Remember When It Was Poster Board?: Computer Technologies and School Disadvantage

Remember when it was the poster board? I do. I remember my elementary school classmates—Russell, Missy, Jake—who could never afford it, who would raise their hands meekly, eyes downcast, when the teacher asked, “Who needs help getting poster board?” I pitied them and wondered what else they couldn’t afford: a pack of National Football League pencils, a Hong Kong Phooey notebook, one of those four-color ball-point pens, a mega-box of 64 Crayola crayons with the cool little sharpener built into the back. The teacher would summon them to the back of the classroom, hand each of them a white piece of poster board that she had pulled out from behind a cabinet or bookcase or portable coat closet. The teacher must be rich, I reasoned, stocked up, as she was, with so much expendable poster board. The summoned students would walk slowly back to their desks, poster board in hand, careful to avoid eye contact. Poor kids, I thought. Poor, poor kids. Pity, I know now, is the worst form of disgust.

For my part, I loved shopping for school supplies, and especially for poster board. I felt powerful, a little man, nine years old or so, navigating the People’s Drug Store aisles peeking around a white or yellow—usually blue—sheet of poster board, a sign of an elementary student’s status. I would carry it proudly to the cashier, Mom giggling, “Watch where you’re going.” Funny, as I remember it—I don’t recall what I ever did with the poster board. I can’t remember any of the projects. I just remember the purchasing. And the pity.

Today I can, if I choose, order 100 sheets of poster board from—ten sheets each in ten vibrant colors, including two shades of blue—for $31.03 with shipping and handling. That’s 31 cents per sheet. I’m tempted. I don’t know, all these years later, how much Mom paid for the poster board back then, in the mid- to late-1970s. A dollar, maybe? Seventy-nine cents?

The point is this: Even when it was poster board, Russell, Missy, and Jake, three kids who had no say in their families’ financial conditions or the affordability of school supplies, were at a disadvantage. As were the kids who, like Russell, Missy, and Jake, couldn’t financially afford poster board, but who, to an even greater degree, couldn’t psychologically afford the stigma that mark students who follow teachers to the backs of their classrooms for a public handout.

That’s when it was poster board. Now it’s computers. And the Internet. And software. And a printer. And unlike poster board, which our teachers might have required of us once or twice a year back in the days when it was poster board, students today—including the Russells and Missys and Jakes—are expected to have access to computers and the Internet and software and a printer on a regular, if not daily, basis.

Today I can, if I choose, buy a computer from for $1,040.79, the average cost of the site’s five best-selling desktops. These computers do not come with Internet access or a printer and include only the most rudimentary software, making them the rough equivalents of one of those 8-count boxes of Crayola Crayons without the cool sharpener in the back. Despite these limitations, the $1,040.79 price tag amounts to approximately 3,354 sheets of poster board, including approximately 671 sheets in one of two shades of blue.

So, raise your hand, all you nine-years-or-so-olds, if you do not own a computer. Or if you own a computer, but do not have Internet access, which you probably need in order to complete tonight’s Social Studies homework.

Chances are, if your parents or guardians bring in more than $75,000 in annual income, you will have no problem doing your homework. After all, 93% of you did not raise your hand. You have a computer and Internet access at home—maybe in your own bedroom. So even if you are part of the 7% which has not quite made it into the digital age, amateur statistics suggest that your nine closest neighbors are wired. I hope you’ve been kind to them and shared your toys.

If your parents or guardians bring in an annual income of less than $30,000, you may be in trouble. Fifty-one percent of you—more than seven times the percentage of your wealthier classmates—do not have a computer and Internet access.

Perhaps if you, my young friends, valued your educations enough to get yourselves born into wealthier households, you, too, could go online, wade through the pornography, dodge sex predators, and complete your Social Studies homework. Or shop for blue poster board.

8 Responses

  1. Thanks for the great article. The difference between $30,000 and $75,000 for a family is a very important chasm to consider. Even more so the chasm between the top 10% of our nation (not to mention the top 1%) and the rest of us. At a recent conference we sold out of “Teaching Economics As If People Mattered” high-school economics books and “25 Math Investigations that Will Astound” students and teachers. Both of these point out the disparity between American wealth / income and the terrible traps that make it even harder for the bottom 40% to survive.

  2. Edward

    Great article.

    Much of the work students are doing these days with computers and Internet access isn’t that good, work that is akin to research papers written in multicolored, fancy fonts with a lot of cut- and-pasted pictures. One workaround for students who lack the digital access is for teachers to assist in gathering research for projects. This could still allow a stigma for those who are without the technology, but it might also allow those who are without to have an edge, in that their work could have more of a teacher-guided focus that leads to more meaningful work. I can see other problems that might arise with this strategy, but let’s just call it “differentiated” instruction by other means.

  3. How timely, Paul. I’m reading all I can and writing about these “divides” right now, and working really hard with my teacher ed students to think about these issues and to address them.

    One thing we’re doing is experimenting with IPod Touches that can so do much for a few hundred dollars.

    For me, a key difference between poster boards and technology is that there was no cultural “capital” in the poster board: One’s agility with poster would not play out in one’s ability to eventually have a voice in public life, access political perspectives beyond those of mainstream media, organize with others around causes central to one’s life, connect across the globe. But all of those things are now part of the digital “participation” divide that Henry Jenkins and others are writing about and it’s even more serious than basic access to a computer at home. Poor kids often don’t have books at home, either, but we really really work hard to teach reading in schools.

    Those middle class kid aren’t spending that much time surfing porn or dodging predators — they’re creating multi-media projects, they’re writing for distant audiences, they’re more likely to find political viewpoints new to them and to be activated by them, they’re more likely to be pursuing interests that they’re passionate about. Those are skills that everyone needs now.
    And as Craig Watkins is finding, low-income kids are finding ways to do at least some of that on cell phones (which are much more common in low-income homes than computers). But then schools where there are so few computers available to kids ban the kids from bringing their own phones.

