Integrating Productivity Tools in Primary and Secondary Education CLOUDS AND SUN

Five Big Macs and Me:
How I Learned to Love Computers Instead of Fearing Them

Karla Davis
6th Grade Language Arts
Boonsboro, MD, Middle School


Not a technophile, not an expert, not a computer brain, not even a left-brained person.

I am an ordinary, middle-aged, right-brained English teacher who believes that the five computers I have in my classroom are helping my students improve their writing and reading skills. In August 1995, I received a grant that brought five Macintosh computers to my sixth grade language arts classroom. I received two printers (one Imagewriter networked to four of the computers and a Stylewriter that functions alone on one machine.)

Although I love my machines, I am frustrated daily by what I don't know about them. I used to believe that computers were for other guys (usually male--sexist?) who spoke a mysterious language I would never understand. Now I know that's not true, but the main lesson I learned last year is the challenge of computers: The more you know, the more you know you don't know and want to know.

This year, I'm planning to examine what I did last year, revise, improve, and experiment a little more to add to last year's operation. From my year with the computers I firmly believe four major premises: (a) computers belong in language arts classes; (b) your students will love computers; (c) you are never too old to learn; and (d) you can learn to use the computer and, more importantly for teachers, to teach your students to use it.

Computers belong in language arts classes. Some educators feel that computers belong only in the math/sciences areas, to graph equations or to demonstrate how the heart pumps. Computers do belong there--and in social studies, art, music, tech ed--and every other field. But language arts teachers need them too--and not as glorified typewriters.

Your students will love computers. Although a few students were intimidated by the computers, most adapted to them as naturally as the proverbial duck to water. Most young people learned the programs faster than I had and eagerly helped their peers, working all year to help the intimidated few gain confidence with the equipment. Also, group work involved all students in the use of the machines. I tried to plan a variety of activities requiring the students to do word processing, saving, and printing--all skills at least someone in the group already knew. I encouraged them to personalize their writing allowing them to use different fonts, styles, and text colors. Dressing up the basics is the first step to making writing fun.

Allowing them to illustrate their writing encouraged them to take pride in their writing. They could make it look good and it was also great fun. With the graphics from The Writing Center and later the simple desktop publishing of EasyBook, the children enjoyed putting their stories and poems together with art. Technical problems occurred when we got into Hyperstudio (which we unfortunately could only do with two classes). Even though that program brought a whole set of technical glitches, it became a great motivator.

Computers motivate children to write. The old axiom has never been more true--you learn to write by writing. If the computer makes them want to do it, if it's fun, they're hooked. This is true for all children: Bright children especially benefit by being challenged to produce and package their writing. I had kids working during lunch routinely. I even had two come in on a flood day to finish their stories in order to meet a deadline for the computer-generated writing contest. One of these girls won second prize in the state.Children with learning disabilities, once they learned how to use the spell-check, really benefited from computers. The pressure for handwriting and neatness (all those fine-motor control things they had difficulty managing) was off and they produced something that looked good. I especially encouraged my girls to become proficient computer users. The Association of American University Women (AAUW) study described middle school girls falling behind their male peers in math, science, and technology. If they can learn some technology in language arts, that's one more plus for my program.

My special education children loved computers. They hated to write but they liked all the special effects of computers. One of my lowest-level students (reading level maybe first part of 2nd grade) suddenly was in demand because he was a whiz at making the words change colors and the fonts change sizes. Through his computer skill he suddenly achieved a positive status. My special education students were now able to write and save it on disk; then I could edit later before the next class period. Even though I co-teach with the special ed teacher, there still were 26 students needing attention of two adults. When we would go to the computer lab to word process, my co-teacher would take the five with the greatest needs to my room where they each had a computer to use, and I would take the other 23 to the lab where they could have their own individual computer.

