Laptops for All: Using Technology to Go Beyond Traditional Curriculum
At this New York middle school, every student gets a laptop to help extend the boundaries of education.
Editor's Note: Since this article was published in 2001, Miriam Acosta-Sing, Susan Herzog, and Marc Briller have retired from the Mott Hall School. Cynthia Arndt has been principal for several years, and the school continues to employ a one-to-one laptop program.
A sixth grader lowers a temperature probe inside a beaker full of hot water. Two of her classmates stare intently at a laptop computer screen, watching as a graph dynamically changes when a chip of melting ice gradually lowers the water temperature. Another student sits poised, pen in hand, ready to record every detail of the science lab on a procedure sheet.
"It's melting!" exclaims one student.
"The temperature is going down, alright," agrees another.
"When the ice is gone, we'll hit stop," directs one boy who has been given the job of data collector for the group.
This popular science lab activity at the Mott Hall School is the culmination of several days' worth of study and exploration into the heat of fusion, or the amount of heat required to melt a solid substance into its liquid form. Throughout the room, the sixth graders are working in groups of five students, each team responsible for setting up its station, conducting the experiment, and then analyzing the results.
Their tools comprise a mix of standard lab equipment (a beaker, a triple beam balance, and the like) and some decidedly high-tech additions, including a temperature probe connected to a laptop computer and software that records, graphs, and displays the changing water temperature in real time. In addition to the temperature probes used by Mott Hall students, there are similar probes for gauging pressure and sound. All of these devices provide students access to the same tools scientists use.
Sixth-grade science teacher Mercedes Diez had begun the class with a quick refresher on phase-change operations but had quickly turned the activity over to her students. They troubleshoot when one of the probes isn't working properly, consider possible causes when they get unexpected results, and brainstorm ways to present their findings to their classmates. For her part, Diez serves as a facilitator. She responds to the occasional question or poses one of her own, always encouraging her students to take their analysis just a little bit further.
Students in Ogechi Iwoaha's fifth-grade class incorporated digital photography into their unit on poetry.
Mott Hall is a math, science, and technology academy in New York Community School District Six. This grade 4-8 magnet school has 425 primarily Hispanic students. And it's one of a growing number of schools in the country where every student and every teacher has his or her own laptop computer.
Mott Hall opened in 1986, and for the first ten years of its existence, the school offered a rigorous but fairly traditional approach to education. But everything started to change in 1996. That's when a class of fifth graders and their teacher became pioneers in the use of laptop computers in schools.
"We saw the introduction of laptops as a wonderful opportunity to reexamine our curriculum and to confront the digital divide," says Principal Mirian Acosta-Sing. The parents agreed. Together, parents and staff developed policies to ensure the safety of students traveling to and from school, created a payment plan that relied on the contribution of families and the school district, and began troubleshooting everything from curriculum delivery to basic repair and maintenance.
Over the next five years, Acosta-Sing and her staff built upon that first pilot project, slowly adding classes and grade levels to the growing contingent of laptop pioneers. Finally, in the fall of 1999, the last class received its laptops. (See related article, "A Commitment to Computers: Behind the Scenes at a Laptop School.")
Mott Hall students are confident, capable users of technology.
A Focus on Projects
Visitors to Mott Hall don't have to look hard for evidence of how laptop computers have changed teaching and learning. While sixth graders are conducting experiments with temperature probes, fifth graders are creating scale models of kites in Excel spreadsheets and reading poems about Harlem, inspired by digital photographs the students took at nearby St. Nicholas Park. Seventh graders are creating business plans as part of a project on entrepreneurship. And the eighth graders, who will soon be graduating and moving on to some of the city's most prestigious high schools, are creating a digital photo album and conducting scientific research on methane gas emissions, coral reef bleaching, and dozens of other topics of their own choosing.
Every classroom, every hallway is a showcase for student work. Artwork, essays, poems, and science posters cover the walls. And everywhere you look there are laptop computers. In one classroom, students are logging on to an Internet chess site to play against a faraway opponent. In another, a group of students is putting the final touches on a multimedia presentation. With frequent use has come a comfort with technology that many adults have yet to achieve. Students manipulate temperature probes and swap network cards as easily as they might replace the lead in a mechanical pencil or verify a computation on a calculator.
Teachers, too, have come a long way, thanks in large part to the school's built-from-the-ground-up approach to professional development. From its first day as a laptop pilot school, Mott Hall has relied on the expertise of its most experienced teachers to advance the technical and curriculum savvy of its entire staff. Staff development days are used to showcase exemplary teaching units. More experienced teachers mentor their colleagues (in Mott Hall lingo they're known as eLearning facilitators), opening up their classrooms for observation and taking the time after a long school day to meet and plan lessons. Partnerships with local universities, businesses, and other organizations provide yet another level of support and training for Mott Hall staff.
