Fredericksburg City, where I was born and raised, has one elementary school, one upper elementary school, one middle school, and one high school. Every child who lives in the city, save the few whose parents have the money and opt to send them to private school, goes to the same school, regardless of their academic performance or which neighborhood they live in. My senior year, most of my class had known each other since kindergarten. My connections to the school go back long before I was even born – in the 60s and 70s, my grandmother was a biology teacher at the high school, and my father was part of the first integrated kindergarten class and walked across the same stage I did at graduation. My mother now works at the high school, where my brother, all my cousins, and a variety of aunts and uncles went. Being so deeply connected to the school deeply affected the way I viewed it, and my feelings about education in general. Unsurprisingly, education was the top priority in my family. My brother and I were taught not just prioritize learning, but to be passionate about it. As a child I was, for the most part, enthusiastic about the education I was getting. Beginning as I moved through high school, however, and reinforced as I moved into higher education at Emory, I began to understand the shortcomings of my school system and so many like it. The lack and improper distribution of resources, the tracking that led to semi-segregated classes, the “temporary” trailers that went up to accommodate for lack of space and never came down, and the revelation that our superintendent made over $200,000 a year while teachers worked two jobs and struggled to buy supplies for their classrooms out of pocket are issues I witnessed in my own school system that are all too common in schools of all sizes.
One of the issues that truly came into perspective for me when I came to Emory was that of digital media and technology use in schools. I grew up in the in-between generation of the internet and mobile tech devices: their proliferation came about essentially during my lifetime. As digital media technology grew up with us, it slowly became integrated into more and more aspects of our lives, including our schools. My relationship with digital media a little different than the average kid: my family, to this day, doesn’t have a television in the house. When I was very young, that meant my brother and I had essentially no access to digital media; it was read a book or go outside. As computer and then phones became more accessible, however, this began to change. We had the advantage of the fact that my father has worked in information technology his whole life, first doing IT for the Navy, then for a tech company, and during my life, at the city’s public library. Because of this, he was ahead of the curve on understanding and access to the internet and modern digital devices, and through his job, he often got to bring home computers or other devices that we could use. In my elementary years, the attic of our home doubled as a “computer room” which housed nothing but a desk, an office chair, and a very bulky desktop computer, on which I couldn’t access the internet, but played games on DVDs.
The technology we had in schools was similarly limited, most classrooms equipped with nothing more than a desktop computer and an overhead projector. Our elementary school had one computer lab, a glorified trailer built just outside the school that was always stiflingly hot. As we moved up through the years, the technology in both my home and school became increasingly advanced, and increasingly involved in the curriculum. By eighth grade, my family had a laptop, I had acquired, to my great delight, a flip phone, and my school had multiple computer labs and even a digital art class. Fast forward to my sophomore year and I and almost everyone I knew had iPhones and most classrooms were equipped with SmartBoards and the school even had a few portable carts of laptops teachers could reserve to use in their classrooms. This meant that technology became an increasingly integral part of schoolwork. Every student at the school was required to take personal finance, an online class at some point during their four years. Common assignments included typed papers, PowerPoint presentations, and even videos. Almost all lesson plans were presented in a digital format, through a combination of PowerPoints, videos, and online resources. English and history teachers taught us how to do research using Google Scholar and online encyclopedias, while math and science teachers gave assigned us practice problems online. All these make the assumption that students have regular access to the internet and computers.
Unfortunately, this is not true not only for my high school but also for many like it. While the national percentage of families who have a computer at home is estimated to be around 90 percent, these statistics can be misleading. Only about 55 percent of families that make less than $30,000 a year are estimated to have computers in the home (Pew Research Center). For a school like mine, where more than 50 percent of students are on free and reduced lunch, these numbers are significant. This means that while wealthier students can simply go home and complete assignments, their poorer classmates have to stay long hours after school or at a public library to finish their work, or are unable to do the work at all. When the fact that kids of lower socioeconomic status are more likely to have to work jobs after school or take care of younger siblings, this becomes a serious issue of grades and success in school.
There is no simple solution to these problems, as the use of digital media and technology is an important, often beneficial, and completely unavoidable part of schools. However, acknowledging and working to remedy this problem is an incredibly important step to leveling the playing field for students of different socioeconomic classes and bringing equality to our education system. After I graduate from Emory, I hope to work in education, either as a teacher, a policy maker, or both. I want to use my experience, both from my personal K-12 schooling, and what I learn about both digital media and education to help contribute to finding this solution, whether it be just in my own classrooms, or on a much wider scale.