The story of a boy’s academic pursuits in New Jersey and education’s lack of progress since then…
Author’s note: As a response to the bile being directed at teachers by President Obama, Oprah Winfrey and NBC News’ Education Nation, I’ve decided to publish a series of articles I wrote celebrating great educators in my life. I encourage others to make the world a better place by sharing stories of great teaching. (use the hashtag = greatteaching)

(2001) I recently received a sad email informing me that Paul Jones, my first and only computing programming teacher, had passed away. Mr. Jones taught at Schuyler Colfax Junior High School in Wayne, New Jersey for thirty-seven years. If a monument to honor great achievements in educational computing is ever erected, it should surely include a statue of Mr. Jones.

Around 1976 I got to touch a computer for the first time. My junior high school (grades 6-8) had a mandatory computer-programming course for seventh and eighth graders. I only had the course once since I was in the band. In a twist familiar to schools across the land, kids less inclined to creative and intellectual pursuits got to take double the number of courses in those areas!

In the 1970s the Wayne Township Public Schools in New Jersey believed it was important for all kids to have experience programming computers. There was never any discussion of preparation for computing careers, school-to-work, presentation graphics or computer literacy. This was not a gifted course or a vocational course. This “mandatory elective” (a concept unique to schooling) was viewed as a window onto a world of ideas – equal in status to industrial arts, home economics and the arts.

To young adolescents transitioning out of trick-or-treating Mr. Jones was scary in a Dr. Frankenstein sort of way. Rumors abounded about him talking to his computer and even kissing it goodnight before going home at the end of the day. The truth was that this guy could make computers do things! To kids who never imagined seeing a computer – let alone controlling one, having such power within our reach was pretty heady stuff.

The class consisted of mini-tutorials, programming problems on worksheets to kill time while we waited to use the one or two teletypes sitting in the front and back of the room. The scarcity of classroom computers had an unintended consequence, lots of collaboration.

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We could sign-up to do more programming or play a computer game after school. This afterschool activity, undoubtedly offered out of the goodness of Mr. Jones’ heart, would allow us extra precious minutes of computer time. Text-based versions of boxing, tennis, football and Star Trek were favorites. Mr. Jones knew how the games worked and would show us the underlying code if we were interested. Mr. Jones did sort of love his computer and his students. Once I knew the odds for each football play the computer never beat me again. I could THINK LIKE THE COMPUTER! This made me feel powerful and laid the foundation for a life of problem solving.

The habits of mind developed in Mr. Jones’ class helped me survive the series of miserable mathematics classes that would greet me in high school. Perhaps Mr. Jones was such a great teacher because he was learning to program too. (This never occurred to me as a kid since Mr. Jones knew everything about computers.)

During high school I would pay an occasional visit to Mr. Jones in order to trade programming secrets. As an adult we had a casual collegial relationship. He may have even attended one or two of my workshops. I do remember that he loved AppleWorks with a passion normally reserved for opera and that he collected Beagle Bros. AppleWorks add-ons like they were Beanie Babies.

Not long after Mr. Jones died I received a charming email from the world’s finest seventh grade social studies teacher, Bob Prail, asking me if I would be interested in applying for Mr. Jones’ teaching job. I was honored to be considered and must admit that the whole “circle of life” angle warmed my heart. However, living with my family 3,000 miles from Schuyler Colfax Jr. High would make the commute difficult. I also feared that the responsibilities assigned to this teaching position were no longer pioneering or designed to expand the thinking of students. I was concerned that the 2001 curriculum for a computing teacher (probably now called something like digital communication technology integration facilitator and cable-puller) would have deteriorated into the mindless computer literacy objectives of mouse-clicking, web bookmarking and word processing plaguing too many schools.

Unnamed sources within the junior high school in question have since revealed that students now spend a considerable amount of time learning to “keyboard.” I don’t know which is worse, disrespecting the talents and culture of kids by pretending that they have never seen a computer before or lowering our expectations by making it impossible for kids to do wondrous things with the most powerful technology ever invented.

