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William S. Cohen seventh- and eighth-grade resource teacher Dave Johnson navigates the WebQuest web site on the Internet during Tuesday's laptop seminar for teachers at the Bangor school (BDN Photo by Stephen M. Katz).
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By Ruth-Ellen Cohen, Of the NEWS Staff e-mail Ruth-Ellen
Last updated: Wednesday, August 14, 2002

Teachers take on laptop learning with gusto

BANGOR - Two months ago, teacher David Fagerland worried that laptops would distract students. Now he's got a whole new point of view.

"Going into the summer I had a lot of anxiety. Coming out, I see lots of places where students will be constructively engaged," he said Tuesday after a laptop training session for seventh-grade teachers at the William S. Cohen School in Bangor.

Led by educators from Spreading Educator to Educator Developments, or SEED, the session was one of 18 taking place this summer to prepare teachers for Gov. Angus King's innovative program in which every seventh-grader will have a laptop beginning in September.

Fagerland, who teaches at the Holbrook School in Holden, said he's "excited about the possibilities" that come with the laptop program.

The computers may even transform students' downtime, he said. In study halls, "when kids say they have nothing to do - they'll find there's a thousand and one things for them to do," said the teacher whose enthusiasm for the program was boosted by a separate training session at the University of Maine last month.

Fagerland wasn't the only teacher on Tuesday to praise the laptop initiative.

"Seventh-graders need to be stimulated 24-7. Laptops will do that," John Larrabee, a special education teacher at the Orland Consolidated School, said during lunch.

Laptops will enable students to gain information about anything that interests them, said Mandie Victor, who teaches social studies and math in Orland. "Kids will have more opportunity to go after their passions instead of just spitting out facts," she said.

Chris Beckwith, a laptop instructor who led some of Tuesday's classes, joined the lunchroom discussion. The new machines will be "an ally" to teachers who are "competing with flashy video games" for children's attention, he said.

Teachers aren't worried as much about integrating the laptops into the curriculum as they are about understanding how the computers work, said Karen Bagley, a special education teacher at the Cohen school.

"It's making sure we have a good knowledge base to share with the kids," she said, adding that "teachers will need to learn from each other."

Always controversial, the laptop program continues to evoke criticism. Some lawmakers question the state's $25 million appropriation for the laptops in light of an estimated $200 million budget shortfall.

David McKee, Apple's system engineer for the laptop program, said Tuesday all of the estimated 17,000 machines already have been shipped to schools. Some have been delivered, while others will arrive over the next week.

During Tuesday's workshop, one group of teachers inadvertently was treated to a different lesson plan when the Internet connection suddenly failed. Instructor Beckwith decided it would be a perfect time to discuss contingency plans. "It's good to know that something like this could happen," he said.

Teachers can prepare for such glitches by scoping out Web sites and saving the files on their hard drives. If the Internet crashes, they can transfer the material using a special USB storage device that can be plugged into each laptop, he said.

The problem, which was fixed in about 20 minutes, had to do with a temporary Internet connection that had been put in place for the training session, McKee said.

Meanwhile, workshop participants were eager to look at the glitch as a teachable moment. "There's going to be bugs," said Karen McCall, who teaches hearing-impaired children at the James F. Doughty Middle School in Bangor. "It's nice to have information on what to do."

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