'Listening and engaged': Teachers tout technology in the classroom

News-DemocratOctober 12, 2013 

West Junior High teacher Jennifer Podhrasky and Cathedral fourth-grade teacher Sue Ratkewicz talk about how they use technology in their Belleville, Ill., classrooms.

JAMIE FORSYTHE/BND

Teacher Elissa Garland gives her fifth-graders at Jefferson Elementary School in Belleville an assignment to list three facts each about a tornado and hurricane and describe how they are similar and different. Instead of pulling out a piece of paper and a pencil, her students open up netbooks at their desks and start typing away.

The amount of technology in metro-east classes increased dramatically during the last five years, according to school administrators. Teachers from pre-kindergarten to eighth grade are using an array of electronic devices including interactive whiteboards, tablet computers, document cameras and "Jeopardy!"-like clickers to enhance the curriculum they were already teaching.

Area school leaders say they are in favor of more technology; however, money is a large hurdle to overcome.

At Jefferson, fifth-grader Jada Maggard, 10, logs onto a Google Chromebook with her username and password. She completes her assignment and invites her teacher to review it via email.

"I love it," Jada said. "We get to do more stuff on here than we normally get to."

Her classmate Vivica Suggs, 10, describes working on the Chromeboooks as "really fun.

"They are very easy," she said.

Fifth-grader Nadia Beyer, 11, said she likes being able to use the devices in her classroom.

"We don't have to go all the way downstairs to the computer lab. We don't get a lot of time in there," she said. "We get to be on the Chromebooks for a lot longer than in the computer lab."

Garland praised the Chromebooks. "I love them. They are so versatile, and the kids love them," she said. "We try to do as much learning as we can with these."

Garland likes being in constant contact with her students and they can email her in the evening from home using their district email address and she can answer their question right away. "It doesn't bother me," she said. "I like to communicate with them."

In a first-grade classroom at Jefferson, teacher Emily Speaks uses an interactive whiteboard during a reading lesson.

Speaks asks a question of her students sitting on a carpet in front of the board and then selects one to write their answer on the board using a stylus pen -- a pen specially designed for use with the electronic board.

The students read a book about growing earlier in the week, and Speaks asked a student what can they do on the playground.

Lamarnya George, 7, wrote, "I can do the monkey bars" on the interactive board.

The first-graders then took turns writing what babies can do versus what teenagers can do. She had to remind the students to "push hard, like you are writing with a pencil."

Speaks used the interactive board to practice letter sounds with her first-graders and practice reading words. She was able to tap a rectangle on the board to bring up a new review word using a tablet computer in her lap as she sat in a chair close to her students.

Jefferson sixth-grade teacher Ben Moore said technology increases student engagement.

"It's helped out the students," he said. "They are definitely more engaged than they normally would be."

Moore often uses clickers, small remote controls, to gauge student understanding. "It gives me immediate feedback for who's getting it and who's not," he said. "It keeps them engaged the whole time."

A similar clicker system is used at Cathedral Grade School in Belleville. Fourth-grade teacher Sue Ratkewicz used the eBeam student response system during a practice math test. A question appeared on the eBeam interactive whiteboard and students had a to select their response -- A, B, C or D.

Once all 13 students clicked in their answer, a bar graph appeared on the board to illustrate what percentage of students selected each response. Ratkewicz, who can see individual results for each student, said it helps her determine what students need more review on before the math test.

The benefits

Local teachers, veteran and novice educators alike, praise the technology in their classrooms.

Kindergarten teacher Denise Meile, who's been teaching 34 years, said the skills of her students at Cathedral have "really improved" since they started using the interactive whiteboard and the Nabi Android tablets, which are new to the school this year. "They are listening and engaged in the learning process," she said.

Both the interactive whiteboard and the Nabi tablets have helped the kindergartners improve their handwriting skills, according to Meile. Kindergartner Sophia Jose recently practiced her letter writing using her finger to trace letters and then write her own on an application on the Nabi tablet.

Technology also allows students to show off their school work to their parents. Cathedral first-grade teacher Mary Pat Kuebel with help from technology coordinator Linda Van Loo used the school's "green screen" TV studio to create a video of her students talking about fall. Van Loo then overlaid the video onto a fall background. The finished video was posted on the school's website for anyone to view at www.cgsbelleville.com/1st.htm.

Smithton School teacher Ashley Crompton helps her second-graders post a blog using iPads, which are set up at a learning center. Parents can access the blog and see what their child has been doing in school.

"Our blogs are kind of like our Facebook so our mom and dad can see our alike and different pictures," second-grader Connor Brown, 7, said. Connor took a picture of his alike and different project hanging on the hallway at school and posted it on his blog.

Smithton teacher Sasha Courtney uses the iPads her fourth-graders have to actively engage them in the lessons. During a recent class, the fourth-graders learned the meanings of their new vocabulary words by recording the definitions in their voice using an application on their iPad. The students also took a picture illustrating the word displayed on the interactive whiteboard. "It's definitely a cool new flash card," Courtney said.

The iPads, she said, increases the amount of material she can cover in one day. "We move at so much faster pace with this," Courtney said. "Fun equals learning and that's what's happening."

