Morgan County Schools wired up for 21st century learning
Part 2: Technology gives teachers new way to reach students.
Wendy Johnson recently helped set up Greenwood School's new computer lab with 28 work stations equipped with updated hardware and Windows XP operating systems.
Johnson lugged the old computers into the hall, wrestled the new tables into place before getting to the electronic end of things.
That's all part of her job as the school's Technology Specialist, she explained, as some of her fourth and fifth grade students tapped keyboards in front of shiny black monitors alive with color and action.
For the kids, the newer computers mean they can use learning programs like Poptropica, which are rich in graphics. On some of the old machines, that popular interactive game overloaded the memory and refused to run.
Poptropica is just one of many programs Morgan County teachers use to reinforce lessons they teach in their classrooms every day.
The Greenwood students also log on to A+ flash cards, Cool Math for Kids and Odyssey – all sites filtered through West Virginia's Department of Education computer network.
In addition to practicing math skills, or reviewing basic health facts, activities in the computer lab teach students how to operate the machines, how to navigate the internet, and utilize their typing and spelling skills.
A second-year teacher, Johnson often leads students to a website in step-by-step instructions. By the time they're making an animated figure jump over math sums, they've gotten lessons in reading, sequencing, spelling and typing.
It's kind of sneaky learning. And the students know they like it.
The computer has a million things, but class has one thing at a time, said one of Johnson's fourth graders.
In their usual classroom, where the fourth and fifth grades are learning simultaneously, students sometimes have to wait during a lesson while Johnson gives attention to individual students. At the computer, the kids can set their own pace and work independently.
I think the technology allows for more one-on-one, Johnson said.
Tools like a Smartboard allow Johnson to give more attention to the 25 students in her split-grade classroom, she said. The board lets her project activities or websites from her laptop onto a screen.
Otherwise, they'd be working on worksheets, said Johnson.
The boards are so popular at schools across the county, teachers fight to get them for their classrooms.
Another tool Johnson and many other Morgan County teachers use is a handheld video controller called a Qwizdom.
The handset lets students take quizzes or do review tests, and teachers get instant feedback about student performance. Qwizdoms are a hit with students, who liken them to video games.
This is the technology kids will be using for the rest of their lives, Johnson said.
It engages the kids and relates things to them in the real world. These kids are at home on computers, on video games, she said.
Technology as tool & subject
In several local classrooms, technology is both the subject matter and the teaching tool.
In Kristen Tuttle's Business Applications class at Berkeley Springs High School, students follow Tuttle's lead as they navigate through Microsoft Office software.
Students work on their own computers and watch Tuttle's screen at the front of the room as she shows them how to create a Powerpoint presentation.
The students, who come from all of the high school grades, easily consult the two screens and their textbooks. A few students also manage to check their email and text message in between steps in the lesson.
They do multi-task very well, Tuttle said of her students.
Sometimes, those tasks can distract students from Tuttle's lessons, so she employs her own technology to keep them focused.
AB Tutor, a monitoring software, allows Tuttle to view each student's screen on her own computer monitor. From her desk, she can watch each student work his or her way through a task.
If a student wanders off to the internet or a website unrelated to the work, Tuttle can send them a message telling them to get back on track. The software also lets students ask Tuttle a question in the form of a typed instant message.
Technology can pay
With the help of Keyoung Gill, some Morgan County students will turn their technical skills into a paying job right out of school.
Gill teaches Berkeley Springs High School's ARIES curriculum, which offers students classes leading to an industry-recognized certification as a PC technician. The certification program is in its fifth year at Berkeley Springs High School.
Students can take the classes in hardware, software, servers and networks over four semesters. Course material comes either on a CD or is available to students online.
More than 18 students are enrolled this year in the ARIES course. More advanced students in Gill's classes regularly use their skills to help teachers at the school clean up desktop memory, update programs and set up mini-networks.
Striking a balance
For the modern teenager, the electronic world is their home. They use electronics to communicate, play, court one another and work. For them, the old way of classroom learning – lectures, notes on the chalkboard, quizzes and tests — is too slow and one-dimensional.
Berkeley Springs High School math teacher Pete Gordon has seen the influx of technology into his classrooms over nearly 20 years of teaching, and has learned to embrace the tools that keep students engaged in learning.
While he is excited about what computer technology can offer his students, he emphasizes that high-tech tools must be balanced with activities that develop students' other skills like teamwork and interpersonal communication.
We can't lose sight of the importance of interpersonal skills, and so we should never simply sit students in front of the computer to type in answers to some canned lessons. Instead, we should insist that students read, write in proper sentences and communicate in groups as well as to the class in every class, said Gordon.
I am as concerned as anyone about that amount of time young people spend in front of some kind of screen, and how they seem to communicate more easily by texting than talking, Gordon observed about today's teenagers.
Students are fascinated with technology, they need to know how to use it, and it offers them a vast new landscape for learning. We must make sure, however, that they don't wander too far into that landscape without anchoring one foot firmly on the traditional ground of thinking and communicating logically, Gordon said.
Morgan County Schools are taking advantage of a long list of technology tools that give students access to a wide world of learning.
Whether it's Paw Paw High School students taking online foreign language classes or Warm Springs Middle School students getting a virtual tour of a Nazi concentration camp, teachers are eager to bring technology into their classrooms to stimulate student learning.
In fact, the school board can't keep enough money in their budget to meet demands for new technology and is looking at ways to get grants for these teaching tools.
Teachers keep asking for more technology training, too. Clearly, they know that just having high-tech tools isn't enough. Those tools have to be part of a real teaching strategy that equips students for the world that's awaiting them.