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Tuesday, September 3, 2002

Schools begin initial journey with laptops as learning tool

Copyright 2002 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.


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Staff photo by Gordon Chibroski

Seth Greenlaw and Meghan Senore, eighth-graders at Lyman Moore, help unpack laptops on Friday. Next year, eighth-graders statewide are due to get laptops, which are owned by the state and just on loan to students.

Staff photo by Gordon Chibroski

Allyson Woods and Kristin Rogers, seventh-graders at Lyman Moore Middle School in Portland, on Friday help unpack the 200 laptops their class will use this year. They will be handed out on the first day of school.


Find the list of nine demonstration schools with laptops and more news and information on Gov. Angus King's proposal to give laptops to seventh and eighth graders, as well as a place to offer your opinion, here.

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Nearly 17,000 of Maine's seventh-graders are expected to get new laptop computers this month, and chances are that some of the kids will learn to use them faster than their teachers.

But not to worry, advise educators who piloted use of the laptops at nine demonstration schools last spring. They say teachers can use that youthful expertise to benefit both themselves and students.

"You need to be able to say to the kids: 'I can't do this. You figure it out,' " said Mark Gunter, a seventh-grade teacher at Shapleigh Middle School in Kittery, one of the pilot schools. "For a 12- or 13-year-old kid to show someone my age something - I'm 46 - a kid really has a feeling of success."

After more than two years of planning, national publicity and legislative controversy, Gov. Angus King's laptop initiative is becoming a reality, providing all of Maine's seventh-graders with new iBook laptops from Apple Computer. Eighth-graders statewide are due to get the laptops next year.

The computers have the potential to create radical changes in teaching and learning. But Maine teachers don't have to feel as though they're embarking on a vast learning experiment in the dark. Instead, they can draw on the experiences of nine schools where the state distributed nearly 700 laptops to teachers and students last spring.

Those who used the computers at those so-called "exploration" schools are sharing tips on the best uses of the new technology and how to avoid problems with it. The advice - some of which can be viewed on a Web site about the laptop initiative, - ranges from practical tips such as having kids recharge their laptops during lunch breaks so they don't run out of power in class, to broader suggestions on how to facilitate use of the laptops at the school and classroom level.

"My advice that I've been sharing with as many schools as possible has been: 'Don't rush things,' " said Kelly Arsenault, technology coordinator for Lyman Moore Middle School in Portland, one of the pilot sites.

For example, she says, schools should make sure that students understand their responsibilities regarding the laptops - which cost about $1,000 each and belong to the state, not the students - before they're loaned out for the school year.

The laptops have been delivered to schools, but the state is leaving decisions about when to hand them out and whether to let students take them home up to local policy makers, says Joanne Steneck, manager of the laptop initiative for the state. Most schools are expected to distribute them shortly after school opens.

The pilot schools received their laptops in March, and educators say the computers had positive effects in the classroom in just a few months.

Eric Chamberlin, a social studies teacher at Boothbay Region Elementary School, says attendance and classroom behavior both improved.

Gunter had a similar experience at the middle school in Kittery. "On the last day of school, my students were still working hard (on a Web-based project)," he said. "They were focused right to the end. That's generally not what happens with students at the end of the year."

Still, some teachers are feeling overwhelmed at the prospect of teaching with a technology that - even with the opportunity to get training this summer - they may know less about than their students.

"The teacher in the past was the one who knew everything," Gunter said. "This is kind of a whole new thing."

However, teachers at the pilot schools say they adapted quickly.

"I had never created a Web site before. I was terrified," said Kate Braunfels, a language arts teacher at Lyman Moore. But with help from others at the school, she was able to do it.

She also realized that she didn't have to have all the answers. "I'd have a question come up that I couldn't answer and I'd ask out loud, 'Who knows how to link that up?' and 10 hands would go up."

That helps students, teachers say.

"We had numerous examples last year of students who had historically been looked at as struggling students," said Chamberlin, at the Boothbay region school. "But lo and behold they were very good at computers and took leadership roles in the classroom. The self-confidence boost that took place there was nothing short of phenomenal."

That changes the classroom dynamic, but does not mean turning the teaching reins over to computer-whiz students, the educators say.

Teachers are needed to give students a deeper understanding of how they can use computers to learn, Chamberlin says. For example, he says, many students can easily access the Internet, but "they don't know how to weed out good information from bad. They really don't know how to do quality searches."

Arsenault says she's been telling teachers "not to panic, because what you're going to be doing is using these as a tool, just as you would a pencil and paper."

Braunfels describes the laptops as a "fabulous" tool. She had her seventh-graders research an author of their choice and create a Web site showing their results.

With the computers, she said, "the research piece was just so much easier." Some students actually contacted the authors by e-mail.

However, teachers shouldn't feel pressured to use the computers for every lesson, the educators say. "Some things are better done with pencil and paper," Arsenault said.

Gunter designated some days in his classroom as laptop-free. "Kids in science class don't want to do virtual experiments," he said. "They want to do the real thing."

Some critics have questioned whether students with laptops are really learning about the subjects they're studying or just learning to make showy - but superficial - computer presentations.

Gunter says that's a concern teachers should consider.

He assigned his students to make a slide show about Abraham Lincoln. Some really got into exploring different color combinations on the computer and how to make the slides fade in and out. But some of their results caused him to ask: "Well, it's a cool presentation but did you learn anything?"

Gunter says the experience taught him that he needs to give more specific directions to students about what in-depth information they must include in projects.

Still, he says, teachers also need to realize that knowing how to manipulate a computer is a valuable tool for today's youngsters.

"The computer is going to be part of their lives," he said. "The skills they learn on them are almost as important as the factual stuff they're learning."

Staff Writer Tess Nacelewicz can be contacted at 791- 6367 or at:

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Copyright Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.