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Technology deepens student-teacher connections

July 31, 2009
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English classes might be all about reading and writing, but they’re not so much about paper anymore.

Books? Yes. But the reams of paper and stacks of composition books that once were stock supplies for English classes are being replaced by computers, podcasts, online discussion groups and sites or programs that electronically screen student papers for plagiarism and grammatical errors.

In English and just about every other subject, technology is turning classroom teaching upside down: Students are directed to information from the Internet that they once got via lecture, and practice their skills in the classroom where the teacher is available for guidance, said Charity Grauberger, an honors and advanced placement English teacher at Cheyenne Mountain High School.

“It’s almost a required paradigm shift,” said her colleague, teacher Liz Atkins. “They do the passive learning at home and the active learning in class.”

And in the summer, technology provides the communication links to ensure students understand what assignments they’re supposed to do by the start of school and the ability for teachers to track who’s plugged in and who isn’t. In mid-July, Cheyenne Mountain English teacher Patty Pigford realized about five students had not checked in electronically on their summer assignments. She e-mailed them, and followed up with phone calls to parents, one of whom was on a beach in Hawaii. It worked: All the students were online in July.

The tools that districts have and what teachers choose to use vary widely, and teachers often learn about new programs from a colleague.

The Mountain Net for Cheyenne Mountain High School has a site for every teacher to post homework information, and many carry on discussions on blogs or wiki pages.

At Woodland Park High School, teachers are using podcasts to provide lessons and grade papers ­— a five-minute recorded critique of the paper or lab report is e-mailed to the student, who can listen to it on a computer or iPod-type player.

Ashley Lawson, the high school’s instructional resource teacher and former English department chair, conducted an experiment with the last research paper due from her students in the spring. They all were e-mailed to her — no paper copies allowed.

She printed out a third of them and graded them the old-fashioned way. Another third were graded using Microsoft Word’s “track changes” function and e-mailed back to the students. The final third were graded via podcasts, which she likened to a recorded writing conference.

“The kids liked the electronic grades,” she said, adding that students got more out of the critiques that way. Those who received printouts looked at the grades but not the notes throughout the paper.

As classrooms increasingly rely on technology, teachers scramble to keep up.

“It’s all a learning process — for us and the students,.” said Atkins, who maintains a blog and wiki site to provide information to her students and interact with them.

Teachers quickly discover the limitations — mostly money to pay for software and gadgets — and other pitfalls, such as links that lead to other links that may lead to pornographic sites. Sometimes there are conflicts with district techies, who don’t want students using YouTube and other sites that require a lot of bandwidth.

Also, teens aren’t always at tech-savvy as adults might think, Pigford said.

“They’re great with the social networking, the iPods, phones, MySpace, stuff like that,” she said. “But they don’t necessarily know how to find and use good sites.”

That’s where e-mail, texting and blogging come in. Teachers are increasingly in contact with students after hours and on weekends, answering e-mailed questions, monitoring homework discussions and directing them to find and share useful sites to enhance a lesson.

The payoff, though, is worth it, Pigford said. Students who are on teacher blogs or Web sites during the weekend or evening are more prepared for the next class.

It also levels the field for some students, she said. “Those who are apprehensive or too shy in the classroom to express themselves often will join in an online discussion.”

And the interaction with students over the summer brings amazing results.

“My 10th graders had a chance to interact (last summer), and when they started classes they were so far ahead and I knew so much about the kids already,” she said. “It’s worth the time we spend over the summer.”

“The best part about all of this is that it extends the community of the classroom outside the walls,” Atkins said. “Teachers get to collaborate more, too.”

Call the writer at 636-0251.



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