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OnCUE Archive - 2003, January/February

Reading
is Technological

Softwareand
online resources enhance literacy education.

By Brian McDonough

Reading
is the key to everything a student will learn outside of P.E. and art class.
Social studies textbooks, math homework -- they all rely on reading. Reading
is one of the greatest challenges for K-12 teachers, and it's an ongoing
process. Getting your first-grader to see Spot run is a victory, but it's
years of ongoing effort to get that high-schooler to follow Huck Finn down
the Mississippi. 

Reading is also one of the things teachers are under
the most pressure to teach successfully. Achievement tests, curriculum
standards and the occasional parental objection to this or that book on
the reading list all distract teachers from the actual task of effectively
instilling these skills in their students. They can also leave their teacher
so frazzled and overworked that there's no time to explore innovative new
approaches to literacy, such as educational technology. 

And that would be a shame, according to Julie Coiro,
an ed-tech consultant who taught in schools in the San Francisco Bay Area
and her current home state, Connecticut. Sheís worked for years helping
schools and individual teachers incorporate electronic and online resources
to bolster reading curriculum. Computers wonít teach kids to read, but
they can provide exercises that help with phonics, oral skills, comprehension
and that all-important component, motivation. 

 
"In general, there are a lot of resources out there,"she says, ticking off a long list of software and Web sites. "To get started,
you donít need to be really tech-savvy. You have to have faith in the system,
that thereís really something of value here. Set goals -- learn to maneuver
through a site and teach that to the kids."
 
Why Bother?
A teacherís time is at a premium, and something thatís
going to even incrementally increase prep time had better pay off. Teachers
who have gone from tentatively testing the tech waters to being sworn advocates
say the payoff is in the way instructional technology can engage students.
 
"Technology really enhances what I do in the classroom,"says Patty Taverna, a second-grade teacher at Pocantico Hills School in
fabled Sleepy Hollow, New York. "Itís a terrific motivator for children."
 
Computers allow her to tap into the studentsí interests.
"It would be hard to measure, but it really does provide another opportunity
to practice skills, and it excites them," she says. "Any time you can foster
that excitement, you certainly want to do that."
 
Susan Silverman, a former elementary teacher, agrees.
 
"It also addresses different learning styles," says
Silverman, who is now an instructional technology integration teacher who
works on staff development to help teachers incorporate technology into
the curriculum.
 
"Kids love computers -- they like the interactivity,
or the auditory stimulation, or the tactile element of using the mouse
Kids like to make decisions by deciding when to click on the next thing.
They like graphics and animation. I rarely see a kid who doesnít want to
go to the computer."
 
Teachers must teach in the world they live in, and
the world their students live in. "Weíre living in a world driven by media,"Silverman says. "As professionals, we really want to keep up, and we owe
this to our students."
 

Working Well

Coiro points out that thereís a danger in keeping
computer use a matter of simple games, a collection of disjointed activities
that have no more connection to the rest of the studentís learning than
a recess game of dodge ball.
 
"At some point you have to bring it back and hold
kids accountable," she says. They have to learn from the activities, and
what they learn has to have classroom relevance -- or else the kids will
think computer time is just play time.
 
"Thatís a really hard area for teachers," Coiro says.
But even simple skills activities can involve the computer. Children can
type journal entries about things they read in books or online. They can
write brief reports on paper after listening to a talking-book program
on the computer. Simple activities that make sure the computer time is
integrated.
 
What you do depends on the classroom setup and the
kind of equipment available,
Silverman notes. "Two or three computers is common
in elementary classrooms. If you have an overhead display, thatís ideal,"she says. But she echoes Coiro -- the tech must be integrated. "The worst
possible way is when the classroom teacher drops the kids off in the computer
lab, and the computer teacher lets the kids work, and uses the period as
prep time -- thoroughly uninvolved, with no connection between what goes
on in the lab and the classroom." 
 
Done right, itís much more than that.
 
"I really use computers more as a resource, a means
of helping gather information," Taverna says. She works very closely with
the teacher who runs the computer lab, which the students visit twice a
week. "Twice a week, the kids go to the computer lab, but theyíre working
on the project. We donít want the children to see the computer lab as a
separate place from the classroom. We try to integrate the work weíre doing
there with the reading in the classroom." 
 
Tavernaís Web site posts her studentsí projects going
back to 1997, and the page is both a motivation and resource. "Our class
page offers us a very authentic place to present our work," she says. "The
children often look at the work done before them and say, ëWhy canít we
add to that or do our own version?í And they know that many people go to
the site, so the work has to be their best. Often we get e-mail from people
telling us how much they learned and enjoyed the site, and asking us questions."

Marci McGowan, a first-grade teacher at H.W. Mountz
Elementary School in Spring Lake, N.J., says her students enjoy seeing
what students in other schools have done. "(The Intenet) is another source
of reading material for the students," she says. She says she doesnít use
any commercial reading programs for her students, though. "They enjoy reading
work posted by other classes as well as our own." 

Tavernaís classes have built on each otherís work.
For instance, sheís taught the story of Harriet Tubman nearly every year,
and every year has seen a Web project that takes what the previous yearís
students did a bit further. The 1997-98 class posted "Harriet Tubman and
the Underground Railroad for Children." Her í98-í99 children got more personal,
with "Poems about Harriet Tubman." The next year saw "Profiles of Harriet
Tubman," while last yearís students posted "Harriet Tubman's Vocabulary
Quilt." 

