Posted by: lrrp | November 9, 2004

Old School, New Tricks by Lev Grossman

Students at Brooklyn’s Packer school are field testing the wireless future. And you thought high school was tough

Some of us still remember the first time we saw a computer. I saw mine in 1977. It was a Commodore PET 2001 (a Personal Electronic Terminal). It was squat and beige and not particularly personal, and its sole function was to play a game called Hunt the Wumpus, which seemed like a fair and adequate justification for its existence to a second-grader. As the year was 1977, the PET was kept in the school’s fallout shelter, which otherwise was unoccupied owing to a lack of fallout.

None of the students at the Packer Collegiate Institute in Brooklyn, N.Y., will have the same sort of memory. For them, computers have always been there, a fact of life, in a way that no generation before theirs has experienced. Packer is at the cutting edge of an educational movement in the U.S. that is integrating laptop computers into middle schools and high schools–they’re known as “laptop schools.” But Packer has taken the idea a step farther. Its entire campus has been turned into a wireless Internet-access zone. Wherever they go, whatever they’re doing–whatever they’re supposed to be doing–Packer students are in constant high-bandwidth contact with the school, with one another and with the Internet at large. In essence, Packer has added an invisible fourth dimension to its campus. But life in the fourth dimension is somewhat different from what the Packer’s faculty anticipated. Can education survive the age of nonstop information?

For a school of the future, the Packer Collegiate Institute has a pretty fancy past. It was founded in 1845 (it’s the oldest independent school in Brooklyn) and it occupies a cluster of architecturally distinguished buildings in downtown Brooklyn, including a 19th century church complete with vaulted ceilings and stained-glass windows. Packer has an impressive pedigree, a highly competitive admissions policy and an extremely hefty tuition bill, and in 1999 the school’s administrators took a look at their computer lab and deemed it unworthy of the Packer name. The staff decided that to keep pace with the galloping ubiquity of computers in the world at large, Packer had to get its computers out of the lab and into the classroom in a new and radical way.

To say that this plan met with misgivings from teachers and parents would be an understatement. Would the kids use the technology to cheat? Would they become cyborg Stepford children? Would they, Brooklyn being Brooklyn, get mugged for their laptops after class? “I was worried about how it was going to affect their focus in the classroom,” remembers Rebecca Boucher, who has four kids at Packer. “Their interaction, their basic eye-to-eye contact, even. Was it going to become an isolating experience? I was very unclear how it was going to work.” The teachers were the ones who would have to answer that question, and they didn’t know either. “How would I do this?” said a sixth-grade teacher. “I did not have the skills. The kids are better at it than I am!”

The wireless Packer would be very different from the old Packer. All assignments, handouts, work sheets, what-have-you would be distributed electronically. (Thus rendering the copy machine, possibly the only device on earth less reliable than the computer, obsolete.) Students would take notes on their laptops in class, then take their laptops home and do their homework on them. To turn in an assignment, they would simply drag and drop it into the appropriate folder, where the teacher could wirelessly retrieve it. Voila: the paperless classroom.

By the fall of 2001, the system was ready to go live. Christina Devitt, Packer’s cheerful, indefatigable director of technology, and her team placed 50 wireless transceivers around the school–unassuming, almost unnoticeable little boxes that flooded the campus with wireless signals. Two grades, sixth and ninth, were selected to be the school’s inaugural cybernauts. Their parents were required to buy laptops for them on their own dime: Apple iBooks for the sixth-graders, Dell Windows machines for the older kids–the idea was to give students a look at both sides of the personal computing world. To kick things off in style, the staff held an Out of the Box event at which the kids unpacked and were introduced to their electronic sidekicks for the first time. “There was an incredible amount of excitement and energy,” Alan Bernstein, Packer’s assistant head, recalls. “It was sort of like unwrapping Christmas presents.” Out of the Box days have since become an annual Packer tradition.

But as with all great Christmas presents, there was some assembly required. “That first year–” Devitt shakes her head with remembered exhaustion. “It seemed so much more difficult than it does now. All the logistical pieces–getting the students online, figuring out what all the rules were going to be, seeing how students were going to use them … I think for a lot of the faculty it felt like being a first-year teacher again.” Teachers and students don’t make a habit of agreeing on things, but they agree on this: computers crash a lot. “Most computers that we have, have glitches,” says Shomari, a sixth-grader at Packer. “They break every five minutes! After a while, you have no care whatsoever for your laptop. It’s so, so, so annoying!”

It didn’t help that the middle schoolers had bought a first-generation product, Apple’s all-white iBooks. “I remember the first year–the issues were ridiculous!” says Chris Rose, who teaches humanities. “I mean, CD drives were popping out, the plugs were not working, there were battery problems. It wasn’t software; it was really basic stuff.” It also didn’t help that these computers were being used by a bunch of energetic young adolescents. As Packer math teacher George Turner puts it, “There is no harder life than in a sixth-grader’s backpack.” One lesson the faculty learned fast was that if you’re going to base your lesson plan on the computers, have a backup plan. If you don’t, when one kid’s laptop crashes, the whole class grinds to a halt.

