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Bangor Daily News Photo by Linda Coan O’Kresik
Conners-Emerson School seventh-grader Arlo Farrin peeks over at classmate Sally Swift’s laptop Wednesday to see what she found on their science study of the nervous system.
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By Ruth-Ellen Cohen, Of the NEWS Staff e-mail Ruth-Ellen
Last updated: Saturday, June 15, 2002

Laptops in Bar Harbor get high marks

BAR HARBOR — Less than a week to go before summer vacation and pupils at Conners-Emerson School can’t wait for September.

“We’ll be able to actually use the laptops for a whole year! It’ll be even more fun than when we first got them,” Max Blandford said.

The seventh-grader isn’t alone in his enthusiasm for the portable iBooks that he and his classmates received three months ago after their school was named a demonstration site for Gov. Angus King’s unprecedented laptop initiative.

“It’s been pretty much overwhelmingly positive,” technology coordinator Rick Barter said. “The kids love it, the teachers love it — they can do so many things they couldn’t otherwise.”

The Department of Education signed a four-year, $37.2 million contract with Apple in December to provide notebook computers, wireless networks, servers, technical support, maintenance and teacher training.

The laptop project calls for placing the machines in the hands of all seventh-graders this fall and all seventh- and eighth-graders next year. Other demonstration schools include Piscataquis Community Middle School in Guilford, Pembroke Elementary School and Skyway Middle School in Presque Isle.

Over the last few months, representatives from Conners-Emerson have been busy acquainting area educators with the particulars of the laptops, hosting visits from University of Maine students and faculty, and troubleshooting mechanical and logistical problems so things can go smoothly next fall.

Laptops everywhere

The white laptops in their black carrying cases were visible everywhere at the Bar Harbor school Wednesday.

Milling about the corridor as they waited for class to begin, pupils had the iBooks open as they checked their e-mail and logged on to news sites to get the latest in current events.

In teacher Kim Smallidge’s room, pupils were using the devices to create a movie of the past year’s events. A digital editing program enabled them to put together the most exciting scenes from field trips, cheerleading competitions and ballgames in which they participated.

Pupils also have created professional-looking slide shows on topics including ancient Greece, environmental issues and art history. They used a special computer program that combines text, graphics and sound to make their presentations come alive.

In addition to doing research and word processing on the laptops, pupils in teacher Marc Chappe’s class have read literature that the teacher downloaded from the electronic text center at the University of Virginia library.

The practice, which saves the community hundreds of dollars, is “perfectly legal,” since the Web site is a public domain and the copyrights on the books have expired, said Chappe, whose pupils now are “getting Tom Sawyer on their laptops along with lovely illustrations.”

While Chappe isn’t advocating replacing books with laptops, “this gives me another option,” he said.

Teachers also praised the iBooks for enabling pupils quickly to obtain up-to-date research and to edit papers more skillfully and take notes. A huge advantage is that instructors no longer have the often frustrating task of trying to schedule time in overcrowded computer labs, they said.

The experience was “amazingly good,” teacher Cindy Brotzman said.

“I don’t feel the pressure I felt in the beginning. We’re using them, but not every day or in every subject,” she said. “The biggest thing is that kids who usually didn’t give two hoots about schoolwork are thrilled about using the laptops.”

The laptops have “sparked something” in underachievers, Barter said. “Kids who weren’t interested in school have been drawn in. [Kids today] function in a world of graphics and video — this is their world,” he said.

Meanwhile, the machines allow motivated students to “continue to excel and [be able to] express themselves more and more creatively,” Barter said.

Far from isolating pupils, the laptops have resulted in kids sharing and collaborating, according to teachers. “They’ve made a community of learners, with everyone jumping in to help each other,” said Smallidge.

Taking a break from classroom activities to talk about the iBook advantages, pupils weren’t at all reticent. With laptops, “we have the world at our fingertips,” Fox Schwach said.

“You get bored with pencil and paper,” Devinne Mack said. “Laptops make school a lot more fun. There’s more variety.”

After watching a friend give a colorful, informative slide show presentation on the Black Sea, Hannah Somers-Jones said laptops have made learning easier.

“Presentations are more interesting and the visuals make them more understandable,” she said.

Minimal problems, extra costs

The problems that people initially worried about haven’t materialized, Barter said. “Kids have been very respectful of the computers. They’ve taken good care of them. They’ve lived up to what they said all along — that seventh-graders can be responsible and take care of things that are important to them.”

