Exploring technology at Meridian's Discovery Elementary

broberts@idahostatesman.comNovember 19, 2013 

Erika Bishop and three of her fourth-grade classmates sat on the floor, iPads in hand, busily crunching division problems.

As they got problems correct, the iPad flashed "100 percent" in green. If they got it wrong, a bar across the top of the screen turned red.

"It's actually really fun," Bishop said. "It's better than doing it on paper."

In classrooms throughout Discovery Elementary School in Meridian, 535 students are busy with Netbooks, iPads, Promethean Smart Boards and "clickers" practicing math skills, seeking out words, learning grammar and recording themselves reading.

Discovery is one of 11 schools in Idaho sharing a $3 million grant from the Idaho Department of Education to pilot ways to put technology into the classroom to aid learning. Discovery received $370,501.

The technology is "very mobile," said Lisa Bray, a second-grade teacher who spends half her time as a school technology coach. Discovery decided against giving devices to every child; a legislative plan to do just that for high school students statewide was rejected by voters last year.

Sharing devices, and making them mobile, forces students to collaborate on projects as they mine information with shared laptops and iPads, Bray said. "They talk about what they are doing and share what they are doing," she said.

Discovery's conversion to technology began in the 2012-2013 school year, when Melissa Slocum's first-grade class was chosen as one of five in the Meridian district to be outfitted as a 21st century classroom.

Teachers saw students become more engaged and attentive, Bray said. As that year came to a close, Discovery sought a grant to expand the program so students wouldn't leave Slocum's technology-enriched environment for a traditional model of instruction that relied on worksheets and whiteboards.

WAITING FOR EVIDENCE

Discovery can't point to test scores or other evidence that technology is improving learning. It hasn't been in the school long enough. But teachers and students say it's helping.

In Bray's second-grade class, students can read into an iPad and send their reading samples to Bray to listen and plan a strategy to improve reading. She can also email reading samples to parents, so they can hear how their child is doing.

The J.A. and Katheryn Albertson Foundation is also waiting for data to show the effects of its pilot project this year that put the Kahn Academy's online lessons into 47 Idaho schools with 13,000 students.

Early, anecdotal indications are that students are making progress - some moving ahead in their subjects by as much as a year, said Jennie Sue Weltner, foundation communications officer. "It seems to be really impactful for students and teachers," she said.

But the foundation is assessing the program for more detailed evidence on the most effective ways to use the Kahn Academy to maximize student growth.

'INSTANT DATA'

The way students use "clickers" provides one example of how technology is changing the classroom.

As Slocum called for her students to pick up their remote control-like devices that let students text answers to questions, the normal classroom din was silenced.

The students followed directions as Slocum asked about words with "or" in them, such as "work" or "corn." Answers flashed on the Smart Board - no names attached - and then the teacher and students talked about right and wrong answers.

"I have instant data," Slocum said.

She can also later access responses with students' named attached, so she can see who's understanding the lesson and who needs shoring up.

Beyond that equipment, teachers also have a Slate, a mobile device that lets them walk among students. The teacher can write questions or problems that appear on the big Smart Board.

It also lets students work problems from their seat, instead of walking up to the front of the class. That's easier to manage and doesn't force the shy kid with the right answer to go to the front of the room.

Technology, Bray said, "is another tool in the tool box."

Bill Roberts: 377-6408, Twitter: @IDS_BillRoberts

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