Fourth-graders Vaughn Dickey, 8, and Julia Poole, 9, said working on the iPads make learning more fun.

Technology gets students excited about learning, according to Smithton School Principal Vicki Norton. "It's added a new spark of enthusiasm for students who normally aren't really jumping up and down to get to school," she said. "It's made it much more interesting and engaging for them."

Using technology helps grab students' attention and keep it longer, said Jenny Raetz, a third-grade teacher at St. Mary-St. Augustine Catholic School in Belleville. "I use technology every day in my classroom. I think that it makes a world of difference," she said. "I think that students pay better attention when I'm teaching using the SMART board."

As schools incorporate more technology and put electronic devices in the hands of students, traditional textbooks may fade away.

Smithton School District 130 Technology Director Eric Muckensturm said the district is moving toward web-based textbooks, which offer "content rich media options for us that delivers images and videos and testing all in one small package."

Belleville District 118 Assistant Superintendent Lynn Clapp explained the focus at District 118 schools is "embedding and integrating" technology.

"It has to supplement what we do with core instruction," he said. "We believe technology is going to provide us the tools to help teachers easily transition into using technology on a regular basis."

The availability

Schools and districts throughout the metro-east are incorporating technology into the classroom at varying levels. A majority of classrooms at the elementary and junior high levels have some form of an interactive whiteboard. Local schools are also incorporating mobile carts for electronic devices that can go from class to class in addition to the traditional computer lab.

A small percentage of schools in the metro-east have a one-to-one program, where each student has a computer or tablet assigned to them that they can use at school and take home with them.

Smithton School launched its one-to-one program in January for third through eighth-graders. Each student received an iPad. "They are all so enamored with the iPad," Norton said. "It's fun for them."

Every student with an iPad has an email address at Smithton School, which is restricted within the district's domain. Muckensturm explained students can only email classmates or faculty members at Smithton School.

Kindergarten through second-graders at Smithton School also have access to iPads as five are in each classroom. Each classroom also has an Apple TV, which allows the teachers and students to display what's on their iPads on the interactive whiteboard.

At Cathedral, students have access to an array of technology depending on their grade level. Van Loo, the technology coordinator, explained the youngest students, 3, 4 and 5 year olds, use Nabi tablets, which are stored on a mobile cart and can move between classes. The first through fourth-graders use Kindle Fire tablets on a mobile cart, and the fifth- through eighth-graders use netbooks.

Three wireless microscopes are available for teachers to use in the classrooms as well. "The little guys love to bring in bugs," Van Loo said. "They love it."

Cathedral also has two computer labs and a green screen TV studio, where Van Loo helps classes record videos and older students record weekly school newscasts.

Like most schools, St. Clare Catholic School in O'Fallon has interactive whiteboards in every classroom. The school also has a traditional computer lab, a mobile cart with 30 netbooks and three flip cameras available to students.

Principal Milissa Faust said technology "helps promote active student involvement."

Like Jefferson Elementary, every school in Belleville District 118 has interactive whiteboards in every classroom, and every full-time classroom teacher has an iPad.

District 118 teachers also have access to a mobile cart of 30 Google Chromebooks, a document camera called a HoverCam and the "Jeopardy!"-like clickers to access student retention.

The money

How technology is paid for depends on the district or the school. Some technology is paid by the district while other schools and districts rely on fundraisers organized by parent groups to pay for new electronic devices.

Norton said the 400 iPads for students and teachers at Smithton School were purchased at a cost of $180,000 using district reserves and grant funds. The Apple TVs in every classroom were purchased by the school's Parent Teacher Organization.

Van Loo at Cathedral said the school's Parent's Club pays for new technology for students. At St. Clare, Faust said the tuition helps pay for any new electronic devices.

Millstadt Consolidated School District 160 relied on money raised by the parent teacher association to purchase new technology the last several years, according to Superintendent Jonathan Green.

The district has iPad carts available to its students as well as Google Chromebooks and computer labs. "We are making sure we are keeping on top of what's going on around us so our kids can succeed when they go into the real world," Green said.

Every classroom at Millstadt public schools also have interactive whiteboards, which were purchased in part with donations from the local Optimist Club.

Pontiac-William Holliday District 105 in Fairview Heights is designating a portion of its local money to cover the costs of technology upgrades, Superintendent Julie Brown said. The district has 60 iPads on mobile carts, two mobile laptop carts at both William Holliday Elementary and Pontiac Junior High, and a computer lab at each school.

Edwardsville School District 7 Superintendent Ed Hightower spearheaded a large community campaign called "Technology in the 21st Century Classroom" to pay for interactive whiteboards in every classroom at District 7 schools. The PolyVision boards cost approximately $1 million, according to Lynda Andre, assistant superintendent for curriculum.

"We have been fortunate to have many, many community donors pledging funds to assist us with the cost," Andre said.

Belleville District 118 officials say money is the biggest obstacle districts have to overcome in order to get technology into the classrooms.

"Budgets are a limiting factor in implementing the additional technology we would love to be able to add," said Chris McMahon, technology director for District 118.

Contact reporter Jamie Forsythe at 239-2562 or jforsythe1@bnd.com.

Contact reporter Jamie Forsythe at 239-2562 or jforsythe1@bnd.com.

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