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Bangor Daily News Photo by Linda Coan O'Kresik
Meghan McCloskey, a Brewer Middle School seventh-grader, reaches for the laptop with her name on it Tuesday morning when the computers were handed out.
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By Ruth-Ellen Cohen, Of the NEWS Staff e-mail Ruth-Ellen
Last updated: Wednesday, September 11, 2002

Logging on

BREWER — Preparing to dole out laptops to seventh-graders, teachers here decided not to take the easy way out Tuesday.

In some school systems, technology coordinators went through and configured the machines for the children so there wouldn’t be any glitches, but not here. The kids did their own, and English teacher Tom Burby didn’t mind in the least that the Internet server kept hanging up on some pupils.

“We wanted the kids to learn as much as they could about troubleshooting,” said Burby, who cheerfully instructed his pupils to simply restart the portable computer.

Everything — including glitches — went according to plan Tuesday as the portable iBooks and their padded black cases were handed out to all 105 seventh-graders at Brewer Middle School.

They are among 17,000 seventh-grade pupils and 2,200 seventh-grade teachers across the state participating in Maine’s unique laptop program. Next year, a new group of seventh-graders will receive the machines.

“It’s pretty special what you have here. It’s pretty unique in the world. Countries like Iceland and Russia and all the other states are watching,” Burby told pupils as they assembled in his classroom where the white laptops had been carefully laid out on tables, each marked with a child’s name.

“Hold it with two hands, please. Put the case under your arm — there you go, good man,” Burby said to one boy heading out the door.

The laptops can easily tumble out of their cases, said Burby, who plans on alerting Apple representatives.

Out in the hall, pupils said they liked “being famous.”

“Some people didn’t think we’d be able to be responsible, but we can be,” said Joanna Sinclair, cradling the machine in her arms.

Tucking his “Internet license” into the plastic window on the front of the case to show he had mastered the use of the World Wide Web, pupil Nick Violette said the laptop would help him “do my work quickly” and have access to a variety of resources.

“Before, everybody used the same books. Now, with different Web sites we can pick out stuff that others might not think of using,” he said.

Later, during class, Burby figured he would have his pupils dive right in. They logged onto a dictionary Web site designed by Merriam Webster, and found the word “insinuate,” together with its meaning and synonym and a sentence showing how it could be used.

Students can plug earphones into their laptops and even hear the word spoken, Burby said.

The teacher has “big plans” for the laptops, he said as he grabbed a quick sandwich for lunch.

Pupils will use a writing program that helps them organize their ideas, and they’ll create an electronics portfolio — “a collection of everything they’ve done” including movies, narratives, charts and graphs that will be passed on to successive teachers, he said.

Math teacher Pam Towle said the laptop would come in handy for its calculator, spreadsheet and graphing functions. One program even enables pupils to figure out interest rates, she said.

But pupils still will have to know basic math functions and how to calculate using paper and pencil, according to Towle.

The computers are “another tool and another resource to take what they’ve learned a step further,” she said. “It’s the wave of the future. Students will be able to make better finished products and do more complicated things than they might have on paper.”

Downstairs in the teachers room, Principal Bill Leithiser said many Brewer teachers attended training sessions during the summer. The school will offer additional training during the year, he said.

Art instructor Sue Chadeayne said she wished she had been able to attend one of the summer workshops.

She was given a laptop, but the state offered training only to those who teach core subjects such as English, history, math and science, she said.

“I haven’t been shown how to use it, and I’m not sure what to use it for,” she said. “If the state wants to use the laptops in classrooms, anybody who works with seventh-graders should be trained. The message from the state is that art isn’t as important as the core subjects,” she said.

Still, she’s pleased with the laptop program and is eager to use the “many graphic possibilities” that Macintosh computers include, she said.

Although he was initially unsure whether “it was the best use of money,” Leithiser said that after talking to Gov. King and Commissioner of Education J. Duke Albanese he became convinced that the laptop program would be a success.

“They won me over, not so much as a principal but as a parent,” said Leithiser who has two young sons and worries about the number of youths leaving the state because they can’t find jobs.

“This gives kids in Brewer the same opportunities as those in Machias, Wytopitlock and Cape Elizabeth,” he said.

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