Archive for Thursday, March 6, 2003

Lexington Trails leaps the digital divide

March 6, 2003

As Gary Lewis peeked into three eighth-grade classrooms at Lexington Trails Middle School during one recent afternoon, the laptop computers De Soto USD 232 provided the school's students sat unused at the students' elbows.

It might be thought Lewis would be upset with that sight. After all, it is his job to integrate the $637,000 investment in laptops and the wireless Internet system they use into the school's classroom instruction. But Lewis and Lexington Trails Middle School Principal Mark Schmidt, who presides over one of the most technologically advanced middle school sin Kansas and surrounding states, said the laptops' temporary idleness was all part of the plan.

"Sometimes it doesn't make any sense to pull out a computer," Schmidt said. "Teaching hasn't transferred over to be just technology. We use them when it makes sense to use them."

Still, teachers in the middle school were finding it made sense to use the technology rolled out at the start of the second semester in January in many aspects of classroom instruction, Schmidt and Lewis agreed.

Just down the stairs from the eighth-grade classrooms, the students in Hilary Grossenbacher's sixth-grade communications arts class were busily using their laptops to complete team reports on states of the union.

Amber White said her team pulled together its facts on Florida from the encyclopedia, library books and the Internet. She is now writing that part of the project for which she is responsible on her laptop. When she is finished, she will e-mail to the other two students on her team. The three students will then combine the individual work into a draft report.

Although White called up Florida's official state government homepage with ease, she said her report was more dependent on materials gathered from the library and encyclopedia than the Internet. The laptops word-processing and editing tools did make the assignment much easier, she said.

The word processing ability helped the students complete the assignment this year, Grossenbacher said. Use of the Internet also allowed her to make better use of classroom time by scheduling fewer trips to the school's media center for books (she was able to get much of the smaller number of books needed ahead of time) and the computer lab.

Writing and editing assignments on the computer in successive stages from research to draft to final report offered valuable experience to the students, Grossenbacher said.

"That's a good life skill, because that's how most people do it in the work place," she said.

White and other students said doing assignments on laptops was "fun," but had a difficult time defining why. Lewis suggested a few reasons. The laptops made them active participants in their search for knowledge, he said. They can get facts instantly, and sites often present the material with photos, illustrations or other engaging graphics, he said.

Sixth-grade science teacher Wendy Karr recently used a Web site with graphics to prepare her students for the sometimes-intimidating task of dissecting a frog. The site, froguts.com, presents facts about the frog's anatomy and allows visitors to perform a virtual frog dissection by manipulating a scalpel and scissors with the mouse.

Karr said her students have visited the site the last two years before attempting to dissect actual frogs. It worked better this year when all students could follow along on their own laptops, she said.

Karr's students said the virtual dissection was "awesome" and "less smelly" than the actual dissection.

"It was very realistic," Cody Grimes explained. "It helped because you could never mess up. It would take you step by step until you understood."

The virtual dissection offered another advantage over the real thing. The majority of Karr's students said they logged back onto the site again after visiting it in class.

When the De Soto USD 232 Board of Education approved the wireless technology initiative last spring, Superintendent Marilyn Layman vowed the district the technology would improve standardized test scores -- despite critics' charges that such improvements had yet to be documented elsewhere. It is still far too early to document Layman's predictions, but Schmidt has noted one early classroom consequence. The principal's classroom behavioral referrals are down.

"February is traditionally the toughest time for school; it's the stretch," he said. "We've had three classroom referrals in February.

"It only shows with what we've already known -- the more engaged students are in the classroom, the fewer opportunities there are for misbehavior."

The increased communication possibilities the district's new technology offered should aid its schools in achieving Layman's lofty goals. Schmidt said the technology allowed Lexington Trails to improve communication between students and teachers and between teachers and parents. The student-teacher communication is done through the Blackboard Web site. Each student can call up his or her homepage where the student's classroom teachers are listed. When they click on a specific teacher, the students can find assignments with information on guidelines and instructions. Lewis said teachers could include examples of completed assignments, as well.

Students can visit the site from any computer with Internet access, helping absent students stay current, Lewis said.

In addition, the district is introducing the parent-teacher ParentConnect at Lexington Trails before offering it at other district schools. Lewis explained parents would be able to get general information about the school plus weekly updates on their child's academic progress, attendance and behavior by visiting the site.

The district first introduced the wireless technology at Riverside Elementary at the start of the school year. Lewis said lessons learned in that experience, which went off with few hitches, made the laptops' introduction at Lexington Trails for the start of the second semester go smoother. The big difference between the two schools was the ability of the older and more experienced students at Lexington Trails to embrace the new technology, he said.

"These kids picked it up in one week," he said. "They're not afraid of technology. They were using e-mail and using their laptops after the first week."

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