Learning ‘a second language’

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It’s nearly noon on a Monday at Daniel Carter Beard School, a small school for special education students ages 3 to 9 on Chicago’s Northwest Side. Eighteen teachers, a principal and the school’s technology coordinator are gathered in the library to attend a workshop on the basics of using a Macintosh.

Helen Hoffenberg, a teacher trainer from the district’s Department of Learning Technologies, begins by polling teachers about their use of computers. Most say they use computers for word processing. A few write e-mail letters to sons and daughters away at college. But almost all qualify their statements by adding that their use of computers has been helped along by spouses and younger children in the family.

The exception is one young teacher who says that she and her husband regularly peruse the Internet and use computers for everything from paying bills and budgeting household expenses to calculating savings.

The number of novices doesn’t surprise Hoffenberg. “Taken as a whole, we can see that for most adults, working with computers is like trying to learn a second language,” the teacher trainer says. “We have to accept that and begin to move on.”

Move on they do as Hoffenberg guides them through simple lessons on the use of Claris Works, a software program that provides a variety of templates for producing letter forms, newsletters, address books, envelopes and even business cards.

She asks teachers to write a sample letter to parents, and while most have no problem, one woman with more experience with computers than the others quickly tires of the exercise. “I know how to do this. What’s to learn?” she says to a colleague.

Nearby, another teacher struggles through the sequence of commands that will bring her to the blank screen where she can begin writing the text of her letter. When she has difficulty moving the mouse to indicate appropriate choices on the screen, the teacher who’s lost interest suddenly steps in to help.

What both teachers learn in that moment is far more important than how to use a drop-down menu, Hoffenberg says. Such mutual support and collaboration are key ingredients to introducing technology into the schools.