IWitness and Technology in the Classroom

Posted by Michael Robinson on July 17, 2013

I was fortunate to be a teacher participant in Facing History's Digital Media Innovation Network (DMIN). The support and the ideas from DMIN have helped me transform my classroom teaching, and each year there are new and exciting materials and resources shared from DMIN that continually enhances my classroom teaching. This past year one of the new resources IWitness was an amazing web resource that I incorporated into my class. This resource allowed my students to view multiple short eye witness testimony from Holocaust survivors. This particular resource is one I plan on using for as long as I teach the Facing History course. I am always excited when I receive an email about another great resource being shared by DMIN. I look forward to when we can all meet again.

I also wanted to share an article I wrote for the Academy of Singapore Teachers. In 2011 I was a visiting lecturer, and I was asked to write an article about how the classroom has changed. A lot of what was discussed at our DMIN workshops helped influence what I included in the article. Here is the article:

My Mother’s Classroom Is Not Like My Classroom

I spent a great deal of my childhood at school. Not just the normal school day, but many days in the summer and many hours after the school day ended. You see, my mother was a third grade teacher (9 year olds), and my twin sister and I would help her decorate her classroom and arrange her desks. We would also write all over her blackboard with messy yellow and white chalk. I grew up in a school, and I grew up as a teacher’s kid.

My mother’s classroom had no computers and no multimedia projectors. The internet was nonexistent, and the most reliable resource in the room was a set of 1980 encyclopedias lined in a nice straight alphabetical row on a bookshelf in the back of the room. My mother taught what some might call now the old fashioned way: with her textbook and her chalk filled blackboard. She was considered by most to be an excellent teacher.

When I entered college I knew I wanted to major in geography, and I knew I wanted to be a teacher. Being a teacher was not something I shared with anyone until three years into my college career. It just did not seem to be an impressive choice for a lifelong profession. I remember one of my high school teachers telling me, “You can do anything, just don’t teach.” Somewhere, being a teacher had become less than it once was in her mind. But it did not matter to me what that high school teacher or others thought of teaching. I, unlike so many young students in university, knew what I wanted to do with my life, and I knew I wanted to be a teacher. However, it did not take long into my teaching career for me to find out why my high school teacher warned me not to teach.

Teaching is hard. What my high school teacher should have told me was that teaching is not something just anyone can do. Teaching is an art form that you perfect over time. You don’t just start out as a great teacher. No one in the university can prepare you for the student who always wants to sleep in class, or the student who has trouble sitting down, and the ever-present apathy by those students who do not value the education you are providing. Teaching can be at times a thankless and frustrating ordeal, but you stick with it because the reward of seeing your students learning and the satisfaction of knowing what you do matters more than most professions makes teaching well worth it.

When I started teaching in 1994, there were no computers in the room, no one had email, and cellphones were hardly used by anyone. My first classroom looked a great deal like my mother’s classroom with one minor change: I had an overhead projector and wrote my notes on clear transparencies instead of on the chalkboard.

It wasn’t until 1997 that I had an email address and one computer in my classroom. I remember at the time complaining about what I was supposed to do with a single computer. How was I going to use it with my students if my students didn’t have a computer? I would found out later how wrong I was. I didn’t realize at the time how that one computer would change my entire approach to my lessons preparation. I was about to learn a lesson my students embrace: change. My students know all the latest trends, fashions, and techno gadgets. They are accustomed to changing with the times. I, however, am much more careful. If what I had been doing in my classroom was working, then why wouldn’t it just keep working? A good lesson is a good lesson, after all. Why change what works?

What worked still will...

I have a lesson on world climates. It is a smart, challenging, and interesting lesson for my students. It doesn’t require high tech computers. It just requires good old fashion brains. The students construct graphs and match the graphs with the climate descriptions. It is an effective lesson, and students master the objectives and understand the differences in world climates. In short, it is a good lesson. There is no need to change what works, because it will still work.

What worked will not work…(as well)

A few years ago I went to my filing cabinet and pulled out the climate project and was about to make copies of the handouts for my students when I stopped. I looked at it, and I said out loud, “This can be better.” It could look better, and it could use newer, more diverse statistics. For this reason I worked on and updated my lesson. What I did not have in 1994 when I created the lesson was a program that would make the graphs and maps much better to see and construct. I did not have the internet with its vast amounts of climate data that was now at my fingertips. Before, I was limited to the few locales with climate data that was found in the back of my old college textbook. By the time I was finished with my updates, I had taken a good lesson and turned it into what I would say is a great lesson. This was only made possible by the resources now available to me on the internet.

Probably the greatest impact on teaching in the last 20 years has been access to the internet. The percentage of world population who were internet users in 1995 was 0.4% This rose to 10.3% in 2003 and to over 30% in 2011 with over 77% in the United States and Singapore. It is no longer a matter of choice for a teacher to use the internet in the classroom. It is a necessity. As a teacher I must learn how to incorporate this immense resource in my teaching. My textbooks are out of date by the time they are published, but the internet is always updating itself. This is especially true for the social sciences. What I must now learn is how to best use the internet and teach my students how to best use it. The key word again is “teach.” Students know how to use the internet, but they rarely know how to best use it for learning and researching.