My regular students loved computers too. With 25 computers in the lab and 32 students in my largest class, students had to work in partners. Usually they liked this and I had enough volunteers to share (since, of course I let them pick their partners as long as they behaved) so that everyone who wanted a computer to himself could have one. Often two heads did produce better results than just one, and the partnership was beneficial for both individuals.

You are never too old to learn. Ten years ago, I returned to full-time teaching; part of that time I taught adults (ESOL and GED classes). In 1987, when I applied for recertification, I didn't even know how to turn on a computer or what a disk was; and one of my responsibilities was taking my students to the computer lab to develop word processing skills. Obviously, as their teacher, I needed to learn those skills, quickly.

You can do this. I didn't have a perfect situation, by any means. My tiny classroom--21 1/2 by 23 feet (494.5 sq. ft.)--had 33 student desks, five computer tables, two bookcases, one teacher desk, two file cabinets, one supply cabinet, one overhead projector on a cart. We were jammed in like sardines. This year instead of 120 students divided among four 65 minute periods with class sizes ranging from 28-32, I now have only 87 students with class sizes ranging from 19-24. The class size is much better, but unfortunately, the demands and needs of my special education population have increased dramatically. Even with all the problems, concerns, needs, and my own lack of experience, I can do this; and so can you.

First of all, I received the grant I applied for last June, which would give me five computers in my tiny classroom. Overjoyed and overwhelmed, I identified three areas that I needed to emphasize in my program: (a) word processing; (b) programs; (c) revisions.

By word processing, I mean much more than just typing up an already-prepared paper. Ideally the students would use the computer for the entire writing process as I believe computers were designed to be used. Practically, with 120 students every day , this is a balancing act. We have a 25 computer school lab, and once or twice a month I'm able to get my classes in there for usually a two-day block. Students then work singly or in pairs to prepare work. In the classroom, students rotate turns with the machines. Through a Maryland Instructors Computer Coordinators Association (MICCA) grant I received one Alpha Smart Pro (which the students call my laptop) that gives us another computer. I also purchased an Apple presentation unit to hook up my classroom television unit to the computer so all can see the writing.

My goal is to use the computers to "jazz" up student writing. As the students improve the appearance of their writing, hopefully they will pay more attention to the quality of their work, and by giving the students as many opportunities as possible I hope to encourage them to develop their writing skills.

The frustrations are: (a) limited keyboarding skills and the need for constant on-the-job-training; and (b) limited writing, spelling, punctuation skills--we work on this--no panaceas, but the spell-check helps some.

The activities include: essays, short stories, poems, journals, book reports, puppet shows, pen-pal letters (e-mailed to New Hampshire)

By revision, I mean teaching students the value of revising their work and the skills they need to accomplish that.

My goal is to teach students how to revise their papers and develop the desire to work on revision. My ambition is that students should become so immersed in revision that they don't even think of turning in a paper without it. For middle school students, the one analogy they can all relate to is the quality of their hair. Most wouldn't think of coming to school without trying to make it a good-hair-day. My ambition is to have them expend even just one-tenth of that energy on revising their words to make it a good-paper-day.

My frustrations come from: limited skills, and not enough desire to practice the skills.

Activities include: Revision drills; editing drills; groups or individuals working with the same activity and completing it in their own ways followed by a comparison of different versions. For example, in an Adjective Exercise students would compare revising paragraphs in response sheets (peer, parent, self); in a Habits of Mind lesson they would compare lists of qualities that make writing good. Most of these activities were ideas that I pulled together and saved on disks (one per computer); then I rotated the students so all could use the computers for some activities. I tried to teach the basic computer techniques of adding and deleting at the same time the students learned the writing skills.

I did drills as introductory warm-up exercises in sets of ten. Revision drills each emphasized a technique students could use to revise their rough drafts. The revision drills below, in a series, remind the student of some major revision practices. The overall goal is to sharpen language skills. These attempt to give the student concrete ways they can sharpen language and make writing more vivid and expressive. The drills overlap and one drill builds on the skills from the days before.

