MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, he is the biographer of Langston Hughes, W.E.B. Du Bois and Jackie Robinson, and now Arnold Rampersad is the winner of a prestigious lifetime achievement award for his body of work. We'll speak with this legendary writer in just a few minutes.
But first, we want to talk about the school year and those ever-important school supply lists. Just like parents go to the store to gather up notebooks and those infamous number two pencils and binders, teachers in schools have supply wish lists of their own. Those include the ever-popular construction paper and paper towels, but increasingly on the wish list are items like iPads, cameras, printers and electronic white boards.
We wanted to get a sense of how some teachers are accessing and using technology in their classrooms and what social concerns that opens up, so we've called on Charles Best. He is the founder and CEO of DonorsChoose.org. That's a nonprofit organization that helps link donors with requests from teachers for classroom equipment and supplies through the Internet.
Mr. Best, thank you so much for joining us once again.
CHARLES BEST: Michel, thanks for having me.
MARTIN: Have you noticed the difference in the kinds of things the teachers have been requesting over time? I mean, you've been operational now for enough time that you must have kind of an interesting data set, you know, on what it is that teachers want. Has that changed over time?
BEST: We do have a whole lot of data. We have seen things change over time. Teachers at half of all the public schools in America have posted classroom projects on our site over the last few years. That really does give us a window into emerging classroom needs, and technology would be the trending topic.
MARTIN: What kinds of things do they want?
BEST: So, in preparation for speaking with you, Michel, I took a look at the top 10 most requested resources at DonorsChoose.org. And on that list, you'd see the Elmo projector is the number one most requested resource on our site and an Elmo projector lets you do something underneath a camera and whatever you're doing is displayed hugely up on a wall. So imagine, for example, if you've got a book and you want to read with your finger underneath each word, you know, the way you would read to your kid if you were reading to them one-on-one at nighttime. But imagine that your finger going underneath each word as you read it is being projected 20 feet wide and 30 feet tall on a classroom wall.
Or imagine if you want to do a little biology experiment underneath the camera and the little tiny things that you're doing with your fingers and with the tweezers are writ large, as if it was a drive-in movie theater in your classroom.
MARTIN: And what about number two?
BEST: So, number two is an old school piece of technology. It is a listening center, where students can put on headphones and you pop in a CD of an audio book and students can listen to the words that they're reading on the page and this is huge for classrooms where the student-teacher ratio has shifted.
MARTIN: Now, of course, even people who aren't engaged with education at the moment or young children at the moment can understand projectors and they can understand listening centers, but tablet computers, iPads. I'm betting that some people will just say that's just crazy. These are all public school teachers who are asking you for these things. Correct?
BEST: That's right. That's right.
MARTIN: So what do they say in making this request?
BEST: And, for starters, you are absolutely right that - my guess is that half of the almost one million citizen philanthropists who've supported classroom projects on DonorsChoose.org might find a request for an iPad to be frivolous, and what we would point to are the special education teachers for whom iPads or other tablet computers can be transformational for their students.
Just to give you one example not too far from you. Debbie Guardino is a special education teacher in Chesapeake, Virginia. She has been able to outfit her class with a tablet for every student and it's a very mixed income community. And to hear Debbie talk about students with autism, some of whom can communicate with their parents effectively for the first time, others of whom can learn once lessons have become tactile. You would not think that a tablet is frivolous if you see it in the hands of a dedicated special education teacher.
MARTIN: Do you fear, with, you know, technology becoming so much a part of the learning model, that an even bigger divide will open up than already exists? Or do you think that this is just another iteration of the divide that already - is already there?
BEST: It may exacerbate the divide. We're soon to participate in an initiative called the Education Super Highway, which is going to identify all the public schools - and many of them are going to be in low income communities - that do not have sufficient bandwidth for students to make proper use of the Internet. We're going to be encouraging our teachers to take a test, which will flag their school as either having or not having sufficient bandwidth. And, of course, as devices like tablets become more prevalent or a part of what people think of as an extra rigorous, fully enriched education, and as low income communities lack those resources, the divide may get bigger, as you've just pointed out.
And 80 percent of the projects on our site are from teachers in low income communities. It really is a place where donors go to try and take a baby step toward leveling the playing field, as you just outlined.
MARTIN: So what's the craziest or funnest thing that anybody's asked for that they actually got?
BEST: Oh, well, we see requests large, such as a kindergarten teacher in the Bronx who was so frustrated that her students could not go out to recess because her playground was in such disrepair that she posted a project request on DonorsChoose.org seeking a new playground. To our shock and surprise, it was fully funded within three weeks.
Since we were just talking about listening centers, I saw a project yesterday for books for students to read to therapy dogs. This teacher and many others like her have seen that students who claim to hate reading will love nothing more than to read a book to a dog because that dog is a nonjudgmental and usually very attentive listener and, for a lot of kids, that's what they need to experience the joy of reading out loud and narrating a story.
MARTIN: I was going to guess a pony, but I guess no pony.
MARTIN: Charles Best is the founder and CEO of DonorsChoose.org and he was kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York. Charles Best, thank you so much for speaking with us.
BEST: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.