As students of Mr. Jones a quarter century ago, none of us HAD ever seen a computer before and yet the curriculum was designed to inspire us to seize control of this mysterious machine. Since we had little idea what was impossible, we thought anything was possible. We felt smart, powerful and creative. Assuming Mr. Jones’ responsibilities while trivializing the intellectual power of computing would dishonor his spirit and diminish his pioneering contributions to the world of powerful ideas.




© 2001 Gary S. Stager/Curriculum Administrator Magazine
Published in the July 2001 issue of Curriculum Administrator

Author’s note: As a response to the bile being directed at teachers by President Obama, Oprah Winfrey and NBC News’ Education Nation, I’ve decided to publish a series of articles I wrote celebrating great educators in my life. I encourage others to make the world a better place by sharing stories of great teaching. (use the hashtag = greatteaching)

Rocco Patierno & George Hicswa - July 2010

The challenge of telling one school story is a formidable one. I have so many to share. My colleagues urged me to tell the stories of the felonious teachers who taught from lawn chairs, led ethnic relay races and committed other hideous crimes against children. I could also tell the story of learning to love computing in the 70s because of imaginative trusting educators. Hopefully, I will have such opportunities in the future. This is the tale of music teachers who brought beauty, humor and a sense of place to my life.

Back in the 1970s, the Wayne, NJ Public Schools offered me the opportunity to fall in love with music and pursue it with abandon under the tutelage of spectacular teachers, Bob Simpson, Rocco Patierno, Ted Anderson, George Hicswa and Dick Lukas. Our fluid relationships flowed

from teacher-student, teacher-teacher, friend-friend to fellow artists creating together. My high school supported my desire to take four years of music theory and four years of performance classes (nine in all) without missing a single “important” academic course.

Midway through high school, George Hicswa, a professional jazz musician, achieved his goal of offering a daily Jazz Improvisation course. The class would be concerned with jazz theory, history and performance. Few universities at the time offered such a class. This was the perfect venue for a man of Mr Hicswa’s considerable idiosyncrasies, humor and talent as a musician. This class was quite comparable to the Brazilian Samba School Seymour Papert describes in Mindstorms, as an optimal environment for productive learning.

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The thing that strikes me today is how the course was so learner-centered. I remember the excitement of calling classmates on Sunday night to plan which records we should bring in to analyze on Monday and Tuesday. At the time we joked that Mr. Hicswa was lazy and that we were teaching his class. I now understand that a great teacher connects his/her wisdom and experience with the interests of students. We always felt that there was great gravity to the work we were doing in this class. After all, we were studying an American art form not taught in American schools. This was a music of the blues – of the struggle for civil rights, being performed reverently by white kids from the suburbs.

The course epitomized an interdisciplinary curriculum making connections between history, musical performance and the mathematics used to learn improvisation. It was a multi-age class you could take for credit year after year. How could that be possible? Because there was always something to learn and new ways to grow. A strong community of practice existed in which we could learn by “playing” together.

I remember the shock on the faces of judges as we took the stage for a jazz competition (one of those obscene oxymorons invented by schools). We would follow paramilitary “stage bands” wearing white platform suits and zoot suits as they faithfully recreated “In the Mood.” The stage band is a musical amalgamation with no analog outside of school.

Our small jazz combo would be garbed in dashikis, kimonos and “bebop helmets.” I once performed on gong. Our repertoire consisted of works by Thelonious Monk, Lee Morgan, Horace Silver, John Coltrane and student composers. We honored ourselves and our musical heroes by sharing our individuality through collective improvisation.

It was never clear if Mr. Hicswa liked teaching or even liked children. What he loved were musicians – even people trying to become musicians. He created an environment in which personal growth was possible. For that I will always be grateful.


