Published Online: January 15, 1997


The Beginner

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Kingman, Ariz.

Sharon Hackley could have just retired. But she decided to try something new—computers.

Sharon Hackley is a one-woman whirlwind of activity. The 58-year-old Kingman, Ariz., 6th grade teacher has co-authored a book on plants of the Southwest, published award-winning photos of African wildlife, and helped launch a nonprofit corporation to distribute a soil curriculum she created. After reeling off a list of her many prizes, grants, and accomplishments, she also mentions that she plays bass clarinet in two orchestras. So it comes as no surprise to learn that Hackley recently took on a new challenge: She plunged into educational technology.

It certainly wasn't something Hackley had to do. She could have just cruised into retirement. But to hear Hackley tell it, technology jump-started a stagnating career. She was suffering from burnout and thinking about stepping out of the classroom when the opportunity came to tackle something new.

"Computers--just the whole word terrified me," she says. "I was absolutely the old-fashioned teacher." But that was before her former principal encouraged her to attend a 1993 teacher-training institute sponsored by Texaco Inc. and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting that focused on creative applications for television in the classroom. It was that workshop, she says, that gave her the confidence to think, "Maybe I can do this computer thing."

Soon after, Scholastic Inc. asked the award-winning teacher to moderate an on-line science discussion. She jumped at the chance and says she found her time on the computer to be "almost a soul-shaking experience."

Kingman, a desert outpost in north-western Arizona, also happened to be in need of a technological boost. The low-income community features little more than a string of motels, gas stations, and small-town storefronts. It is so remote, in fact, that there's no cheap access to the Internet. To get on-line, Kingman residents have to pay long-distance phone charges.

But Hackley's school, Palo Christi Elementary, has become the grateful beneficiary of her newfound love affair with technology. The 460-student K-6 school now has 30 new computers, thanks in part to the $7,500 Hackley won from the National Science Foundation's 1994-95 Presidential Award for Excellence in Science and Mathematics Teaching.

Technology used to scare the 58-year-old teacher. But a few years ago, Hackley caught the computer bug and hasn't stopped since.

Still, Palo Christi is nowhere near the cutting edge. Many students get as little as a half-hour a week in the computer lab, and the machines aren't connected to the Internet. The classrooms contain only a few ancient Apple IIe's. But Hackley makes the most of the school's limited hardware to get students interested in computers and keep them in touch with the world outside Kingman.

On this blustery afternoon, she's navigating the human body, courtesy of a CD-rom; her passengers are 20 students glued to their seats in the school library. When the teacher clicks on a cartoonish skeleton, it falls apart. Her students light up with anticipation as she explains that it will be their job to put the bones back in the right places.

The class shows the same enthusiasm when it tackles its weekly keyboarding session in the computer lab. Hackley, who is nearly 6 feet tall, towers above her students as she explains how important it is to learn to work at a computer. "Everyone is tied to that computer nowadays." she says. "If we don't learn to live in that world, we have lost something of what we could do or what we could be."

With computers, Hackley says, teaching is a whole different experience than it used to be. Take the CD-rom anatomy program. How else could a teacher in remote Kingman have led students on an educational tour of the human body and leave them clamoring for more?

Hackley, of course, uses other kinds of technology with her class as well. Today, she shows her students a video on a large television monitor about a sick student some classmates visited at home. She periodically stops the tape to ask questions. "Now, why is what they're doing a bad idea?" she asks at one point, sparking a discussion about germs and contagion.

It's hard to believe that this intrepid teacher, who speaks of lecturing in the former Soviet Union as casually as she removes a furry tarantula that has strayed into the school, was once spooked by technology. She says she feared computers because they were too impersonal. But that's why she can now see that a computer can't--and shouldn't--replace the teacher. "It can't look at children and say, 'This one thinks differently from that one,'" she says. Now, she sees technology simply as a powerful tool for helping her students.

An alumna of Palo Christi herself, Hackley has deep roots in Kingman. She has taught generations of children there since 1968 and has made her mark on the school. In addition to organizing and helping finance the computer lab, she has also developed acres of nature trails behind the school and set up an exhibit of Arizona history that draws student visitors from across the state.

Hackley is a dynamo who has always jumped headfirst into the next project, explains Palo Christi's current principal, Diana Logas. "Sharon's the kind of person who'll say, 'I don't know how to do this, but I will figure it out,'" adds Logas, who was once a student teacher under Hackley's supervision. "I think her involvement in technology evolved because she was so busy; it was a faster way to gather information and share it. It was a necessity."

And now that Hackley's hooked on computers, Kingman students and residents can breathe a little easier. Retirement is out of the question. "I've got a whole new energy for teaching," Hackley says.

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