    Could you post your source for your computers by income data? I could use it!

    Edward: For some great examples of low-income kids doing things so far beyond word processing with computers, you might be inspired by Brian Cosby’s “Learning is Messy” blog of teacher Jenny “Elementary My Dear, or Far From It”. Check out the Global kids website. Craig Watkins is writing about kids in summer programs creating complex on-line learning games. There are so many other great community based projects but too few examples of schools…

    Would love more conversation about all of this — and am thinking about putting a special issue of a journal together on the moral and practical issues of addressing the “participation” divides in low-income schools.

    Thanks for raising the issue. It’s so important

    1. Paul C. Gorski

      Thanks Jane.

      When I was a kid there was, indeed, cultural capital in having resources like poster board and learning how to construct things out of those sorts of materials before we had computers. But yes, I see your point.

      Books. Yes, I’m writing about that right now, actually. Of course, teachers generally don’t assign kids to read books at home that they kids don’t have, so that’s a little different, at least. My point here is not that kids shouldn’t learn the technologies, but that this rush to label computer and Internet technologies as the great equalizers and to use them for everything privileges people who already are privileged. Teachers who have any kids who can’t afford these technologies should not assign homework that requires them. Moreover, schools should not be moving their communication with parents online.

      When you say middle class kids aren’t spending much time surfing porn, is that a hunch, or do we really know that? I’d love to see some data on that–not only porn but the celebrity stuff that is practically soft-core pornography. I wonder, too, how much time middle class kids are using their computers for games and social networking as compared with other kinds of experiences, and how that might compare with kids from low-income families. We’ve know for a decade or so that the technologies are used differently in schools by race and by class–I’ve written about that…


  4. Hi Paul.

    I agree 100% that teachers have to be so mindful of what they require kids to do at home, whether digitally or otherwise. My students will tell you that they hear that from me *endlessly*. And I’m preaching the “Have many options for communicating with families” message all the time. Amen.

    And I’m reading now about Jeb Bush and his new ed consulting group are promising that computers are the magic bullet that will suddenly make schools great for all kids. They’re talking about just streaming content into classrooms to bypass all those mediocre teachers out there.

    Spare me.

    Yup: I’d read and I’m citing your article in my paper! Thanks.

    Sure, kids are doing games and social networking — and I think that what’s so fascinating is that it’s no longer “either/ or” — that there’s “recreation” and there’s “educational” and they’re very different.

    There are some really interesting studies coming out of The Digital Media and Learning group (DML Central) that are showing some really interesting broader value in both cognitive strategies learned in gaming and the broader social benefits of social networking

    An example: I just read a really interesting article on a group of low-income kids’ uses of MySpace to actively seek help with homework, to find friends of friends who could help them to choose and then transition to college… and another case study of the multiple literacy skills learned by a low-income Latino special ed student as he became an expert on particular forms of music and shared what he knew with an ever-expanding network — but school recognized none of those things.

    All these kids were pretty creative in how they managed access to the internet because it was so central to them.

    Watkins that I mentioned above is studying low-income kids of color uses of social media –he’s finding that they’re more likely to be passive consumer than creators of an on-line presence as middle class kid are becoming, (in part because they are limited to cell phones but through which they could do so much more if anyone knew how to teach them those things).

    Common Sense Media has been disseminating pretty good data on kids’ uses of media outside of school — danah boyd and Mizuko Ito have been doing interesting field work with kids and their on-line lives. I think that boyd gets some of the class stuff wrong, but they’re talking about growing up in a world in which the digital is shaping culture and politics and mainstream media and access to information and their questions are about how adults then help them to navigate it. So the “who’s being privileged” questions take on really important new layers.

    I highly recommend Henry Jenkins (et al) Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century. It’s available as a free download – anyone interested can Google it.

    (I show my students “Glogster” – an on-line mutli-media posterlike platform, and inevitably, their first response is “Thank goodness. That ends the great competition for the fancy materials in their science fair posters. No more mistaking parent budgets for substance”. They assume that kids will work on those things at school (in time that otherwise might have been wasted teaching kids powerpoint) So some of this works both ways ….)

    I agree completely that we’re often going in the wrong directions in school by just digitizing the stuff that has long not worked for many kids. T

    But I’m getting pretty interested in what else is possible.

    So thanks for helping me to think some of this “out loud”…


  5. Jane


    Paul’s data sent me to the internet — things are changing so quickly in types of access available and the question of access is so key to where else we might take this conversation.

    Here’s the 2011 data on household by income use of the internet (I *wish* someone would collect this specifically for households with school-aged childen, but they don’t and age us such a huge factor in this sort of data): Gaps are still there, but closing:

    Teen usage of the internet: There are still gaps, but they’re much narrower than the general household data:

    So much to think about!

  6. Thanks for this article, Paul.

    Growing up, I was one the “supplies handout” kids you spoke of, and YES, throughout my youth, I was always aware of the razor thin line (if any) between pity and disgust.

    As a classroom teacher, I have been doing poster projects where all supplies are provided by the school (and no outside supplies are allowed), posters are not allowed to be taken home (so I know the work is the student’s and not their stay-at-home or 9-5-working parents’), research time is given in class (outside research is ALLOWED, but students are encouraged to print research to take home to read and highlight), in-class progress and effort account for the largest portion of the grade, and I offer before school, lunchtime, and after school appointments for students to come in, have technology access, and put in additional work time.

    The next time an entitled, wealthy parent complains of my “unfair” practices, I am handing them a copy of this article and saving my breath.

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