Nearly 17,000 of Maine's seventh-graders are expected to get new
laptop computers this month, and chances are that some of the kids
will learn to use them faster than their teachers.
But not to worry, advise educators who piloted use of the laptops
at nine demonstration schools last spring. They say teachers can use
that youthful expertise to benefit both themselves and students.
"You need to be able to say to the kids: 'I can't do this. You
figure it out,' " said Mark Gunter, a seventh-grade teacher at
Shapleigh Middle School in Kittery, one of the pilot schools. "For a
12- or 13-year-old kid to show someone my age something - I'm 46 - a
kid really has a feeling of success."
After more than two years of planning, national publicity and
legislative controversy, Gov. Angus King's laptop initiative is
becoming a reality, providing all of Maine's seventh-graders with
new iBook laptops from Apple Computer. Eighth-graders statewide are
due to get the laptops next year.
The computers have the potential to create radical changes in
teaching and learning. But Maine teachers don't have to feel as
though they're embarking on a vast learning experiment in the dark.
Instead, they can draw on the experiences of nine schools where the
state distributed nearly 700 laptops to teachers and students last
Those who used the computers at those so-called "exploration"
schools are sharing tips on the best uses of the new technology and
how to avoid problems with it. The advice - some of which can be
viewed on a Web site about the laptop initiative,
www.mainelearns.org - ranges from practical tips such as having kids
recharge their laptops during lunch breaks so they don't run out of
power in class, to broader suggestions on how to facilitate use of
the laptops at the school and classroom level.
"My advice that I've been sharing with as many schools as
possible has been: 'Don't rush things,' " said Kelly Arsenault,
technology coordinator for Lyman Moore Middle School in Portland,
one of the pilot sites.
For example, she says, schools should make sure that students
understand their responsibilities regarding the laptops - which cost
about $1,000 each and belong to the state, not the students - before
they're loaned out for the school year.
The laptops have been delivered to schools, but the state is
leaving decisions about when to hand them out and whether to let
students take them home up to local policy makers, says Joanne
Steneck, manager of the laptop initiative for the state. Most
schools are expected to distribute them shortly after school
The pilot schools received their laptops in March, and educators
say the computers had positive effects in the classroom in just a
Eric Chamberlin, a social studies teacher at Boothbay Region
Elementary School, says attendance and classroom behavior both
Gunter had a similar experience at the middle school in Kittery.
"On the last day of school, my students were still working hard (on
a Web-based project)," he said. "They were focused right to the end.
That's generally not what happens with students at the end of the
Still, some teachers are feeling overwhelmed at the prospect of
teaching with a technology that - even with the opportunity to get
training this summer - they may know less about than their students.
"The teacher in the past was the one who knew everything," Gunter
said. "This is kind of a whole new thing."
However, teachers at the pilot schools say they adapted
"I had never created a Web site before. I was terrified," said
Kate Braunfels, a language arts teacher at Lyman Moore. But with
help from others at the school, she was able to do it.
She also realized that she didn't have to have all the answers.
"I'd have a question come up that I couldn't answer and I'd ask out
loud, 'Who knows how to link that up?' and 10 hands would go
That helps students, teachers say.
"We had numerous examples last year of students who had
historically been looked at as struggling students," said
Chamberlin, at the Boothbay region school. "But lo and behold they
were very good at computers and took leadership roles in the
classroom. The self-confidence boost that took place there was
nothing short of phenomenal."
That changes the classroom dynamic, but does not mean turning the
teaching reins over to computer-whiz students, the educators
Teachers are needed to give students a deeper understanding of
how they can use computers to learn, Chamberlin says. For example,
he says, many students can easily access the Internet, but "they
don't know how to weed out good information from bad. They really
don't know how to do quality searches."
Arsenault says she's been telling teachers "not to panic, because
what you're going to be doing is using these as a tool, just as you
would a pencil and paper."
Braunfels describes the laptops as a "fabulous" tool. She had her
seventh-graders research an author of their choice and create a Web
site showing their results.
With the computers, she said, "the research piece was just so
much easier." Some students actually contacted the authors by
However, teachers shouldn't feel pressured to use the computers
for every lesson, the educators say. "Some things are better done
with pencil and paper," Arsenault said.
Gunter designated some days in his classroom as laptop-free.
"Kids in science class don't want to do virtual experiments," he
said. "They want to do the real thing."
Some critics have questioned whether students with laptops are
really learning about the subjects they're studying or just learning
to make showy - but superficial - computer presentations.
Gunter says that's a concern teachers should consider.
He assigned his students to make a slide show about Abraham
Lincoln. Some really got into exploring different color combinations
on the computer and how to make the slides fade in and out. But some
of their results caused him to ask: "Well, it's a cool presentation
but did you learn anything?"
Gunter says the experience taught him that he needs to give more
specific directions to students about what in-depth information they
must include in projects.
Still, he says, teachers also need to realize that knowing how to
manipulate a computer is a valuable tool for today's youngsters.
"The computer is going to be part of their lives," he said. "The
skills they learn on them are almost as important as the factual
stuff they're learning."
Staff Writer Tess Nacelewicz can be contacted at 791- 6367 or