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Desert Rose

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Sharon Hackley's computers turn a remote Arizona school into a technological outpost.

Sharon Hackley is a go-getter. The 58-year-old Kingman, Arizona, 6th grade teacher has co-authored a book on plants of the Southwest, published award-winning photos of African wildlife, and launched a nonprofit corporation to distribute a soil curriculum she developed. Just when you think you've heard about all her prizes, grants, and accomplishments, she mentions that she also 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 burnout and considering stepping out of the classroom when the opportunity came to tackle something new.

"Computers—the 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 and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and focused on creative educational applications for television. 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 computers "almost a soul-shaking experience."

Kingman, a desert outpost in northwestern Arizona, is something of a technological backwater. The community—little more than motels, gas stations, and mom-and-pop storefronts—is so remote that there's no free access to the Internet. To get on-line, residents have to pay long-distance phone charges.

But the small community, via Palo Christi Elementary School, has become the grateful beneficiary of Hackley's new love affair. The 460-student K-6 school now has 30 new computers, thanks in part to $7,500 Hackley got as a recipient of the National Science Foundation's 1994-95 Presidential Award for Excellence in Science and Mathematics Teaching.

Still, Palo Christi is nowhere near the cutting edge. Many students get as little as a half-hour a week in the new computer lab, and the machines aren't linked 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, Hackley is navigating the human body, courtesy of CD-ROM; her passengers are 20 students glued to their seats in the school library. When the teacher clicks on a cartoonlike 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 displays the same enthusiasm when it tackles its weekly keyboarding session in the computer lab. Hackley, who is nearly six feet tall, towers above the kids as she explains how important it is to learn to work 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 transformed into a wholly different craft. Take the CD-ROM anatomy program. How else could a teacher in remote Kingman have led her students on a journey through the human body and have 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 visited at home by classmates. 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.

Technology, she knows, can't—and shouldn't—replace the teacher. The computer is impersonal, a characteristic that initially scared her. "It can't look at children and say, 'This one thinks differently from that one,' " she explains. Now, she sees it as simply a powerful tool—and a career saver.

An alumna of Palo Christi Elementary herself, Hackley is something of a fixture in Kingman. She has taught a generation of students there since 1968 and has made her mark on the school. She has developed acres of nature trails behind the campus, set up an exhibit of Arizona history that draws student visitors from across the state, and organized and financed the computer lab.

Indeed, it's hard to believe that this intrepid teacher was once spooked by technology. She speaks of lecturing in the former Soviet Union as casually as she removes a furry tarantula that has strayed into the school from the desert.

Hackley's a dynamo who has always jumped headfirst into the next project, explains Palo Christi's current principal, Diane Rogas. "Sharon's the kind of person who'll say, 'I don't know how to do this, but I will figure it out,' " adds Rogas, 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 she's hooked on computers, Kingman residents can breathe a little easier. Retirement is out of the question. "I've got a whole new energy for teaching," she says.

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