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Teachers hold key ...

AS I ENTER a third-grade classroom, the room is buzzing with activity. The children are taking laptop computers from a portable cart and placing the computers on their desks.

The assignment displayed on the erasable chalkboard has the children creating and illustrating their own stories. The children are using word processing software to write individual stories. They will use the Internet as a source for ideas for illustrations.

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As the children excitedly pursue the creative process, the teacher patiently reminds them to be careful with the computers. As she circulates throughout the classroom, she answers questions. Stopping at each desk, the teacher asks questions about the child's story, probes for understanding, praises effort, commends accomplishments and provides large doses of encouragement.

Discovering that the children are struggling with keyboarding, the teacher explains the keystrokes and the purpose of important editing functions such as the "cut and paste" command. As the children see their illustrated stories emerge from the laser printer, the enthusiasm in the classroom is overwhelming. As the volume in the classroom increases with the excitement that comes from learning, the teacher reminds the children to use their inside voices. The atmosphere is contagious with learning.

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Sitting in a small chair in the classroom, my mind travels back to another third-grade classroom. It has four rows of eight desks bolted to the floor. The front of one wooden desk creates the backrest for the desk behind. Each desk has a small storage place for books, ruler, dictionary, pencils, crayons, erasers and white glue.

On the tilted desktop are a groove to hold pencils and an inkwell containing the bottle ink for the fountain pen. The tall, old leaky windows are open on this beautiful fall day. The sounds of other children at recess can be heard through the windows.

Written on the chalkboard is the assignment to create a story, make a rough draft in pencil, write the final story using a fountain pen on lined paper, paste the story on construction paper, make drawings using pencil and crayons to illustrate the story and bind the pages together with yarn.

For inspiration, the teacher has collected sample postcards from distant places, and stories from magazines and newspapers that are preserved on construction paper. She has also displayed examples of past student projects. As the teacher moves up and down the aisles, she points to phrases and illustrations on the paper and praises students' work. She stops the class activities and reads exemplary works of the children.

She holds up illustrations and compliments the artistry. She reminds the children of appropriate posture to produce the clearest and most beautiful handwriting with a fountain pen. She reminds everyone to be very careful of the ink because it will stain clothes.

As my mind returns to the present, I look at the differences in the classrooms. More comfortable desks and chairs that can be moved have replaced the old wooden desks. Air-conditioning has replaced opened windows. The word-processing software has replaced the inkwell and fountain pen. The Internet has replaced postcards and pictures pasted on construction paper. Keyboarding has replaced penmanship. During the last 40 years, the classroom has changed.

The tools for learning have changed, but there is one constant - the teacher. It is the teacher who sets high expectations, builds self-esteem, encourages children to excel, and provides large doses of love.

It is the teacher who creates the conditions for learning to take place. The ability of the teacher and the relationship between the teacher and the child will determine the level of learning and success. Teaching tools such as computers, calculators and textbooks support learning, but it is the teacher who makes learning possible.

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It is the teacher who determines the quality of the learning. The teacher structures learning opportunities that meet the needs of the students, regardless of the learning tools. The student strives to meet the requirements set by the teacher and also seeks approval from the teacher.

No matter how technology changes the appearance of our classrooms, policy-makers and the public must realize that the most powerful force in learning is the teacher. Technology will change the tools of learning, but learning will always depend on the teacher.

Jon M. Andes is superintendent of the Worcester County Public Schools.


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