Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Monday, October 29, 2012

Learning from the Best?

It's long been a dream--a daffy one, really: to find a machine of some kind that can do what a teacher does.  I remember that my mother was, for a while, a reading teacher, and her reading lab was equipped with a variety of machines.  I remember two of them.  One was called a Shadowscope.  It projected a horizontal bar of light that moved down the page, slower or faster, depending on the reader's speed.  I tried it a few times, found it surpassingly annoying--and I'm a pretty quick reader.  After a few minutes with it, I wanted to smash it with a Louisville Slugger.

Craig Reader
Another was the Craig Reader, a device that briefly exposed groups of words to the student; it could also go faster, slower.  And I discovered yet another use for my Slugger.

There were others, too, and when I started teaching in Aurora, Ohio, in 1966, our middle school reading lab had these same machines--and some others.  I think I surprised our reading teacher when I named them the first time I went in her room.  Points for the rookie!

My mother had also been, briefly, enamored of something called "programmed instruction" and "programmed textbooks."  These were publications designed for students to progress at their own pace, completing a series of simple tasks that--so the theory went--increased in difficulty and sophistication as they went along.  I was the guinea pig for some of my mom's work with a programmed poetry book.  It was boring.  Mind-numbing.  Soul-killing.  It focused on what are probably the least important things about poetry--the things you can identify and measure (rhythm, rhyme, devices of various sorts).  Mom, to her credit, realized that the exercises were killing rather than encouraging students' interest in poetry.  So she dropped the project.  Went back to being the great teacher she'd always been.

Throughout history--distant and recent--have been other attempts to replace teachers with technology.  Those of my generation surely remember those deadly educational films from Coronet Films?  We watched lots of them in school.  Often they featured grey-faced guys in grey suits giving us grey ideas about the world.  (Many are on YouTube now: Samples)

Available to me at the dawn of my career were filmstrips--35mm film cranked manually through a projector.  One year--my second or third year in the classroom--I had to teach Health.  About which I knew this: It's better than Sickness.  I relied heavily on the cache of Health-related filmstrips I found in our school library.  I showed the ones on American history, too, the year I had to teach that to seventh graders.  Sometimes I would show them multiple times--not, of course, because I had no other lesson plan but because, you know, I wanted to reinforce the previous day's instruction.  (See how I was learning the lingo!)

Later, someone figured out how to synch the filmstrips with sound narration, and the machines would emit a loud annoying BEEP! when it was time to advance the frame--a sound audible throughout the entire wing of the building.  Sometimes, snarky kids would cry BEEP! before it was time to advance it.  Wishful thinking.

Then, of course, came video tape (reel-to-reel was my first experience), then very large cassettes whose name I can't recall--but they were 3/4".  Next ... VHS (with some detours to Betamax), then DVDs.  For a while our school was big on laser discs--instructional and otherwise.  These were as large as old 33 rpm records--but did not endure nearly so long.  DVDs killed them.  Dead.  I still have a few on a shelf upstairs.

All of these devices were versions of teaching machines, of course, created to "supplement" and "enrich" instruction.  But believe me--if someone could have figured out a way (and I believe there have always been folks willing/eager to try), they would have put a machine in the classroom and sent the human being home.

And now--in the age of the Internet and robots (real ones!) and all, online instruction has emerged as the Next Great Way to Replace Teachers--or, at least, re-program them to behave like, well, like robots.

TOMORROW: Online education ... and teachers.

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