In 1995 my high school had one computer lab with thirty-five computers. My first lesson in 1995 was to teach my students how to search in a browser. I would have questions like, “How do I find a map of Tennessee?” Of course if I used these same sets of questions today with my high school students I would be receiving a great deal of stares- or worse, they might just laugh at me. My students, like most students, have advanced past learning how to search the internet. My eight-year-old nephew had no trouble finding a map of Tennessee on the internet. I asked him to find one for me, and he went to google, typed in “Tennessee map,” clicked on “Images,” and then clicked “return.” In 0.25 seconds there were about 10,900,000 images for “Tennessee map.” It is this point where the teacher comes in.

As with any google search, the images found may or may not be a map of Tennessee. Some of the maps just showed the southeastern portion of the United States where it was not clear which state was Tennessee. It is now my responsibility as the teacher to help the student organize, analyze, and recognize what is reliable and useful information. The vast information on the Internet and computers may replace a lot of jobs, but it will never replace the teacher. Students need guidance, because the internet makes it easy to make mistakes and take short cuts.

For instance, I had a student present a lesson in which the assignment was to show images of Madrid, Spain. The student had an excellent powerpoint presentation with beautiful pictures, graphs, and maps of Madrid, but one of her pictures was not from Madrid. After the presentation I asked her why she put the imagine of a tourist attraction from Barcelona in her presentation on Madrid. Her response was, “That image showed up when I did a google image search for “Madrid tourist destinations.” It was an honest mistake and an easy mistake to make. Students come to trust the internet too much. They don’t realize that just finding information they are asking for does not guarantee that the information is always accurate. It becomes necessary for the teacher to instruct the students on how to research on the internet and check for reliable sources.

Preparing for the unknown

Teachers have a new job when it comes to preparing students for the 21st century. It has become necessary for teachers to focus on “learning how to learn.” I can never teach my students all the material found about any topic on the internet. The amount of information is so vast that I as the teacher only know a small fraction about most topics. The challenge for the teacher is now to focus learning for the students on how they can learn beyond the classroom. The skills needed for the 21st century will require students to have critical thinking skills so that they can problem solve and be innovative and creative. Some of the jobs my students will eventually hold may not even exist now. Advancements in technology are fast, and the best set of skills I as a teacher can teach my students is how best to learn and think.

The National Council for the Social Studies believes a primary goal for teachers and public education in the United States is to “prepare students to be engaged and effective citizens.” It is our job as the teacher to move beyond the textbook and even beyond the internet and other technologies and instill in our students the values of what it means to be an “effective citizen.” This comes with class discussions and a willingness to engage students in the the topics and issues impacting our country and world. It is great to have access to so much up to date information, but it is the teacher’s job to know how to take the information and make meaning of it for students. Teachers are responsible for helping students make the connections with the material to be learned. No computer can do this.

Living in a shrinking world

What the computer can do is show us that our classroom is not an isolated place. The world in which we all live has gotten a great deal smaller. My students can have Facebook friends in New Zealand, Singapore, Germany, and Egypt. They can access podcasts from professors in England, and they can have a guest speaker who is actually in India but talking to the class via Skype. The access to the rest of the world is truly changing daily. My students and yours are part of a global community. We must make sure our education in the social sciences reflects this global interconnected world in which we are now all apart.

The National Council for the Social Studies believes:

...an effective social studies program must include global and international education. Global and international education are important because the day-to-day lives of average citizens around the world are influenced by burgeoning international connections. The human experience is an increasingly globalized phenomenon in which people are constantly being influenced by transnational, cross-cultural, multi-cultural and multi-ethnic interactions.

Students in my geography class no longer can say, “Why do I need to know where Singapore is? I am never going to go there.” The simple fact is that we as a world are connected to one another. More so than ever before, what happens in China can impact lives in the United States and vice-versa. Life in the 21st century is dynamic, and we as educators must ensure our teaching is just as dynamic. We must make sure we embrace the changes and the technology. Our students deserve it.


Jerald, Craig D. "Defining a 21st Century Education: At a Glance." Center for Public Education. Web.
04 Dec. 2011. .

"Standards and Position Statements | National Council for the Social Studies." National Council for
the Social Studies | Social Studies: Preparing Students for College, Career and Citizenship.
Web. 04 Dec. 2011. .

"The Future of Schooling: Educating America in 2014 - McREL." McREL: Mid-continent Research for
Education and Learning. Web. 04 Dec. 2011. .

Topics: Antisemitism, Holocaust Education, DMIN, Facing Technology

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Welcome to Facing Today, a Facing History blog. Facing History and Ourselves combats racism and antisemitism by using history to teach tolerance in classrooms around the globe.

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