When I began teaching second grade, in Omaha, Nebraska, 1971, my classroom was arranged in five neat rows. The children walked down the halls in two straight, quiet lines, keeping hands, feet, and objects to themselves. They spent hours every day working individually at their desks while I taught a small reading group. I spent hours every night grading literally hundreds of their worksheets. Available technology? A record player, one filmstrip projector on each of three floors, one television per floor, and three telephones for the entire building.

I'm still teaching second grade in Nebraska, but that's about the only thing that hasn't changed. Now the desks are arranged in groups of five. The children walk down the hall in one line, generally in an ordered manner but not in perfect silence. I've left behind those mountains of worksheets, and my students now work in a variety of modes: individually, with partners, in cooperative groups, and sometimes even in uncooperative groups. The groups often revolve around learning centers, where lessons take place in a less structured environment. The room is not always totally quiet. And astonishing by comparison is the technology available to us. At Carriage Hill Elementary, in Papillion, where I teach today, we have:

  • One Power Macintosh with Internet access in each classroom;
  • One television and one VCR in each classroom;
  • A classroom listening center equipped with three tape recorders with headphones;
  • Twelve networked Macs (Power Macs, iMacs, and G3s) in the school computer lab;
  • An LCD panel, a digital camera, a scanner, and a QuickCam shared by the school. Technology is not the only change in the American classroom in the last 28 years, but it is the most dramatic and arguably the one with the most far-reaching implications for how we teach and how children learn. For many teachers, it has been by far the most difficult change to integrate.

If anyone had told me even five years ago that I would have integrated technology into my daily teaching, and at the level I do now, I would not have believed it. But I am inspired and motivated by the changes it has wrought—and deeply believe that if I can do it, anyone can.

My tech journey really began in January 1996, with the arrival of our Power Mac. This wasn't my first classroom computer—that had been an Apple IIe, back in the mid-1980s. For the most part, I willfully ignored the machine. I had decided I was not a "computer person" and let it go at that. In my right-brained, creative-type world, I was convinced computers were highly overrated. They could not, or would not, be integrated into my classroom.

Then my school district delivered the Mac, and it was placed in the back of the room alongside the dust-gathering Apple. It was around the same time that President Clinton gave his 1996 State of the Union Address, in which he said he wanted every classroom in America connected to the Internet by the year 2000. I suddenly realized that technology was here to stay, that I couldn't avoid it forever. The mere thought scared me to death. Yet then and there I made what turned out to be a life-changing decision: to move out of my comfort zone and learn something new. Not even knowing how to turn on my Mac, I enrolled in a computers-in-education master's degree program through Lesley College, in Massachusetts—an intensive curriculum of weekend study taught in Omaha. But even as I committed to learn more, secretly I was skeptical. Deep down I believed that the more I learned, the more certain I would be that technology wasn't for me or my style of teaching, that I could better serve my students without it. Indeed, I just couldn't see how it would all fit together.

"See," I think, is the right word here because I am a visual learner and can tell you the exact moment I finally "saw." It was at the very end of my ninth class, after 20-plus hours of weekend study, an "ah-ha!" that changed forever the way I teach. I saw the use of the Mac during daily 30-minute "center" time, with a small group of students working on a project.

This was a breakthrough. It was the first time I was able to envision my seven- and eight-year-olds collaborating on creative projects in which the computer played an essential role. It was the first time I saw how they could go beyond popping in skills-practice software or games to creating and learning together, just as they did at the science and the math centers.

The projects we've completed on the computer in the last two years have been varied and numerous. We have made collaborative slide shows, journals, greeting cards, posters illustrating homophones, and a funny, mischievous Halloween presentation for visitors. The software we've used includes HyperStudio, Kid Pix Deluxe, Kid Works Deluxe, and ClarisWorks.

One of our most memorable creations was a slide show entitled "What Lives in the Ocean?," which we presented to the Papillion-La Vista school board. Another big hit was the slide show we made for our open house. Using HyperStudio and the QuickCam, we placed each child's photo on one slide. At the computer, I typed in what each child said about him- or herself to create captions. Later we printed out the pictures and captions as a book, laminated the pages, and bound it as a treasured keepsake.

Sometimes the use of the computer during the daily 30-minute center time revolves around a piece of software related to a current unit of study. During our ocean unit, for example, I used Undersea Adventure (Knowledge Adventure), which takes kids on imaginary travels in a submarine.

Were you to enter my classroom at any time of the day, you would see a student at the Mac. Every day, one child has the "Mac pass," a sheet of colored paper entitling the holder to use the computer whenever it is available. The rotation of the pass is alphabetical.

Whoever has the Mac pass may work on an ongoing class project, send or receive e-mail, or choose from our class library of educational software. Favorite titles include Top Hat Tales (Silver Burdett Ginn), a CD-ROM library of storybooks, and WiggleWorks (Scholastic). All of my students are well versed in loading CDs and diskettes. Headphones minimize noise from the sound accompanying software programs.

One of the most important things I've learned is that I don't have to know it all to bring technology into my classroom. My students have taught me more about using software than I've ever absorbed from the manuals. I remember bringing Kid Pix Deluxe to class for the first time before I'd had time to study the instructions. As I was putting the CD into the Macintosh, little Brittney raised her hand. She said that she had used Kid Pix at the home of her aunt. Brittney taught the class, and me, how it worked! She helped me see that I don't need to have all the answers.

And just as I have stopped worrying about knowing everything, I've stopped worrying about the time it takes to oversee computer-related activities. You'd be surprised at how much time the kids themselves can save you. At the beginning of the year, I assign ongoing tasks, many of them computer-related, to students. We have an awards coordinator, a book-club coordinator, a name-tag coordinator, a paper coordinator, the Mac cleaner, the Kid Pix expert, and the Kid Works expert. The time invested in training kids to do these jobs more than pays off in the long term.

Furthermore, in the years since I stopped teaching with reams of individual worksheets, I am amazed at the time I have to create a more exciting learning situation. Now I use much of that found time to explore software, making frequent visits to our library. Although I've come a long way, I feel that I am just beginning my technology journey. I'm excited about where it's taking me and my students. It is saving me time, work, and stress. My second graders feel pride in a job well done when they complete computer-based projects, so the work is building their self-esteem even as it teaches them vital computer skills. Tech is the best thing that has happened to my teaching since I stopped grading all those worksheets. And do you know what? I am now a doctoral candidate in instructional technology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Who would ever have believed it? Not me.