©1999 Gary S. Stager
From Curriculum Administrator Magazine — June 1999

Earlier today, I enjoyed the great privilege of sharing the stage at the Australian Conference on Computers in Education with two of my favorite educators, Geoff Powell of St. Hilda’s School on the Gold Coast of Queensland and Steve Costa of Methodist Ladies’ College, Kew. The following is a tribute to Steve Costa, a truly gentle man with a wicked jump shot and the gratitude of the countless young people he has inspired for decades.

mlc-costa-640Stephen Costa, Deputy Head of the Methodist Ladies’ College Junior School may be the most important and overlooked educator in the world today. Steve emigrated to Australia from the United Stated in 1974 during a period in which the nation was recruiting young teachers. He fell in love with the woman he would marry and with Australia – in those days requiring him to surrender his U.S. citizenship. By 1981, Steve was teaching primary school girls at MLC to use computers. Around that time he read Seymour Papert’s, Mindstorms: Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas, and became inspired to teach his students to program in Logo.

A little known milestone in the history of educational computing is that Steve Costa began teaching an entire class of year five girls each with a personal laptop computer in 1989. He is Patient Zero when it comes to the use of laptops in education. If you are an educator anywhere in the world – from Manhattan to Melbourne to Mumbai teaching in a 1:1 setting or contemplating the eventuality of truly personal computing, you owe a debt of gratitude to Melbourne’s own, Mr. Costa.

It is not often that you have the privilege of knowing “the person who started it all,” but Steve Costa is not an artifact found in a museum, he continues to teach kids and his colleagues every day of the school year TWENTY-ONE YEARS after he embraced laptops as an integral part of the learning process. Steve Costa has been teaching with a laptop per child for more than a generation.

When I first met Steve in 1990, I was impressed by his energy, curiosity, dazzling teaching skills, calm demeanor and love of children. He was always willing to “have a go” and try any crazy idea I might throw at him and “his girls.” He has been invaluable to me as a colleague who could inject a dose of classroom reality into a scenario without ever using such current “reality” as an excuse for not trying to do better – to push the envelope. Steve is unafraid to learn alongside students allowing them to lean about learning by his example. Anytime you want someone smart for a panel discussion or extremely competent in a workshop setting, Steve tops my list.

Countless, perhaps thousands of educators have visited Steve’s classroom over the past twenty years, become inspired and gone back to make their schools better. Steve Costa should be famous. He should be traveling the world hailed as the father of 1:1 computing. He should be running the national education system, but instead Steve Costa does the hardest, most important work of all. He teaches children every day.

David Loader gets much of the deserved credit for pioneering 1:1 computing in schools, but that effort at MLC would be a long-forgotten experiment if it were not part of the daily excellence displayed by Steve Costa. Steve Costa’s contribution to modern education and computers in education puts him on a par with Seymour Papert, Alan Kay and David Loader.

At an edtech conference such as ACEC, it is worth noting that unlike so many ICT professionals whose curriculum is technocentrically focused on the hot new toy or latest fad, Steve Costa still teaches children to program in Logo (MicroWorlds). He does so because it affords learners countless opportunities for self-expression, problem solving, debugging and to think about thinking. Too many educators succumb to peer pressure and abandon “hard fun” or sound educational practices as the spotlight shifts. Steve is not one of them. He continues to learn, grow and develop his own personal computing fluency while embracing new technologies that increase learning opportunities for young people. He is not only a master teacher, but a master learner as well – unafraid of technological advances that amplify human potential.

There is no honor sufficient for my friend Steve. One would think that a grateful nation engaged in a “digital education revolution” would put its original revolutionary, Steve Costa, on a postage stamp. They would do so if they loved their children (and their children’s teachers) half as much as Steve cares for the children in his care.

Steve Costa led a silent revolution that changed the world the year Milli Vanilli topped the charts and continues to lead every day. Since the education community tends to be short on memory, we need to learn from Steve Costa today and honor his contributions for many years to come.


