From Now On
The Educational Technology Journal


Vol 5 . . . No 5 . . . January/February, 1996

Going Home:
A Journey to the Heart
of the Learning Process

by Karen Work Richardson

When I taught ninth grade in Pennsylvania, Odysseus's fantastic adventures captivated both my students and me as we sailed the wine dark sea, escaping from the Cyclops, steeling ourselves to face the Sirens, steering through Scylla and Charybdis, and all the while longing to find a comfortable place at home with our family. Little did I suspect that now, eight years and 300 miles away in a sleepy rural Southeastern Virginia county, Odysseus would return, not as a text but as a metaphor for my own journey.

Soon, with a crew of seventh graders and a boat provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, I will embark on one of the most challenging and exciting adventures of my life, sailing not the seven seas, but the Internet. Even though we are not on line yet, preparations for the journey have already begun complete with physical obstacles and personal trials. My skills as a learner and problem solver are being put to the test daily, and I often long for a bit of Odysseus' craftiness as I struggle toward the goal of a fully functioning Macintosh lab ready for the Internet. In the process I am learning some fundamental lessons that will provide a firm foundation for planning and implementing future projects.

My first lesson arose out of the need to teach some basic keyboarding skills to the students prior to going on line. I had received some training in teaching keyboarding and had taken the time to install Mavis Beacon on each of the computers in the lab. Finally, one day early in the year, we put the basal reader aside and headed to the lab. For one wild, intense week I taught reading and keyboarding at the same time, trying to do 10-minute mini-lessons and vocabulary drills in the classroom before moving to the lab for 15-minute shifts on the computers. We used this schedule for three days of the week which left two days to cover the curriculum and try to find some time for silent sustained reading. By Friday, I was exhausted and facing the fact that in trying to juggle reading and keyboarding, I was not successful at either. My plan, which had seemed so perfect on paper, was a failure, and the following Monday found us back in the classroom full time as I searched for an alternative way to fit keyboarding into the schedule.

I know the importance of careful planning: without such forethought, Odysseus and his men would have starved to death in the Cyclop's cave, trapped by the huge stone after following their initial instinct to kill the monster that first night. Yet, a certain amount of spontaneity is also necessary. By taking the plunge, I had a chance to evaluate their skills and see the range with which I have to work. I also observed behavior during that week and can see that moving from the traditional classroom to the lab will be a difficult transition for some students. Just the change from a desk and chair combination to a chair under a table with at least three other students near by can be a distraction. Others are so fascinated with the computers that they spend much of their table time watching the students who are working at the terminals. Calculated planning will be essential to guarantee that all students are on task while in the lab especially when some students are not working on computers.

So, I record the first of what promises to be many lessons learned as we go on line: I need to establish a careful balance between planning and plunging in. Certainly thoughtful consideration is essential for success, and yet when faced with a rock and a hard place, plunging in can be the easiest way to face the challenge.

As I devised a new way to fit keyboarding into the school day, I found myself looking for support from my building principal. In fact, one of my most difficult lessons has been that I must ask for and accept support from other people. I tend to be a loner, relying solely on myself for success. Like Odysseus as he considered Ino's offer of her veil, I do not find it easy to trust others' words and actions. Yet, everywhere I look I find those who are ready and willing to help: they are just waiting for the word from me.

For instance, the principal readily agreed to my plan to teach keyboarding to small groups of students during our 30-minute Encore period held at the end of the day for remediation. By the time of this writing, I've already given one group a three-week introduction and am ready to move on to the next.

My keyboarding efforts are also being supported by the English teacher. She brings the students in almost weekly to type stories and is careful to enforce basic keyboarding practices. They seem to pick up the skill easily especially when they see the need to type as quickly as possible when on the computer.

After several frustrating weeks of trying to get At Ease, our security program, to save to the server so students could work on any machine in the lab, I was given the gift of free time by the media specialist who spent the day with my classes in the media center so I could have quiet lab time to update At Ease and then copy the students' documents into folders on the server. She and I find ourselves helping each other often and work together well. She is a close companion on the journey, and I find her presence comforting.

At home, my husband, who makes his living on computers, is a most patient of teachers even when I am an impatient, unruly student. He encourages me to read the computer manuals, assuring me I can understand them; explains new processes, helping me to develop my own book of procedures; and just generally challenges me, pushing against the envelope of my own expectations for myself. I am constantly amazed at what I can accomplish if only I am willing to step outside my own perceptions and, as Nike suggests, just do it. My courage increases knowing that my spousal safety net is in place.

Finally, I get a lot of support from those who may never know the influence they have had on me. These are the voices on the Net, my list serve comrades whose description of their own experiences help me understand that I am indeed not alone on my adventure. I have yet to actually post my own opinions or responses, but I lurk and listen and soon will learn to speak out as well knowing that I will be welcome.

Yet, even while I learn to allow others to provide support, I am also reaffirming my belief in being self sufficient. In the end, Odysseus found himself alone and naked on the Phaeacian shore, thrown upon his own devices to find his way back home. Even as my husband is talking me through a new process, I know that I can watch him and mimic, but I will only be able to learn it when I have time to play with it on my own, exploring, making mistakes, rebooting, and just generally putting it all in my own words. I am acutely aware of my own learning process for the first time and hope my insight can inform my pedagogy. I want to give my kids time to tinker and take ownership of their own learning, the same privilege I enjoy.

Part of my need for independence arises from the lack of technology support at my school. In fact, tech support for the entire school district (and the whole county it seems) is provided by one incredibly overworked and underpaid Technology Lab teacher who teaches an extra class and a half more than everyone else, sponsors the school's only real weekly club, and is expected, in his spare time, to keep his own and two other labs running. I want to help but am constantly confronted but what I don't know. So, I am learning as much as I can as fast as I can and have set December break as my deadline for making the seventh grade lab self sufficient.

I want to know as much as the tech guy does about running the school system for I fear that he will get snatched away from us, and we will not be able to troubleshoot the system without him. It is a frightening prospect. So, I read and read and compute and reboot and read some more, sometimes even crying in frustration, yet all the while looking forward to the moment when it seems like second nature.

At night, in the few minutes before I fall into often exhausted sleep, I reread the adventures of Odysseus and hope the hero with his wily intelligence, overwhelming curiosity, and boundless courage will accompany me once again as I sail with my students into a new world both exciting and frightening, full of potential and danger. Together we will work to find a home where learning is meaningful and worthwhile to all involved. And, I hope in the process we will discover that our home is not only right around us populated with familiar faces, but also beyond our provincial boundaries where the word family is all inclusive.


© 1995 Karen Work Richardson
2786 Lake Powell Road
Williamsburg, VA 23185
(804) 229-4993

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