12 February 2013

Hanging with the Smalls

When was the last time you (a) could only get dial-up Internet and (b) there was no cell phone signal where you lived? For me, close to 20 years, although that's probably cheating a little. There may well have been a cell phone network available long before I could afford one in 1996. It was probably 10 years ago before I got DSL (and then broadband). A lot has changed on Teh Interwebs since then.

I've spent a lot of time over the last couple of weeks meeting with some of the smallest districts (n students less than 200). Many of these districts are "invisible," not just in terms of policy, but also basic services.

Some of these districts have only two teachers...instructional materials may be quite aged (I heard about a district that, until recently, was still using "Dick and Jane" readers from the 50's)...and access to professional learning (or even prep time during the school day) is limited, at best. A few districts have no kitchen access---so no hot meals for kids (or only what can be microwaved from home).

Teachers (and administrators) wear many hats in these districts. If you're teaching, you may have 3 or 4 grade levels of students in a single classroom. You may also be the person who has to get up on the roof and sweep off the snow...or make repairs in the classroom. A teacher I met last week is also the bus driver for the district---so by her attending a meeting that day, kids had to find their own way to school.

I share this to only outline a picture for you, not to elicit sympathy. The fact is, teachers in these communities are incredibly passionate about the work they do (just like teachers everywhere) and embrace their role in their communities. They know their students incredibly well and believe that small schools have an incredible advantage for learning. I find their stories and dedication inspiring.

The digital divide, however, looms greatly in these places due to the lack of connection with the world at large. True, some people move to remote areas to be away from the world, but some of these areas had no say in being left out of technological advancements. A telco will not put a cell phone tower in (or run broadband to) an area with only a couple of hundred customers for the same reason a pharmaceutical company won't develop treatments for exceptionally rare diseases: it's not cost-effective for them. And so the world moves on without these families.

It all makes me a little angry (okay, a lot angry), that in 2013...with all of the expectations we push out to schools...that there hasn't been anyone fighting for these little guys. Teachers in these areas are more than willing to bring Common Core into their classrooms, for example, but when all of the resources are developed for single-grade non-looping classrooms with access to the Internet in all of its glory (or budgets which permit additional materials...or even school libraries), what are they to do? How many teachers in any school district can plan for four grade levels of simultaneous instruction across multiple subject areas...without a prep period, access to release time, instructional support in the form of coaches or curriculum specialists?

So, I'm helping to do what I can. I have a great partner to work with and a little pot of funding. We are bringing these teachers together and starting to build some networks and see what is possible. There is nothing more heartbreaking than hearing them say at the end of the day that they don't feel so alone now...or realizing that all we have at the moment is a lifeboat. There is not enough room to connect all of these teachers. But we'll build a model together and then see about expanding it to others. Small steps, I keep telling myself. One foot in front of the other. Make things happen as we're able.

And fight like hell for those kids.

1 comment:

Hedgetoad said...

My cousins live in a "rural necessary district" - no cell service, but they do have satellite internet (for the past two years... the prices have dropped significantly). I would say that the education my cousin's son is getting is probably better than the one my daughter is getting (same grade). His day is full of teacher time, projects and "Fun!". Her day is full of other students (26 in Kinder!), waiting for her turn and numerous assessment tests. Don't even get me started on "curriculum specialists".

For all the fancy technology my town school has, I do A LOT of supplementing for things she never has "time" to do - science, arts, history, fun reading... etc.