Drill One

Pick specific concrete nouns. Instead of saying "The car went down the street," be more exact. For example, "The fire-engine red D496 Corvette purred into the driveway."

Now you try it. Pick one of these and develop it.

1. The car went down the street.

2. The player scored. (What kind of player? What sport? Scored what?)

Drill Two

Pick vivid verbs. Instead of saying "I went across the room," think of the way you went. Then choose a verb that suggests the feeling that went with the action.

Did you race to the Christmas tree full of presents?

Did you sneak out the door while the bully was distracted?

Did you stroll casually up to accept the trophy you knew you would win?

Now you try it. Pick one of these and develop it.

1. I went across the room. (How did you go? What emotion did you have?)

2. I ate my dinner. (How did you eat it? Did you like the food?)

Editing Drills emphasized mechanics of the language: complete sentences, spelling, punctuation, and capital letters. Students need to write these sentences correctly, paragraphing where necessary.

Drill 1

did you see her journal the new teacher asked it was very colorful and neat i enjoyed reading it mrs davis said

Drill 2

mr root said wow there are alot of notebooks here to be graded yes mrs davis said i really need to get alot of work finished quickly

I sometimes would write a paragraph for the students to revise and then compare and contrast revisions.

Recording Discussions of Reading and Literature

Students need to discuss their reading (both literature and non-fiction) and their thinking about their reading. More than any other area, this activity challenges the students to say what they mean as precisely as possible.

My goal is to help students examine their reading and wrestle with higher order thinking skills; I hope they will grow in their ability to interpret and understand what they read. As they try to record their answers, this adds another dimension to understanding. My ambition was to see students read, question freely, develop their ability to understand and interpret. The computer and the need to record their thoughts will help keep them focused.

Formula: Read + Discuss = Interpretation + Writing, Understanding.

The frustrations are: limited skills, lack of understanding, limited time, lack of desire and/or effort to improve.

Activities: Use of the computer to record group discussions of reading material. I ask one or two higher order thinking skill questions (not recall questions) with the constant demand to "back up what you say with evidence from the text. " In a group I ask them to come to a consensus of meaning and then explain themselves clearly. I also use questions from the text resource books, purchased study guides that I type onto disks, and Humanities software questions as well as my own questions.

Frankly, this last area needs the most development. I'm working on it. I would like to get some software that helps students develop reading skills but so far I haven't found any that I consider really good. Even if I did I might not be able to find any money for it, but I am looking--just in case. With the governor's interest in computers, I feel there will be more funding opportunities opening up. I believe in being ready just in case.

The last program listed above is Hyperstudio. At the end of April, the resource teacher and I did a cooperative Social Studies/Language Arts program on the rain forest. Students had studied the rain forest as a part of their social studies curriculum. Their teacher met with us four afternoons in the lab teaching the children (and me) how to operate Hyperstudio. They had to come up with five cards and make their own statement about the rain forest, demonstrating what they remembered from social studies. Almost no one finished in the four days, so back in my classroom and also at lunch individuals worked on their disks. They loved this project. I regret that I had so little time to develop my own project, but I hope to work on it again this year.


The first year of my computer project came to an end with students still scrambling on the very last day of school to present Hyperstudio projects and finish Easy Book stories. I had to agree to print the last three stories over the summer and mail them to the students. I did, but I was astounded again how technical difficulties can boggle the mind, and something so seemingly simple as printing a story can mushroom into a mammoth, time-intensive project. The students did receive their stories, and with that I felt some closure to an exhilarating, frustrating, demanding year.

Although I've had insufficient time for reflection and evaluation, I know I will not relinquish my computers and their promise. This next year I'd like to refine all of what I did, expand and develop the activities. I also want to continue our pen palFive program and come up with new activities, especially in the literature area.

I would love to correspond with anyone who would like to discuss the challenges and potential of computers in the language arts classroom. E-mail or write to me, and I promise to respond. For me, the five computers were a revitalizing experience that I plan to continue to grow with.

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