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Technology in Elementary School Education
by Andrew Gardner

With increased access to digital media tools in schools and no clear expectations about how to use them, teachers have an opportunity to be creative.  Over the past 2 years while working at the technology heavy School at Columbia University, I have experimented with different tech tools.  While using computers has been useful, I’ve found the most satisfaction putting digital cameras into the hands of the students. In this article I will describe the procedure we took to make a home grid, a project in which using digital cameras allowed us build classroom community by learning about each others homes while simultaneously addressing significant learning objectives.

We made our home grid during the 5th week of the new school year. With routines basically established, class 1a began approaching the meat of our social studies curriculum. At The School, first grade does a family study, in which we compare and contrast the cultures represented in our classroom community through studying different homes, rituals and even alphabets! In the spirit of doing creative projects, one afternoon, Genie, my associate, and I were brainstorming ways to help children understand the concept of home. Though we knew it would have been fun to visit each child’s home, we knew it was impractical, so we came up with the idea to help the children create a home grid in which they could at least see the different elements of each other’s homes.  This grid allowed us to compare and contrast the physical elements of every student’s home. Genie and I believed it was important to begin our study by identifying concrete elements of home.  The tangible items were easy to compare and contrast, and would provide a decent entry point into the more conceptual conversations as the study progressed.  

During Monday morning meeting we asked the question what are some things in a home. The class created a list of things that are in a home.  From bathrooms to beds, our list included 24 things that the kids felt were important.  Later in the afternoon, at our end of the day meeting, I introduced the children to the classroom’s digital cameras.  We talked about what a camera did, and how to use it. For homework, I began sending the children home with the digital camera and a copy of the list of things they thought were important.  Their job was to take care of the camera and document the home.

Slowly, over the course of 2 weeks, the kids brought home the cameras and took digital photographs of every item on the list.  The next day they would return the cameras full of images from their homes. Using photo software on the Macintosh computer (though any photo organization program could work), we organized and printed 2X3 prints (alas using a lots of color ink) of the children’s homes.  One afternoon, after all the photographs were collected and printed, we worked together to make the home grid.  Each child was given paper copies of their pictures and glued them down in special order so that we created an enormous grid with columns of an individual child’s home and rows of the same element.  After everyone had finished pasting his or her photos we hung up the enormous grid on our class bulletin board in the hall.  Over time we took many trips to the grid to have conversations, most of which involved comparing and contrasting each other’s kitchens, ceilings, siblings and even toys.  

So, you may ask, what do you learn from comparing and contrasting small photographs of each other’s homes?  Well within our diverse student population, the home grid was an entry point into seeing each other’s homes democratically. By talking about how children’s homes were physically similar and different, it helped develop self-awareness and awareness of others, important elements of building emotional intelligence. Also, the home grid provides easy visual subject for children to use while writing, playing I-spy or even solving mathematics problems.  Also, upon establishing a firm grasp of the physical elements in a home, we were able to begin more complicated conversations about non-physical elements of home such as human relationships and love and even disagreements.  These conversations helped children to begin understanding how elements of home go beyond the physical existence.

Most of the children were proud to have their photographs on the wall, and that pride made it more seductive for them to talk about them. Also, these initial conversations about human homes in New York City provided a base that helped when we began talking about animal homes, and homes in other cultures.  In retrospect, we could have used the photographs in many other ways as well; the children could have made books about their homes, we could have made a guessing game, or even had the kids give PowerPoint presentations!

This was the first instance of camera use in our classroom. As the year progressed, children used the cameras for more projects but they also began using them informally as a documentation tool, recording and digitally archiving photographs of important things, such as a project, a friend or even a book they had read.   The process of documenting things that they found important, and reflecting later, allowed the children to actually think about how and why they were learning; they also become more articulate talking about what they learned.  Furthermore, they became producers of visual culture, a role far different from the role they may take while watching TV, going to movies, or surfing the Internet.

In these days of prepackaged curriculum and limited teacher autonomy, the introduction of digital media tools to our schools is a wonderful opportunity for teachers to experiment.  I have found that putting the cameras into the hands of children have not only helped as a tool in making projects, but has also given them a sense of self-worth and responsibility.#

Andrew Gardner, an elementary school teacher at The School at Columbia University, is currently traveling throughout Europe, exploring other school systems, not unlike his father, Harvard Professor Howard Gardner.  



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