Memo to ISTE: I realize that Steve’s proposal to share wisdom gained over 20 years of teaching in 1:1 environments was rejected for the NECC 2009 program. Perhaps that was an oversight. Isn’t it about time you featured Mr. Costa at your annual conference and in your publications?

From Curriculum Administrator Magazine — June 2000

Amidst the sadism, angst and mediocrity of middle school, two social studies teachers had an important impact on my development. Bob Prail has taught social studies for decades and has touched the lives of countless children at Schuyler Colfax Junior High School in Wayne, New Jersey. His class was concerned more with the intellectual, moral and emotional development of each student than the bunch ‘o facts curriculum commonplace in similar classes. Mr. Prail’s class was rigorous despite the pabulum prescribed by the mediocre textbook, which remained in virginal condition. He excited us about American history and our nation’s uneasy quest for justice. Before multicultural education and interdisciplinary teaching were hot, Mr. Prail had each seventh grader read Uncle Tom’s Cabin and each eighth grader read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Decades before student-created multimedia was the rage, our class produced a film of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I was Harry the imp. Being home sick for a week created interesting cinematic challenges when my understudy, an Asian classmate, replaced me. Few middle school students read, let alone dramatize the controversial lessons of Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Mr. Prail’s classes were filled with lively discussions and our content knowledge was tested by using an electronic game show set built by the teacher. His classroom was a safe environment for shaping an opinion or arguing one already formed. I’ll never forget how much grief Mr. Prail faced for teaching us how to relax and meditate during class time. There were absurd accusations of religious proselytizing and sorcery swirling around the school while any rational person familiar with middle school kids understands the need for relaxation and reflection. While I hardly remember the content of the class, Mr. Prail taught me a much more important lesson by his example. He treated everyone with dignity and respect even when little respect was accorded him by the school administration. I am convinced that my personal sense of political activism and willingness to fight for those people and issues worthy of support may be traced back to an intuitive sense that at twelve years old we might need to stage a protest to ensure Mr. Prail’s job security. Bob Prail’s lifelong commitment to doing the right thing on behalf of kids, regardless of what the adults around him might think is a testament to the courage and power of great teachers.

My eighth grade social studies teacher, Harold “Hack” Miller, inspired me in many other extra-curricular ways. Mr. Miller introduced partisanship, parody, humor and controversy to the study of history and importance of politics. These are noble traits required by a strong democracy. I’ll never forget the bulletin board decoration in Mr. Miller’s classroom. On it hung a front-page tabloid photo of President Ford receiving his swine flu shot and underneath it Mr. Miller wrote the caption, “No Brain… No Pain.” Mr. Miller traded “boring” subjects from the curriculum for more engaging ones like the influence of the arts on American culture. Best of all, he let us in on his subversion. He knew what his students needed and taught expertly what he knew best. Mr. Miller cultivated my love of history and passion for politics in both eighth and eleventh grade.

In high school, Mr. Miller was a behind-the-scenes instigator in our effort to rid the school of the sappy sexist expensive pre-Title IX annual student dance competition. He encouraged a camouflage-wearing school legend named Duke to seek the presidency of this august student organization while a slate of my male pals ran to be captains of a dance team. When informal polling indicated that the head cheerleaders were about to lose their most cherished position to a bunch of… well, boys all hell broke loose. While we were not particularly serious about leading the dance contest into the next millennium we were fighting for important principles of gender equity and against entrenched patterns of discrimination. Our mucking up of the works may have been silly, but it was also in the great tradition of the Boston Tea Party and the anti-Viet Nam war protests.

Mr. Prail and Mr. Miller taught without the script or straightjacket imposed by the textbook. They taught from a wealth of knowledge, a love of the subject matter and a commitment to children. I am most grateful for the role they played in the development of active citizens. They make me proud to be a teacher and an American.