My elementary education with the Apple II

Filed under History;

My household was an early adopter of personal computers, at least compared to the rest of my grade school. Whereas I had access to the family Apple IIe whenever I wanted, for most of my classmates, their only exposure to that computer came from our weekly computer lab, which was not what I would call rigorous. The instructor was Sister Theresa, and she didn’t know the first thing about programming or educational software. Too many classes would start this way: "Turn on the computer. Type NEW, return, RUN, return, HOME return, GR, return. Now draw the Nativity." And that was it: we’d be left to our own devices for the rest of class. Since our work was never checked, no one attempted the project she’d assigned us. On rare occasions, we’d be given textbooks of BASIC program listings and could type one in, but neither instruction nor comprehension occurred regarding what these commands did or how they resulted in the program we’d run.

Instead, my mastery of the Apple II occurred at home. I would pull apart Applesoft programs to see how they worked, then I’d modify them or write my own, sometimes recreating the work during class to show off to my classmates. (The result could be seen less in their admiration and more in their bullying.) I later wondered why the class couldn’t be more productive. Did the administration think Sr. Theresa was the best person for this job? Or was the convent looking for a position for this old nun, and this was all that was available? Was it worth it to make her feel useful at the expense of all those computers being wasted? Having now been an educator myself, I’d be keen to see what the mission statement, classroom goals, or rubric were for that class. I suspect the syllabus was blank.

Regardless, I did enjoy these classes and the special permission Sr. Theresa gave me to borrow from her archive of Scholastic Microzine on Friday afternoons to bring home for the weekend. I would wake up early every Saturday to play this trove of new games I’d been bequeathed, both before my three older brothers would wake up and before the Microzine would have to go back to school on Monday morning. I was likely the only student who ever went to see Sr. Theresa outside our designated lab time, and we grew friendly. But my education had taught me to never question authority, so despite our relationship, it never occurred to me to suggest that her class could be run in any other way.

St. Leo's SchoolI don’t know how much that aspect of the school has changed since then. I remember hearing in the early- to mid-nineties that they were "upgrading" all their IIe computers to IIc’s. Whatever expert they hired for that advice steered them wrong, as the Apple II line was nearing the end of its official support by then, and switching to Macs or PCs would’ve been a more long-term investment. I wonder what came of their Apple IIe or IIc labs — no one called me when they disposed of either. Maybe they’re still there, teaching modern students the fine art of retrocomputing.

Can a quick Google search tell us for sure? Visiting the St. Leo’s School Web site — which is running on a five-year-old version of Joomla — I see that "computer" is one of the required classes, and that "Computers are incorporated into daily classes, starting in Pre-Kindergarten." Not the most detailed curriculum outline.

Granted, this is a grade school in suburban Leominster, Massachusetts. At that age and with the resources available, it may be more reasonable to expect the students to focus on the basics: "Religion, Mathematics, Reading — Literature, Language Arts". But computers can be tools by which to inspire creativity in all those areas and more. Think of all the lessons, exercises, and tools that computers could be bringing to the classroom: Programming! Applesoft BASIC! iBooks! Game-playing! Game design! And more!

The issue, in many ways, is academic, as it will be a long time before a grade school’s curriculum again has direct influence on my family. But whenever I do evaluate a school’s academic rigor for its ability to inspire a generation of creative and competitive professionals, I’ll be sure of three things: that computer literacy is as much a priority as other "core" areas; that there is a passionate, knowledgeable teacher in charge of executing that mission; and that she be willing to share her library of Microzines.

  1. I can relate to a lot of what you wrote here….in no particular order…

    When I ask my children’s teachers for a syllabus, the look I get is blank.

    I’m putting off having my kids complete the one-semester “computer applications” or the required distance education course (apparently meant to justify the existence of the distance education center) as long as possible hoping the requirements will go away.

    Interestingly, my high school education at an independent day school (non-parochial, non-public) taught me to always question authority.

    Most summers I was allowed to check out an ImageWriter, software, and some other peripherals (notably the Koala Pad), but I don’t think we had any subscription-based software.

  2. Hi Ken,

    I was a parochial school teacher for 3 years in Wilmington, Delaware (St. Hedwig’s). When I got there, there were about 15 Apple IIes and a couple of PCs (this was 1992). I changed the layout, added in a couple of IIgs computers, but by the middle of the second year, I had managed to scrounge, via purchase of used computers and auctions enough Macs to fill the lab with Macs, distribute the IIes to the classrooms and get a network going. I was never proficient in Basic, although I gave a rudimentary set of lessons, but I did teach HyperTalk. One of my students got inspired enough to break into the DoD’s computer system; he called me after he got out of prison!
    But I was also teaching pre-K though 8 and always with something on the side (library, Spanish, writing). It was a bit of a drain! But that’s where Appleblossom was born, and later HyperQuarterly. So maybe your old school has managed to follow a decent upgrade path as well.