But the changes went beyond technological gremlins. The laptops gave students new ways to learn, but they also gave them new ways to goof off: playing video games, sending instant messages, downloading music. “That virtual space is so new,” Devitt says, “it’s really easy to forget that some of the same behaviors that happen in real space can happen there, and that some of the same rules and expectations for proper conduct apply. A kid might see going after somebody’s password online as an intellectual game, whereas in real life they would never go into that person’s backpack and try and take their keys.”

Some aspects of school life aren’t yet ready for the wireless revolution. How can you give an exam when a student can download answers straight from the Web? Tests at Packer are still taken the old-fashioned way, on paper.

Pretty soon the school had to lay down new laws to govern the new frontier, and frontier justice was harsh. “Last year we allowed kids to play games during break and lunch,” Devitt says, “and some faculty felt there were kids who were having trouble controlling their gameplay and weren’t getting outside enough or getting help from teachers. So this year we’ve decided to set up a special room that’s going to be monitored, where kids are allowed to go at a certain time.” If any middle schooler gets caught e-mailing, or playing games or doing anything they shouldn’t on their computer during class, it’s an immediate suspension. “In the high school,” Devitt adds, “the expectation is that they can monitor themselves a bit better.” Just in case they don’t, last spring Devitt installed software on Packer’s central server that limits each student’s bandwidth use and cuts off access to instant messaging and music-downloading services. (Some students claim it’s still possible to send instant messages–the students refer to IM-ing as “talking,” which should tell you something in itself–but that rumor has not been confirmed. Anyway, nobody likes a tattletale.) Faculty also have the ability to monitor what any student is doing on their laptop at any time. Students are notified that they’re being watched by an eerie eyeball icon that appears on their screens.

Wireless has done more than give Packer students a new set of rules to break. The school’s entire culture has changed. The place feels different, and not everybody is comfortable with that. Everybody you meet at Packer is carrying a laptop. Kids in the hall wave wireless cards and argue about where to download drivers. When teachers talk, there’s a low, collective clicking sound in the background–the sound of hundreds of fingers taking notes via keyboard. “It was painful for me,” admits Elissa Krebs, who heads the English Department at Packer. “Inevitably you would just have lines of seventh- and eighth-graders up against the walls with their energy completely focused on their laptops, en masse. It was just so hard to transition to that image, from seeing kids socializing and putting stuff in their lockers and moving from one group to the next.” What the Packer population was learning was that once computers are connected, they aren’t just how we get information; they’re how we communicate and relate to one another too. “It was quiet at the very beginning, when it was so new,” Boucher remembers. “You’d see all these kids in the hallways with their computers open, and you’d be like, Wow, is this how it’s always going to be?”

Classes at Packer are undeniably different, but if you can see past the strangeness, you will see some remarkable things. Drop by Mr. Rush’s senior art-history class some morning. Rush–a dapper, manic teacher who claims he understands absolutely nothing about wireless technology–leads his students through a brisk review before an exam, pulling images of Greek urns off the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s website. He makes extensive use of what’s called a Smart Board, a high-tech blackboard that throws a giant version of Rush’s laptop screen on the wall. It’s touch-sensitive, so he can point and click on the board with his hand, navigating from urn to urn, zooming in on images when he wants to highlight a detail. He even uses his index finger to draw lines, and he sketches freehand directly on the screen when he needs to illustrate a point. When he’s done, Rush can save what’s on the Smart Board and instantly distribute it to every laptop in the room, so the kids can take it home to study.

The new, wireless Packer works in big ways, and in little ways too. There’s a virtual lost-and-found bulletin board–sweatshirts are a hot item–and another one where kids can post opinions about the war in Iraq. Last year the school set up an electronic link with a laptop school on an Indian reservation in Alaska, and the kids swapped poems and pictures of themselves. “I’ve been sick for the past two days,” chirps Annie, a Packer eighth-grader, “but instead of just doing nothing and waiting to get the assignments from my friends, I could get ’em all off the email and catch up without having a ton of homework to do when I get back to school.” And kids are picking up computer skills along the way: watching the fifth-graders touch-type would make an executive secretary weep. They’re whizzes at video production. They speak PowerPoint like it’s their mother tongue–it’s how they do their oral reports. The kids at Packer have become one with their computers–and the Net that connects them–in a way that we, the generation that built those computers, will never grasp.

As for Rebecca Boucher, she overcame any ambivalence she might have had. Parents also have access to Packer’s system, so she can keep track of what her kids should be doing for homework without having to peer obnoxiously over their shoulders. More important, one of her children, who’s now in sixth grade, is severely dyslexic. It takes him an hour to write a paragraph by hand–but he’s a demon typist. “It was as if he was playing on a level field for the first time,” she says, and her relief is heartfelt. “For him, having that laptop was like being given wings.”

As for the other stuff, the games and the “talking” and the God knows what else, it doesn’t scare her. It’s an urban campus, she points out, in a busy downtown neighborhood. “They don’t have a street corner where all the kids can hang out. Inside the computer is their street corner.” She compares it to listening to the Grateful Dead when she was growing up in the 1970s, back when rock ‘n’ roll was still new and computers were safely confined to the fallout shelter. After all, she argues, all teenagers of every era have something that they do in their rooms, something that their parents just don’t get, something that defines them as a generation. “They can hang out together using their computers in a way that I don’t think that I fully understand,” she says. “But I can appreciate it.”

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