Students learn to click a mouse and end up with their own laptops

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Laura Walsh Giesecke

photo by Jason Reblando

Laura Walsh Giesecke

At the North Kenwood Oakland campus of the University of Chicago charter schools, even the preschoolers are tech-savvy: Using a simple drawing program, they learn to work a mouse and refine their fine motor skills in the process.

In kindergarten, children listen and follow along onscreen as the computer reads to them. They also practice spelling by clicking on and dragging letters to form words.

In 1st through 5th grade, students use computers to write reports, graph the results of experiments and conduct research.

In 6th grade, each student gets a laptop, paid for with a combination of district funds and payments from parents.

Despite the emphasis on technology, North Kenwood Oakland does not consider it an educational magic bullet. Technology is merely a means of enhancing good educational practice, says Laura Walsh Giesecke, North Kenwood Oakland’s technology coordinator and a former kindergarten teacher. The lesson for other schools: Get clear on your instructional philosophy and methods, and then hire people with the same mindset who know technology and let them run with the ball.

Experts endorse that view. “When I’m in a really outstanding school, the educational vision drives everything,” says Linda Roberts, an educational consultant who was director of the Office of Educational Technology during the Bill Clinton administration. “Technology becomes a means to accomplishing the vision. That’s really important.”

Technology is not a panacea, warns Nichole Pinkard, director of technology for the University of Chicago’s Center for Urban School Improvement, who helps the university’s charters use technology.

“You can’t just bring in technology and expect it to solve everything,” she says. “We have [educational] practices in place that support it.”

The school’s educational philosophy is bearing fruit: In 2005, more than 60 percent of students met state standards on the ISAT.

Replicable in other schools?

North Kenwood’s technology-rich environment enhances lessons and keeps kids engaged, but the price tag is steep, says Director Stacy Beardsley. The charter spends about $400 per pupil on technology, which accounts for five percent of the school’s budget, she says.

The school had the benefit of private help to get its technology program off the ground. The University of Chicago provided some funds for technology as part of its startup money for the charter, and continues to help with tech support. The Beaumont Foundation of America, which provides grants for educational technology, provided funds for a laptop cart and 30 laptops. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation provides money for after-school programs that help build kids’ technical skills.

Sharing staff with the university’s other charters helps cut costs through economies of scale, Beardsley says. In addition, the school relies less on traditional textbooks and workbooks and more on less-expensive trade literature, magazines and electronic resources. “Integration of technology is part of our mission, so it is a priority,” Beardsley says. “This is our direction and we believe it will strongly benefit our students.”

The school pays for its middle-school laptop program out of the per-pupil funding it receives from the district (approximately $5,200 in 2005-06) and money from parents.

“We want it to be replicable” in regular public schools, says Pinkard.

‘Part of every unit I teach’

North Kenwood Oakland didn’t start out as a technology mecca. Science teacher Judith Whitcomb, who was a tech maven at her former school, recalls being “a little disappointed when I got here. It was pretty run of the mill.” (Whitcomb retired this past June.)

In 2001, the seeds were planted to bring technology to full bloom. Beardsley was hired to teach social studies and coordinate technology. And Pinkard, a former University of Michigan faculty member, came on board at the Center for Urban School Improvement.

In 2004, when Beardsley became director, the laptop program was launched. A full-time tech support staffer was hired, freeing Giesecke, who took over as technology coordinator, to spend her day coaching teachers.

Having two staff members to handle tech support and curriculum integration is the only way to ensure adequate help on both fronts, teachers say. Having instant tech support is “heaven,” says Whitcomb, as is easy access to Giesecke as a sounding board for project ideas.

Each semester, Giesecke sits down with curriculum coordinators to find out what projects students will undertake at each grade level and in each subject, then brainstorm how technology can help them. Giesecke also steps into the classroom with teachers and students to show them how to use new tools.

“Laura does mini-lessons on a topic and we go from there,” says middle-grades literacy coordinator Shayne Evans. “If kids don’t understand something or I don’t understand something about a tool, I talk to Laura.”

With Giesecke’s support, teachers at all grade levels have designed or modified curricula to incorporate word processing, spreadsheets, computer-assisted design and even filmmaking into their lessons.

Students often use the computers as they move independently through classroom learning centers, a key component of North Kenwood’s educational philosophy. Faculty members believe centers are important because they increase students’ independence as learners. “Computers can enhance that,” Giesecke says.

Tina Keller, a 2nd-grade teacher, didn’t know how to incorporate the use of computers into her instruction at all during her first year at the school. Now, says Keller, who finished her sixth year at the school in June, “I make sure it’s part of every unit I teach.”

In a unit on plants, Keller’s students researched the parts of plants on the Internet, then grew plants and measured them regularly. They recorded those measurements on Excel spreadsheets and learned to analyze the data; for instance, ranking the plants by the dimensions of characteristics such as stem length.

Building technical skills

The core of North Kenwood Oakland’s efforts is its middle-school laptop program, launched two years ago. The school wanted to make sure its middle-schoolers would continue to have the same access to computers as younger students, and the cost of individual laptops proved affordable.

Parents pay $250 each year for three years, essentially leasing the laptop for their child; parents can purchase the machine when their child graduates for an extra $100. Though 75 percent of the school’s students are low-income, every child participates. “Families understand the need for this,” says Pinkard. (The school offers partial scholarships and a payment plan.)

Shani Edmond used her laptop to show the experiments she videotaped for a science fair, including one that required using a propane torch (forbidden on school property). Without the laptop, she says, explaining the experiment to classmates and to visitors at the fair “would have been a lot harder.”

With the laptops, “the libraries of the world are available at your fingertips,” says social studies teacher Darrell Johnson. His students are required to do an extensive research project, but instead of the traditional term paper, students can use a variety of formats to present their work. Many students have chosen to film documentaries and edit them on their laptops, which come equipped with the necessary software.

Last year, when the school entered the Chicago Metro History Fair for the first time, three of Johnson’s 8th-grade students won the city-level competition and advanced to the state level with their documentary about the death of Eric Morse and its role in the redevelopment of the Ida B. Wells public housing project. Morse, a 5-year-old boy, was pushed to his death from the window of an apartment in the Wells complex by two older youths in 1994.

Thanks to an after-school program for middle-school students that offers a menu of clubs devoted to technology—such as learning to make movies, record music and even build robots—teachers don’t have to spend class time teaching students how to use programs like iMovie to edit video or GarageBand to record audio.

“I could focus on content, writing, research and evidence,” Johnson says.

For the future, the school is aiming to take a more structured approach to teaching classroom skills, says 3rd-grade teacher Shannon Justice. For example, 3rd-grade teachers “began teaching typing right away in the fall” last year because they knew as 4th-graders, their students would be expected to write in electronic journals about their reading.

Justice, who worked with a colleague to win the Beaumont Foundation funding, says writing the grant forced them to consider new ways to incorporate technology into their curriculum. As a result, 3rd-graders made a documentary about Chinatown for a social studies project.

Using technology often makes students more enthusiastic about learning, she adds. “It just engages them in a different way [that] you can’t tap into otherwise.”

Contributing to this report was Edie Rubinowitz, who produced and reported a related two-part documentary on technology in classrooms for Chicago Public Radio 91.5 FM. To listen to her report and others that have aired this year as part of its Chicago Matters: Valuing Education series, click here.