Nor have inappropriate Web sites been an issue, Barter said. The school purchased a $300 software program that allows teachers to see on their own screens what pupils are doing individually, and to communicate with them.

“I’ve recommended that every school buy it,” Barter said.

Teachers have told Apple about software glitches, said Barter, noting that the company has been “very responsive.” If they can’t help over the phone they show up at school, he said.

At the school’s suggestion, Apple has redesigned an adapter because the tip kept breaking off and replaced the carrying cases after students found they couldn’t properly tuck in the cords and that the zippers would chafe their arms as they were typing.

Costs associated with the laptop project have run the school about $4,000 including installing electrical circuits into each classroom, Barter said. But other schools may not have the same expenses, he said, pointing out that Conners-Emerson is housed in an older building that needed electrical upgrading anyway.

The school also purchased three metal cabinets at $700 apiece to store the laptops. A less expensive alternative would be to commission shop students or volunteer parents to build similar units, Barter said.

“Things came on us quickly and we had to take some furniture money to do it,” he said.

But he wasn’t complaining. “The way I look at it, if someone going’s to give you a house would you be willing to pay for a refrigerator? Compared to $140,000 worth of computers, [the school’s cost] is a drop in the bucket,” Barter said.

Still at risk

Meanwhile, in light of the $180 million budget shortfall, the laptop program continues to run the risk of being drained by the Legislature to fund state government.

“We’re all realistic that something could happen,” said Department of Education spokesman Yellow Light Breen.

So far, the $25 million laptop fund — plus about $9 million from the Maine School and Library Network and other contributions — is still intact and is intended to pay for the four-year Apple contract.

The goal is to raise another $15 million to support the program, which may continue into high school.

“We’re working on it pretty aggressively. We think we have some good prospects,” said Breen. So far the Gates Foundation has contributed $1 million, the MBNA Foundation has pledged another million, and several banks have donated almost $100,000.

Meanwhile, summer promises to be busy with laptop-related activities. Conners-Emerson teachers will develop lesson plans to integrate laptops with curriculum and the state’s Learning Results, Chappe said.

Teachers also will put together “a package of laptop skills” to help youngsters search the Internet and evaluate the quality of Web sites, said Chappe.

Two-day training sessions for seventh-grade teachers will be conducted around the state over the next few months, Barter said. Conners-Emerson will hold a workshop in July.

Barter’s work also will continue at full speed as he updates the laptops with the most recent software. The current seventh-graders will use the same laptops next year, while the incoming seventh-graders will receive new devices, he said.

Although they currently take the laptops home each night, students will not have them at their disposal over the summer, Barter said. “It’s too much of a risk to have them go home. On a daily basis we have contact and control, but summer’s just too much,” he said.

Unexpected feedback

Barter gets feedback about laptops in unexpected ways. One parent corralled him in the parking lot Thursday morning to tell him that although she had been skeptical about the program, “her kids are doing great things. They’re really anxious to get their homework done, and they’re more organized,” he said.

Barter received another laptop plug a week or so ago after the director of the MDI Water Quality Coalition visited Smallidge’s science class and found to her surprise that the laptops enhanced a discussion on water-borne illnesses.

Jane Disney, a former teacher, told Barter that the seventh-graders used the laptops to quickly locate information about typhoid and cholera, and that the ensuing conversation became “the richest 40 minutes I’ve spent with students.”

“They were teaching me, they were teaching each other, they were teaching themselves. We were moving at light speed,” Disney said.

While she initially thought laptops would be “limiting,” Disney said in a telephone interview that her experience at Conners-Emerson has changed her mind.

Special education teacher Kim O’Brien popped into Marc Chappe’s classroom to contribute her share of praise.

Laptops have “leveled the playing field” for many students with learning disabilities, she said.

The machines have eliminated the “physical struggle” of putting pencil to paper and allowed kids with illegible handwriting to see their words clearly on the screen, she said.

The Internet makes it easy to locate appropriate nonfiction reading material, according to O’Brien. “There are so many Web pages with technical information in language kids can understand,” she said.

Meanwhile, although the recess bell had recently sounded, kids in Brotzman’s room were staying put, heads bent over their laptops.

One student was typing a report, another was looking at an atlas and still another was e-mailing her teacher to see if she had any homework.

In the past, the kids would have been grumbling about the rainy weather ruining their free time, Brotzman said. But laptops have changed all that.





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