"It began when the school board started talking about the 21st-century classroom" three or four years ago, said Mr. Davenport, a social studies teacher at Corte Madera School. "The teachers accepted the challenge."
But then, parental concerns about Mr. Davenport's extensive use of technology prompted school officials to divide his class in two, he said. A new classroom with "a brand new teacher who will teach a more traditional class with far less technology" was set up parallel to his, he said.
On Feb. 1, out of Mr. Davenport's 77 sixth-grade students, the district sent 42 to the parallel classroom. Out of his 71 seventh-graders, the district transferred 33.
The division of Mr. Davenport's class is reflective of an apparent technological divide within the district, and at a national level, as educators try to strike the right balance of technology use in the classroom.
But it also raises questions about the district's level of preparation in introducing costly, sophisticated teaching tools into its classrooms. Were teachers given enough guidance about how much they could bypass textbooks and workbooks in favor of teaching with electronic tools? Were parents brought into the process as the district moved to introduce teaching approaches the parents might distrust or oppose?
In the last four years, the district spent around $4 million from the general fund on a technology plan that gave teachers technology upon request, and free rein on its use.
As a result, some teachers use their newly acquired tools to the full extent and others at a bare minimum — in the same way that some teachers would prefer pen and paper over whiteboards. But as public schools across the country embrace laptops, iPads and other new technology in classrooms, the question arises whether these more costly pedagogic tools should be treated in the same way as their much cheaper predecessors.
District board President Bill Youstra said they should. "We look at it as any other tool," he said. "I wouldn't presume to tell the teachers to use the computers this way or that way. That's where the magic happens.
"I don't really care what the chef uses in the kitchen to make a fabulous meal; I care about the outcome."
But some teachers say they would like a little guidance.
Because the technology is expensive, some teachers want to make sure they explore all its uses, but the division of Mr. Davenport's class is pressuring them to scale back, he said.
"To be honest with you, I don't think the vast majority of the teachers are using it to the fullest," he said. "The minute they saw what was happening to me, they put the brakes on. They saw that if you use it to the fullest you get in trouble."
District Superintendent Tim Hanretty said Mr. Davenport's class did not address the needs of all the students in the classroom, but neither he nor Mr. Youstra would talk about parent concerns that reportedly led to the division of the class and hiring of a new teacher.
The Almanac tried to reach other board members, but, according to Mr. Hanretty, the president of the board is the only person who can speak to the press.
When asked whether he believed a broader outreach to parents may have prevented the problems that led to the split of Mr. Davenport's class, Mr. Youstra said there wasn't a lack of parental communication.
"We have a very rigorous budget process that is very transparent, and there are a good amount of (parent) comments," he said.
Overall, parents are happy with the way the school district is handling technology, according to Parent Teacher Organization presidents Jane Wilson and Kristi Patterson. The district's technology initiative was presented at past board meetings, but Ms. Wilson said parents don't attend the meetings very often.
"I had a parent come to me the other day who said her kid wanted to stay in the class, but she wanted her out," Mr. Davenport said. "(The parent) made it very clear that she wanted a more traditional class for her daughter. (In my class, her daughter) wouldn't have the experience of working with a textbook." Mr. Davenport said he rarely uses textbooks in his class.
Mr. Youstra said the split in Dr. Davenport's class is not a school-wide issue, and he doesn't believe teachers should be discouraged by it.
"There are different levels of implementation (of technology), and that's fine," he said. "Some teachers might say we don't want to use it at all. What we have observed in the past, is that as people get comfortable with technology they might implement it more."
It's not surprising that the Portola Valley School District is on top of the game when it comes to technology in the classroom. The district — with two elementary schools serving residents of Portola Valley, portions of Woodside and nearby unincorporated areas — is home to some of the most prominent Silicon Valley engineers.
The district's 2007 four-year technology plan includes: implementing "blogs, Wikis, podcasts, and ... social networking tools"; "1-1 laptops," in which every child has access to a personal laptop in class; and interactive whiteboards, which project the teacher's computer screen and allow children to tinker with it. The plan includes a pilot program for each tool and specifies that its success be reported to the board biannually.
According to school board minutes, teachers Marcia Barton and Jonathan Dune, and Technology Specialist Kim Brown reported to the board in May 2010 that the 1-1 laptop pilot program had been successful. There were subsequent reports to the board in August and December.
When the district decided to expand the program to more classrooms in June 2010, six out of 12 core education teachers decided to participate, according to Mr. Hanretty, but the administration didn't ask them to present a proposal on how they were to implement it. The only mandate was that all teachers attend a monthly technology tutorial.
Serge Morgan, a social studies teacher at Corte Madera School, who requested an interactive board — a computerized whiteboard — and a laptop for all his students, was surprised at how promptly he received them.
Mr. Morgan had asked for laptops to implement the 1-1 laptop program in his class when he found out they were being used in the special education program at Corte Madera School. "Clearly (the district) has a little bit more money than others, but that was a lot of money. I didn't expect those things to appear immediately," he said.
Lack of guidance led the teachers to implement technology at different levels, Mr. Davenport said. The two teachers who piloted the 1-1 laptop program — Marcia Barton and Jonathan Dune, a probationary English language arts teacher and technology consultant — had good results before the program was expanded. But Mr. Dune said he has experienced a troubling shift in attitude by school administrators as he has increased his use of classroom technology.
Hired in August 2009, Mr. Dune was using cloud computing, blogging and producing multimedia. He said despite all the extra effort it entails to prepare a class with all the technological aggregates (he must update blogs and teach children to implement the tools), his students' excitement drove him to continue.
After receiving laudatory evaluations in November 2009 and through most of 2010, he was told around Thanksgiving that he would not be recommended for rehire, he said. He started phasing back into textbooks after hearing rumors of parents' complaints on the excessive use of technology in his classroom.
Shane Turner, 10, is helping Ms. Barton show a reporter how the classroom's interactive whiteboard — known as an ActivBoard — works.
"It's pretty damned awesome. My brother always complains I got all the cool stuff" in class, Shane says. Ms. Barton responds that it's his brother's fault for not having been born later.
Under the board, there's a box of cellphone-like devices that allow students to text answers to the teacher during class exercises. As the answers show up on the ActivBoard, Ms. Barton is immediately able to gauge whether she is teaching the lesson too quickly for the class to understand and pinpoint which students to assist.
Each student can use a laptop to check their answers and search for information during class, when Ms. Barton instructs them to do so.
Ms. Barton says the number of projects the class could undertake per school year increased because students were finishing them faster. Still, certain rules had to be worked out, like banning the use of Facebook during class.
Mr. Morgan, the social studies teacher, says children get easily distracted when surfing the Web, so he uses the computers mostly for an online history textbook the school district subscribed to for a year.
"It's very easy to get hypnotized with the computer," he says. "They start off by looking things up, they come across something that's more interesting while waiting for the class to move on, and they drift into YouTube or something."
He does not use the ActivBoard. "Right now it's just sitting there. It makes a wonderful projection screen but it's a very expensive projection screen," he says.
On a recent Monday, the desks in Mr. Davenport's sixth-grade social sciences classroom were arranged in a circle. Wide-eyed kids hovered over their silver Dells, preparing a joint project on modern India for Friday. They're all working on their three assigned slides for a Powerpoint presentation, and any changes made can be seen on a cinema-like screen.
It's the first time Mr. Davenport has tried making a joint presentation using Google Docs, and he's as wide-eyed as the students. But for some teachers, he says, the lesson to be learned from his class is that the less you use technology, the better.