"We had staff members who bought into this immediately, and we had staff members who had to be persuaded," acknowledges Marc Briller, Mott Hall's staff professional developer. He describes an evolution in how Mott Hall approached the integration of laptops into curriculum. "Here we had these wonderful laptops and the question that then came up is, 'Well, what are we going to do with these laptops? How are we going to showcase the technology?' We had to ask ourselves how we could fit the laptop into the curriculum, rather than adapting the curriculum to fit the laptop."
It was that epiphany, says Acosta-Sing, that eventually led to a schoolwide commitment to project-oriented work. "We still lecture when it's important, and we still use textbooks when they're needed. But as a school community, we've embraced multidimensional, interdisciplinary projects. And we use these projects," she adds, ever mindful of the growing accountability movement, "as evidence that our students are not only meeting, but exceeding, the state standards."
Through a collaboration with neighboring City College, students get hands-on experience in university science labs.
Credit: Tony Wang
Go Fly a Kite
A steady rain is falling outside Room 502, where Sandra Skea's class of fifth graders is putting the finishing touches on a second generation of handmade kites. At one table, Brandon is attaching a new tail to his kite in hopes of helping it fly longer and higher. At another, Lisbeth and Vanessa are working intently on their tetrahedron kite, a three-tier design made of multicolored tissue paper and straws and held together with lots and lots of glue. Throughout the room, tables are covered with the stuff homemade kites are made of -- paper, straws, aluminum foil, skewers, string -- all contributed by students, their teacher, family, and friends.
By the time we arrive on that wet spring day, students have already spent several days on the interdisciplinary unit. They've written poetry and prose, studied such diverse topics as electromagnetism and the use of kite-flying in celebrations, and developed a keen understanding of principles of ratios and proportions as they designed and refined their kites -- on the computer and then by hand.
Room 502's kite project began much like many of teaching veteran Skea's most successful units: with a conversation with her class. "We had been reading a story about kites," she recalls, "and I mentioned in passing that it would be nice to research kites." The students responded to her suggestion with a resounding, "Yes!"
Having been somewhat less than successful in their first kite-flying expedition, Skea and her students are now back at the drawing board, refining their original designs. As soon as the rain stops, they'll put their second-generation creations to the test.
But the point of the project isn't to see whose kite flies the highest or stays in the air the longest -- and that's not how the veteran teacher will be grading her students. Instead, Skea explains, the rubrics, or criteria, by which she'll be grading students address how well they work together, the amount and quality of their research, the thoroughness of their writing, and how well they planned their first -- and then refined their second -- kite design.
"The kite falling on the ground is not going to cause them to fail," Skea adds matter-of-factly, "because that wasn't the purpose of the project."
Students in Sandra Skea's fifth-grade class designed kites on the computer before assembling their high-flying wonders.
Assessing Student Work
In Skea's class and throughout the school, students benefit from a clear understanding of the goals of a project, how it relates to grade-level standards, and the criteria by which it will be evaluated. Rubrics are discussed in class and then posted or handed out for all to review. Teachers and students (who routinely evaluate one another's work) rely on these criteria when assessing everything from kites to science projects to research papers.
"The rubrics are our way of showing how each component of a project is aligned to standards," says Briller, adding that clearly delineated guidelines also ensure that projects are not just engaging but are also leading to a deep and meaningful understanding of concepts.
Because so much of the student work is done on the laptops, Mott Hall is also in the process of creating digital portfolios for its students. Although currently in a pilot stage, the goal, says Acosta-Sing, is to create a portfolio for each fourth grader and then add new work to this digital archive as students progress through the school. By eighth grade, each student would have an electronic representation of their work at Mott Hall.
Besides the "internal" evaluations, students at Mott Hall routinely participate in academic competitions where their work is assessed by other students as well as by outside experts. This real-world evaluation, says Briller, "gives kids the opportunity to understand where they stand in relation to other students. Tests are so abstract for kids. These competitions make it all very real," he adds.
Like most public school students throughout New York state, Mott Hall students are also required to take a series of standardized tests in core subject areas. Although students receive instruction in the mechanics of test-taking, students learn the concepts through projects. "It's one thing to be able to pass a test," says Briller. "The real challenge is understanding the information and being able to apply it."
Thanks to a standards-based project approach to learning, Mott Hall students are able to do both.
Student work is displayed throughout Mott Hall's classrooms and hallways.
New Challenges, New Opportunities
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then the staff and students at Mott Hall should feel truly honored. In September 2001, a new school -- Mott Hall II -- opened in New York City, building on the philosophy and methods developed at the original Mott Hall. Based on the success of Mott Hall's program, all of the schools in New York Community School District Six are now moving to the laptop model pioneered by Acosta-Sing and her staff. Indeed, throughout the country, public schools are embracing the use of laptops to support project-based learning.
For their part, Acosta-Sing and her staff are experimenting with new tools to take the school's commitment to project-oriented work to the next level. With the help of a pilot grant, for example, students and teachers are beginning to investigate ways in which handheld computers can be used to support the school's project approach to learning.
"I'm not sure whether it will translate into anything useful," says Acosta-Sing with a shrug of her shoulders. "But we'll experiment with the new tools and then decide as a community whether they have some value."