Playfulness into Computer Training
by Phil Shapiro
In my previous job, working for the Arlington Public Schools, I
had the task of training elementary school teachers on computer
and video technology. All teachers in Virginia are required to possess
basic technology skills, or they can lose their teaching license.
This is a sensible regulation. Does it make sense for a teacher
to be instructing future generations if he or she is unsure how
to send an email or search the web? If they have no idea what the
word HTML means? Most of the teachers I trained had decent technology
skills and were eager to learn more.
What was particularly thrilling was seeing teachers teaching with
technology skills I helped them acquire. At all times I made it
clear to teachers that I wasn't "smarter" than them. "You're
good at teaching and I'm good at computers," I would explain.
"I sure could learn a lot from you about teaching."
One of my first goals was to get teachers comfortable using computer
terminology. It's admittedly easy to mix up the unit size of kilobytes,
megabytes and gigabytes. The way I explained this concept is that
a single typed page of text is about 2 to 3 kilobytes. A medium
length newspaper article or book review is about 10 to 15 kilobytes.
A short paperback book contains about a megabyte of text. (1000
kilobytes of text.) Large graphics and sound files are measured
in megabytes. Video stored on a hard drive is usually measured in
gigabytes. (Each gigabyte holds about 4 minutes of DV video.) After
I explained all this, many teachers' eyes still glazed over. So
I resorted to Plan B.
In email exchanges I had with teachers, I started using the expression
"Thanks a megabyte" whenever someone did something helpful
for me. Teachers caught on. I also explained that "Thanks a
kilobyte" is a virtually meaningless phrase, as a kilobyte
is too small a unit to thank anybody about. I also pointed out that
"Thanks a gigabyte" is an expression that should only
be used if someone saves your life. Sure enough, about a month after
I explained all this to teachers, a smart- aleck teacher stopped
me in the hallway to say, "Thanks a terabyte." Naturally,
I looked at her as if she were completely nuts. "Do you have
any idea of the giggerbish you're talking about," I said with
a wink. "It's entirely inappropriate to say, "thanks a
terabyte," because terabytes are too large a unit to thank
anybody about. Now get back to class, and I don't want to hear another
word from you," I giggled. Teachers quickly learned that I
would resort to any devious means to help them learn and understand
Along these lines, one of the most interesting experiences was
when I taught iMovie to a small group of teachers. Using courter-psychology,
I told the teachers, "You're elementary school teachers. You
have no time for shooting or editing video in your classroom. Let
me show this to you anyway, and you can decide if it has any use
at all." To make the training more fun for me, I didn't plan
the full details of the video we'd be making in the training. Why
not use a little spontaneity? The most dreary of all trainings are
the one's that methodically progress from Roman numeral 1 to Roman
number 12, with all knowledge neatly aligned into headings and sub-
headings. I knew that approach just wouldn't work for my teachers.
So I told the teachers, "We're going to make a short commercial
today. We'll choose an imaginary product and then write a short
script, practice our lines and then shoot the commercial."
I asked for a volunteer to be the camcorder operator. A brave teacher
stepped forward. I then threw out some ideas for some imaginary
products we could try and sell. We settled on creating a commercial
for "motivation." Any other virtue or abstract concept
would have worked as well.
Tasteful satire is always a great way of unleashing creativity
and learning. Assuming the role of an "in charge" teacher,
I started assigning lines for our script. I had the opening line
for the commercial: "Does your life lack pizzazz? Have you
considered motivation?" Then the camcorder panned over to one
of the teachers who declared convincingly, "Did you know that
motivation is free?" The camcorder panned to the next teacher
who chimed in, "And you can get it anywhere!" The third
teacher said, "And you can get as much of it as you want?"
(For the QuickTime rendition, see http://storymakers.net/motivation.mov
Admittedly, the lighting was about as bad as you can get -- fluorescent
lighting in a computer lab. And yet when I showed the teachers how
they could quickly edit the video in iMovie, nearly all the teachers
became quick converts.
"Would your students like to do this kind of thing?"
I asked with eyebrows raised and head tilted. All teachers nodded
rapidly up and down. "Is there any way you can work video production
into your curriculum to motivate students to be on task with their
daily lesson?" More rapid up and down head nodding.
In a 20-minute training session I had ignited an interest in using
video in the classroom. I ended the training by letting the teachers
know that I was available for one-on-one training for any of them
that wanted to try using video production with their elementary
school students. I could help ensure technical success, if they
could bring a creative lesson plan to the table. It was a fair trade.
Another opportunity for me to inject playfulness into teaching
occurred last summer when I was in charge of a summer camp for elementary
school students. The camp was a small camp with about 10 to 15 students.
Towards the end of the summer I brought my guitar to work. When
the kids saw the guitar, they asked me to play a song. I happened
to have the lyrics to "Unchained Melody" in my guitar
case, so I sang that for them. I purposely played the notes slowly
to show the students that it's possible to play nice sounding guitar
without having a lot of skill. One of the students in 5th grade
blurted out that she wanted to try playing the song on the guitar.
I saw a teachable moment develop before my eyes, so I asked one
of the other kids to shoot video of this girl playing the guitar
for the first time in her life.
The girl chose to play the right hand part of the guitar, so I
aligned myself on her left and offered to play the chords. Doing
so required me to place my hand and arm in a rather uncomfortable
position, but it was all worth it. This student was putting on her
first guitar concert, without any practicing, and the entire experience
was being videotaped no less. As you can imagine there was a lot
of giggling as we all got in position for the video shoot. I happened
to have a 500 watt standing utility light (you know those standing
utility lights that are yellow or orange in color that you
can buy at a hardware store?) So the lighting for the video was
excellent. The audio for the video was also good, as we used an
external microphone connected to my Canon camcorder.
One of the kids took charge of the audio. As it happened, my supervisor
walked in as we were getting ready to perform and he quickly assumed
a supportive role, gently coaching the kids on how to comfortably
hold a guitar. I made a copies of the finished video to give out
to the students at the camp, and asked permission of the parent
of the key performer if he minded whether I put the video clip up
on the web (protecting his daughter's privacy by not mentioning
her name.) He said that was fine. I uploaded this QuickTime to my
Dot Mac account at http://homepage.mac.com/pshapiro101/iMovieTheater16.html
The girl playing guitar in this QuickTime wants to be a doctor
when she grows up. Do you think she has the concentration skills?
I do. There are countless other ways to inject playfulness into
teaching. I'm hoping the ideas in this article spawn ideas for ways
you can inject playfulness into any of the formal or informal teaching
you do. Giggling allowed.
This article, with associated internal and supplemental links,
can be found on the web at http://www.his.com/pshapiro/playfulness.html
Phil Shapiro works as a
Lifelong Learning Coach at CitiWide Computer Training Center, in
the Mt. Pleasant neighborhood of DC. He is one of 20 "literacy
leaders" hired to implement Mayor Anthony Williams' new literacy
initiative. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org