me, and waited quietly for the drill to end. However, it was only after I heard numerous sirens passing by the school that I began to believe that something may have actually happened and that our practice was real.

Then, as the time stretched from a half hour to an hour, I became convinced that something awful must have occurred. I had no idea where to turn for answers. I could not pick up the phone and call someone, nor could I turn on the television. My only recourse, as I sat crouched below the glass wall in a locked classroom, was to turn to my iPad for an answer. I eagerly surfed the web searching for answers. I was convinced that technology would quickly yield them and provide me with a course of action. However, I felt powerless. No answers were to be found.

I am not alone in believing in the power of technology. Most people share my perceptions and cling to the assumption that technology provides us with instant access to information that would have been difficult or impossible to find previously (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Information_Age#cite_note-1). From what I saw on the 14th of December, stories were not hard to come by. But as the scene began to unravel at Sandy Hook Elementary School, I slowly came to the realization that accurate information was not readily forthcoming. Rumors quickly filled the school, fueled by smart phones and unlimited internet access. It was more frightening than comforting.

As an educator, I want to teach my students the importance of effective digital information literacy skills. Thankfully I am not alone. Many organizations recognize the need for students to be able to navigate the digital landscape intelligently. The Partnership for 21st Century Skills includes information, media and technology skills as some of the key elements in their Framework for 21st Century Learning.

A recent study conducted by the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project entitled How Teens Do Research in the Digital World also supports the critical nature of incorporating digital literacy into the K-12 curriculum. Two main points from the study's summary confirmed my recent experience with technology.

  • 76% of teachers surveyed "strongly agree" with the assertion that internet search engines have conditioned students to expect to be able to find information quickly and easily.
  • Fewer teachers, but still a majority of this sample (60%), agree with the assertion that today's technologies make it harder for students to find credible sources of information.
  • Three weeks have passed since that fateful day. Students and teachers have returned from holiday break, and life is slowly returning to normal. We find ourselves with many questions and few answers. When the event first occurred, the abundance of misinformation was staggering and crippling. I found myself obsessed with finding out what had really happened. Now that some time has passed, I can go back and sort through the media frenzy and re-examine the information with a clear head. At the same time, I can put to use the critical thinking skills that I stress in my classroom on a daily basis.

    As a teacher in Newtown, CT, the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School hit home. As I try to come to terms with the horror, I find myself looking for a way to move forward. If nothing else, my experiences, during the lockdown and its aftermath, reinforced the importance of acquiring reliable information. I saw firsthand how important good information is to the understanding of a situation and the ability effectively deal with a crisis. Now is the time to take that lesson and pass it on to my students. Using technology is not enough. They must critically examine information and use it to make educated and informed decisions. Crises and emergencies demand accurate information, and I want to make sure my students are prepared to obtain it.

    Aside: An excellent resource for teaching information literacy Common Sense Media (www.commonsensemedia.org)

    Patrice Gans
    CSTA K8 Representative


    Great article.

    Why Wikipedia:
    The claim of Wikipedia as a source of reliable information is rather dubious at best.

    That aside you bring up some excellent points on the need to diffrentiate between the information and fluff, information and embedded journalism, information and propaganda. How many of us can claim we can do that with certainty.

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