Mari Barrera wanted to better acquaint her sixth-grade students with Maoist China so they could relate to their class novel, Red Scarf Girl.
"Before we read, I want to show you a video clip," Barrera told her class Tuesday morning. "This video is going to show you what the Red Guards were actually like."
She turned out the lights and tapped on her laptop, and a minute-long clip of uniformed teens singing and dancing in unison captured the attention of her students at Paul R. Smith Middle School. Video, Barrera said, engages her classes, especially when they're tackling tough topics like communism in China.
"It makes them want to keep reading," she said.
So Barrera was thrilled to learn that this week the Pasco school district had lifted its firewall to allow teachers to have classroom access to YouTube, which she uses frequently to enrich her lessons. She no longer will have to pore over videos at home, download them through a special software into her computer and bring them to class.
Now she'll have the ability to access something different on the fly, as her lessons progress. The barrier is gone.
So, too, is the filter that has kept teachers from using Twitter, Facebook and iTunes for instructional purposes. The Pasco school system bought a new filter over the summer that allows teachers to sign in to the previously blocked sites by using their district passwords.
Neighboring school districts still do not permit this access in their schools, to prevent students from viewing sites that aren't deemed acceptable.
The Pasco district still monitors all sites visited, to make sure inappropriate content isn't viewed. But officials are taking a longer view.
"We've realized that we need to meet our students and families where they are living, and that is in the 21st century," said Wendy Spriggs, director of instructional media and technology services. With the new content filter, "we can start exploring all these Web 2.0 tools that we know our families are using as well."
Barrera's students were enthusiastic about the change.
"You can get to things easier," said Victoria Economos, 11. "There's probably more information on YouTube than anywhere else. YouTube is the everywhere place."
Anne Columbia, a sixth-grade language arts teacher at Smith, remembers when she relied on books, magazines and photos to enrich lessons. Having a wealth of video from across the world, available at a moment's notice, makes connections for the students, said Columbia, a 34-year veteran educator.
Last year, for instance, she used episodes of Survivorman to show her class that the Canadian wilderness was nothing like the Everglades, as they read the novel Hatchet. A clip of a fight from the Batman television series backed up a lesson on onomatopoeia (words that are sounds, like boom).
"If I come up with an idea in the morning … at least I can go and find that," Columbia said. "It is beneficial to have it in the classroom."
She also uses iTunes, something that teachers had to leave campus to access in the past — even as the district purchased a growing number of iPods and iPads. They had to take the devices elsewhere and download applications outside the firewall. Many teachers balked because district policy held them financially responsible for the equipment if anything wrong happened.
The United School Employees of Pasco filed a grievance on that policy. Spriggs said the rules have since been modified to give teachers more leeway if problems pop up with their checked-out technology.
Mike Carlson, the journalism teacher at River Ridge High, sees many valuable uses for YouTube, Facebook and other such websites in the schools.
"It's where the kids go," Carlson said. "They get it on their phones. So us blocking it here at school when it actually has potential for educational value, I have never understood that."
He saw great possibilities in giving students more challenging tutorials via YouTube or iTunes as a way to differentiate instruction.
Cypress Elementary music teachers Sharon Braman and Adam Lesko used YouTube to drum up student interest in playing the recorder.
Braman stressed to a group of children on a recent morning that the recorder is a "real instrument." To make the case, she and Lesko showed several videos.
One showed a girl playing the Super Mario Brothers theme song on the recorder, eliciting several cries of "I want to try!" Another showed a man who used the recorder to perform a Justin Bieber song. A third showed a teacher playing the recorder with his nose.
By the time Braman brought up the school's May talent show, kids were brimming with excitement.
Lesko said he hoped that YouTube would become a two-way tool for the school. The music teachers are working with students to create music videos for a YouTube channel that they can share with schools several states away.
"It makes a big difference," said Lesko, a third-year teacher. "If we were still doing the things we were doing when I was in school, they wouldn't be interested. I myself wouldn't be interested. … As a teacher, you have to change with the times."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com, (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.