Injecting Playfulness into Computer Trainings

In my previous job, working for the Arlington Public Schools, I was tasked with training elementary school teachers on computer and video technology. All teachers in Virginia are required to possess basic technology skills, or they can lose their teaching license. This is sensible regulation. Does it make sense for a teacher to be instructing future generations if he or she is unsure how to send an email or search the web? If they have no idea what the word HTML means? Most of the teachers I trained had decent technology skills and were eager to learn more.

What was particularly thrilling was seeing teachers teaching with technology skills I helped them acquire. At all times I made it clear to teachers that I wasn't "smarter" than them. "You're good at teaching and I'm good at computers," I would explain. "I sure could learn a lot from you about teaching."

One of my first goals was to get teachers comfortable using computer terminology. It's admittedly easy to mix up the unit size of kilobytes, megabytes and gigabytes. The way I explained this concept is that a single typed page of text is about 2 to 3 kilobytes. A medium length newspaper article or book review is about 10 to 15 kilobytes. A short paperback book contains about a megabyte of text. (1000 kilobytes of text.) Large graphics and sound files are measured in megabytes. Video stored on a hard drive is usually measured in gigabytes. (Each gigabyte holds about 4 minutes of DV video.) After I explained all this, many teachers' eyes still glazed over. So I resorted to Plan B.

In email exchanges I had with teachers, I started using the expression "Thanks a megabyte" whenever someone did something helpful for me. Teachers caught on. I also explained that "Thanks a kilobyte" is a virtually meaningless phrase, as a kilobyte is too small a unit to thank anybody about. I also pointed out that "Thanks a gigabyte" is an expression that should only be used if someone saves your life. Sure enough, about a month after I explained all this to teachers, a smart- aleck teacher stopped me in the hallway to say, "Thanks a terabyte." Naturally, I looked at her as if she were completely nuts. "Do you have any idea of the giggerbish you're talking about," I said with a wink. "It's entirely inappropriate to say, "thanks a terabyte," because terabytes are too large a unit to thank anybody about. Now get back to class, and I don't want to hear another word from you," I giggled. Teachers quickly learned that I would resort to any devious means to help them learn and understand computers.

Along these lines, one of the most interesting experiences was when I taught iMovie to a small group of teachers. Using courter-psychology, I told the teachers, "You're elementary school teachers. You have no time for shooting or editing video in your classroom. Let me show this to you anyway, and you can decide if it has any use at all. "To make the training more fun for me, I didn't plan the full details of the video we'd in the training. Why not use a little spontaneity? The most dreary of all trainings are the one's that methodical progress from Roman numeral 1 to Roman number 12, with all knowledge neatly aligned into headings and sub- headings. I knew that approach just wouldn't work for my teachers. So I told the teachers, "We're going to make a short commercial today. We'll choose an imaginary product and then write a short script, practice our lines and then shoot the commercial." I asked for a volunteer to be the camcorder operator. A brave teacher stepped forward. I then threw out some ideas for some imaginary products we could try and sell. We settled on creating a commercial for "motivation." Any other virtue or abstract concept would have worked as well.

Tasteful satire is always a great way of unleashing creativity and learning. Assuming the role of an "in charge" teacher, I started assigning lines for our script. I had the opening line for the commercial: "Does your life lack pizzazz? Have you considered motivation?" Then the camcorder panned over to one of the teachers who declared convincingly, "Did you know that motivation is free?" The camcorder panned to the next teacher who chimed in, "And you can get it anywhere!" The third teacher said, "And you can get as much of it as you want?" (For the QuickTime rendition, see

Admittedly, the lighting was about a bad as you can get -- fluorescent lighting in a computer lab. And yet when I showed the teachers how they could quickly edit the video in iMovie, nearly all the teachers became quick converts.

"Would your students like to do this kind of thing?" I asked with eyebrows raised and head tilted. All teachers nodded rapidly up and down. "Is there any way you can work video production into your curriculum to motivate students to be on task with their daily lesson?" More rapid up and down head nodding.

In a 20-minute training I had ignited an interest in using video in the classroom. I ended the training by letting the teachers know that I was available for one-on-one training for any of them that wanted to try using video production with their elementary school students. I could help ensure technical success, if they could bring a creative lesson plan to the table. It was a fair trade. Another opportunity for me to inject playfulness into teaching occurred last summer was I was in charge of a summer camp for elementary school students. The camp was a small camp with about 10 to 15 students. Towards the end of the summer I I brought my guitar to work.

When the kids saw the guitar, they asked me to play a song. I happened to have the lyrics to "Unchained Melody" in my guitar case, so I sang that for them. I purposely played the notes slowly to show the students that it's possible to play nice sounding guitar without having a lot of skill. One of the students in 5th grade blurted out that she wanted to try playing the song on the guitar. I saw a teachable moment develop before my eyes, so I asked one of the other kids to shoot video of this girl playing the guitar for the first time in her life.

The girl chose to play the right hand part of the guitar, so I aligned myself on her left and offered to play the chords. Doing so required me to place my hand and arm in a rather uncomfortable position, but it was all worth it. This student was putting on her first guitar concert, without any practicing, and the entire experience was being videotaped no less. As you can imagine there was a lot of giggling as we all got in position for the video shoot. I happened to have a 500 watt standing utility light (you know those standing utility lights that are yellow or orange in color that you can buy at a hardware store?) So the lighting for the video was excellent. The audio for the video was also good, as we used an external microphone connected to my Canon camcorder.

One of the kids took charge of the audio. As it happened, my supervisor walked in as we were getting ready to perform and he quickly assumed a supportive role, gently coaching the kids on how to comfortably hold a guitar. I made a copies of the finished ideo to give out to the students at the camp, and asked permission of the parent of the key performer if he minded whether I put the video clip up on the web (protecting his daughter's privacy by not mentioning her name.) He said that was fine. I uploaded this QuickTime to my Dot Mac account at pshapiro101/iMovieTheater16.html

The girl playing guitar in this QuickTime wants to be a doctor when she grows up. Do you think she has the concentration skills? I do. There are countless other ways to inject playfulness into teaching. I'm hoping the ideas in this article spawn ideas for ways you can inject playfulness into any of the formal or informal teaching you do. Giggling allowed.

Phil Shapiro

The author works as a Lifelong Learning Coach at CitiWide Computer Training Center, in the Mt. Pleasant neighborhood of DC. He is one of 20 "literacy leaders" hired to implement Mayor Anthony Williams' new literacy initiative. He can be reached at and and

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