"Most of our work starts out with a lot of reading,"she says. "Weíll read one book aloud, and have many others the children
can refer to. Often weíll generate a picture book of our own online. Weíll
do vocabulary activities, character studies. We try to put online all the
various pieces we worked on in the classroom." 

Sounds like a lot of extra work that would have to
squeeze out regular classwork, but Taverna emphasizes, this is regular
classwork. "Itís work we do in the classroom, not just generating it to
do for our Web site," she stresses. Nothing is done for the Internet. "The
site is kind of a culmination -- itís sort of the meat of our curriculum." 

Marci McGowan says her first-graders think of the classroomís
three computers as being as much a part of the classroom as their textbooks.
"My students turn computers on as they walk in and navigate to our Web
page," she says. "From there, they access the sites that I have set aside
for them to use safely. It's available as a work center when other traditional
things are completed or for instruction." 

 
 
Stuff Like This 
Apart from the big Harriet Tubman series of projects,
Patty Tavernaís classes have done multiple projects on the classic book,
"Charlotteís Web." They studied the life of John D. Rockefeller, because
heíd owned a home in town, making him a local piece of history. Theyíve
tackled Mexico, Benjamin Frankin and "Everything You Need to Know About
Second Grade."
 
Some projects, she says, were proposed by the class,
such as their research on Vietnam. "We read a story about a girl who came
to America from Vietnam, and the project was based, really, on the studentsí
interest," she said. The kids asked why the girlís family had left Vietnam,
what the hardships were. And a teachable moment became a class project.
 
Another time, a story about Hawaii led to a parentís
friend -- in Hawaii -- sending loads of electronic material on the island
state, which engaged the students more than any single story could.

Susan Silvermanís favored area is collaborative projects,
in which classrooms from around the country or globe can participate in
the same projects. Shared projects can take some of the load off the individual
teachers, and capitalize on studentsí interest in interacting with distant
peers and seeing their work.

 
"Right now Iím finishing a collaborative project
with a friend from Ohio. Itís called Kidspired Tales," she says. "Itís
a resource for K-2 teachers to make the computer a literacy center. Participants
are asked to choose any book theyíre working on at the time and read it
aloud to the children. Then the students do some kind of writing activity
-- write a sequel, write about their favorite character, any creative writing
activity." 

Then shared on the project site as a resource to other
students and teachers. "A lot of my programs are literacy projects," she
notes. One, Cinderella Around the World, invites classrooms to read multicultural
versions of the Cinderella fairy tale and showcase related activities on
the project site. "And we had to first read the book," she notes. "One
reinforces the other."

Getting Started

"The best place to start is to think of your classroom,"Julie Coiro suggests. "Pick something that works really well, that you
feel the kids might want an extra enriching motivator. Or pick something
that you have to teach that isnít going well."
 
If itís working, make it better; if itís broke, look
for a new approach. Either way, she says, the key is to pick a small area
and get started. "Do a web search and look for examples of what others
are doing. Teachers sometimes think no one has ever done it before, but
if you show them what ten other teachers around the country are doing with,
say, phonics, they realize, ëOh, I can do this, too.í"
 
Taverna suggests a partner. "Working with another
person really makes a difference," she says -- pooled knowledge, shared
enthusiasm. In her case, of course, she was lucky to have a computer-lab
instructor for a partner. "She was the one really teaching the skills of
how to get stuff on the Web site. I was doing the literacy pieces. We just
jumped in and watched the children get involved and excited. It worked
beyond our expectations."
 
McGowan cautions to start kids out slow, and keep
limits on their Internet access. "Safety for kids is essential -- thatís
why I have my students start at our Web site and (use a list of) sites
that they can click on -- no typing of URLs is allowed."
 
Coiro says that a classroom doesnít need much technology
to get started. "The most successful classrooms Iíve seen have one or two
computers on all day, available for kids to use to connect to what theyíre
learning," she says. "There's a teacher workstation that has some kind
of projection, which lends itself to be used as a whole-group activity."She notes that teachers looking for useful software -- and she names programs
such as Kid Pix Studio, Earobics and Edmark's Theme Weaver program -- have
to be skilled at
decyphering the marketing copy on the packaging.
 
"Publishers really complicate the issue for teachers,"she says. "When publishers repackage software with a new name, it really
throws teachers off. They spend their budget to find out it's really just
last yearís software." Teachers have to become better consumers, she says.
They have to know that different programs provide different kinds of activities,
and make sure theyíre not blowing their budget on, say, their third phonics
program, when theyíd be better off adding something that touches a different
skill area.
 
Start small, Susan Silverman emphasizes. "Donít bite
off more than you can chew," she says. "Join a project with a timeline
you can work it -- donít put yourself under pressure. Youíll disappoint
the project coordinator, and itíll be a negative experience for yourself."

Teachers should make sure theyíre comfortable with
a projectís skill requirements. "If the project will require you to put
work into an Excel spreadsheet, and you donít know how to do that, itíll
be a negative experience," she says.

 
Whatever you do, she adds, make sure you take inventory
of your schoolís human resources, including other teachers, librarians,
and even the kids. "When I was teaching second grade, we were able to have
fifth-graders come in and work with my students as computer buddies," she
says. And then there are parent volunteers. "One class I taught, we had
a class mother come in to be at the computer if the kids had problems."
 
And donít underestimate your own students. Your official
tech assistant might be literally right in front of you. "Find out who
the two kids are who are great with computers and empower them. Give them
buttons or T-shirts."
 
After all, she says, "Kids are so computer-savvy."
 

Brian McDonough
is a freelance writer in Oakland, Calif.