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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Technology in Action: Kids Are Eager to Connect

One teacher's view on how technology integration upgraded his school's curriculum.
By John McSweeney

John McSweeney’s life was “anything but ordinary” after he became the technologist at Cabot School.

Credit: John McSweeney

It's School Report Night at Cabot School, one of the few remaining schools in Vermont serving all grades from pre-kindergarten through high school. Everyone in our community -- about a thousand people -- has been invited to see an exhibition of work by our students. Parents, children, and their neighbors wander through the school gym as I furiously scramble to connect what seems like miles of cable to computers, monitors, modems, VCRs, and other high-tech equipment that many students are using in their presentations.

At one display, visitors click a mouse to navigate through stories written, illustrated, and recorded by primary students using multimedia tools. At another, a ninth grader, whose grandfather was one of the Japanese-Americans imprisoned in California during World War II, shows a documentary he produced by combining photographs of the Manzanar Internment Camp with narration drawn from his own historical research.

As I watch the kids excitedly drag their mothers and fathers by the hand to show them the projects they've created, I'm struck by the marvelous creativity and love of learning that technology has helped unleash within them.

In 1993, I had just completed a post-graduate certification program and had been offered a teaching position in a self-contained, fifth-grade classroom. I happened to see a classified ad for a "Technologist" at a nearby school. I was intrigued enough to apply, and my life has been anything but ordinary since.

I'd read a great deal about Cabot. Despite its rural setting, it had recently gained attention for its cutting-edge use of educational technology, thanks to the donation of a truckload of desktop computers, laptops, and other equipment by Apple Computer.

Other transformations were also well underway by the time I was hired. Members of the school community were redefining standards for the skills and knowledge they wanted students to acquire. A new mission statement and action plans promised continual professional development and improvement of the instructional program. The school was developing a project-based curriculum that focuses on learning by doing. (I understood the power of this instructional approach, because hands-on problem solving was the way I had learned my previous occupation, carpentry.) Technology had a role to play in the school's improvement efforts, but the focus would always be on sound curriculum and assessment.

My newly created job was to lead and assist the students, staff, and community in the infusion of technology. The job description included many specifics ranging from curriculum integration to equipment maintenance, but, as expected, it has evolved as the needs of the school have changed.

Today I support a wide spectrum of innovative and integrated technology use. Teachers routinely employ computers for instruction, communication, and to increase their own productivity. Students help me teach an Introduction to Computers course for local residents. High school seniors take Advanced Placement English via satellite. An exchange student from the Dominican Republic gets his hometown news daily from the World Wide Web. Art students develop new skills and talents with complex painting and graphics programs. My electronic journalism class produces both the yearbook and a monthly newspaper, using desktop publishing tools.

Working closely with teachers to plan and implement units, I look for ways to seamlessly incorporate technology into classroom learning. Our third graders, for instance, are engrossed when they use a software program like the Great Solar System Rescue. They argue about what to do next to retrieve lost space explorers, citing facts from their research using the program's electronic database, and pointing out visual clues from a companion video disk.

I've helped older students apply scientific theory to the study of water in our local streams. They use computers to sort information, graph data, and discern patterns. These kinds of activities are powerful in part because they allow kids with different learning styles to work together. They also help students develop thinking and communications skills, and increase their confidence that they can tackle challenging problems.

Information access is another essential piece of effective educational technology use at Cabot. I've worked extensively with our library media specialist to establish reliable, low-cost Internet links, so students can access a wealth of online resources as they do research. Transforming this information into knowledge means making sense of data. Our sixth graders, for instance, use computerized image-processing software to learn about structure and scale by analyzing and manipulating digital photographs from sources like NASA and the National Weather Service.

While I consider myself primarily an educator, much of my time is devoted to technical support. With over one-hundred computers and assorted peripherals, it is rather like maintaining a fleet of vehicles. Along with a student tech team, I continue to learn the art of troubleshooting. Everyone jokes about the clutter in my tech studio -- CPUs, monitors, and printers are in various states of repair, and boxes of cables, cords, and adapters are waiting for the moment when the right connection makes all the difference. We swap components and solder connections to jump-start our fleet. The number of technical glitches that crop up is directly proportional to the success of a technology-intensive program. It means the equipment is being used.

We continue to work together to learn new ways to do things. Students witness a good model of teachers as learners. I encourage teachers and students to use each other as resources to solve problems. I struggle to stay current by reading technology magazines and educational journals, going on-line, and attending conferences.

My biggest frustration is that we're always bumping the ceiling of what we can do with the hardware we have. Technology changes so quickly that it's a constant struggle to keep current. It's all worth it, though, when I witness the dramatic effect technology can have on education. Every day, I see students exploring, learning, and communicating, with purpose and creativity, using our hardware and software.

I began my journey as a teacher in early childhood education where work, play, and learning were synonymous. I marvel at first-grade students as they fearlessly point, click, and explore. They build their knowledge base and have fun, too. The power is not in the machine; it is in how it is used. The same fearless exploration, inquiring investigation, and joy for learning is possible for all students.

John McSweeney is the technologist for Cabot School.

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