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LEARNING BY LAPTOP

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by Ann Quigley

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It's Monday morning at Trevor Day School, a private school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and fifth grade math class has just ended. "Okay, log off, everyone. That's it for now," says Jack Dexter, math teacher and head of the school. The children, who have spent the past hour working in groups, and using the spreadsheet application "Excel" to solve rate, distance, and time problems, are happy to comply. Chattering among themselves, the children, who wear red T-shirts emblazoned with their school name, hinge their laptops shut, shrug their backpacks onto their shoulders, and head off to gym.

Wait a minute. Every child in the class has a laptop?

Yes, indeed. Fifth, sixth, and ninth graders at Trevor Day School as well as a small group of fourth and fifth graders at P.S. 19 in the East Village can truly call themselves pioneers. For they are just about the only kids in the city at the moment who are making use of laptops for almost every subject at school.

Trevor Day School is one of 30 U.S. schools which joined up with Microsoft and Toshiba in 1996 to participate in a pilot program called The Schoolbook Project, which provides students with laptops. Parents purchase or lease the Toshiba laptops, and kids are responsible for taking care of them as they would any textbook.

"Laptops have expanded the curriculum of my classes," says Cathy Craig, who teaches English and history at Trevor Day School. Laptops are great timesavers, according to Craig. Students type their essays in "Microsoft Word", leaving wide margins on either side for Craig's comments. Also, Craig and the children use the laptops to construct story-maps for all assigned works of literature. These maps trace character and plot development. Craig is thrilled because they get more story-mapping done, and she spends less class time writing on the blackboard.

In language class, kids might play a game like battleship on their computers - in French. In art class, Trevor Day students don't use bits and bytes, but still make use of those traditional materials: magic markers, paint, paper, ink, etc. They do, however, have a creative application on their laptops called "Powerpoint", which lets them make playful and creative use of text and images. Students use "Powerpoint" to create presentations for classes like history and science, which are presented to the class using a slide projector or a television.

The 12 children who are part of the pilot Computers and the Arts Project (C.A.P.), by contrast, use a painting, drawing and graphics application called "Kid Pix" for many of their academic subjects. The students in the C.A.P. program, which is privately funded and hosted by P.S. 19, are all from District One, a Lower East Side school district. In working out the curriculum for the C.A.P. students, the program's creator, Deena Rosenberg, was influenced by Harvard's Howard Gardner's work on multiple intelligences, which posits that kids have different "points of entry" - visual, musical, verbal, mathematical - which help them to learn better. Music, dance and drama are a big part of the school day for C.A.P. kids. C.A.P. students also make use of CD-ROMS like "Turbo Math", "Chessmaster", National Geographic's "Science Series", and "The Way Things Work".

Though C.A.P. students and Trevor Day School students are the lonely ones on the totem pole at the moment, administrators at both schools believe it won't be for long.

"Schools tend to take a wait-and-see approach to technology," says Jack Dexter. The truth of Dr. Dexter's words is reinforced by the following quote, attributed to the National Association of Teachers, in 1907: "Students today depend too much on ink. They don't know how to use a pen knife to sharpen a pencil. Pen and ink will never replace the pencil."

Students in the C.A.P. program and at Trevor Day have embraced the idea of using laptops as eagerly as their predecessors took to using pens. Indeed, there are several students at Trevor Day, Dexter notes wryly, "who could teach computer applications to teachers."

Dexter and Ricci Anderson, one of the technology coordinators at Trevor Day, recently attended a Microsoft-Toshiba summit for the 30 pilot schools of The Schoolbook Project, as well as for schools interested in incorporating laptops into their classrooms. There they fielded questions from everyone on how their program is doing, how difficult it was to get started, and how the curriculum had to be adjusted to accommodate the laptop.

"Educators have to be the creators as far as incorporating the laptops into the curriculum," notes Ricci Anderson.

"Microsoft and Toshiba don't know about that stuff." At P.S. 19, C.A.P. students spend a bit of time each week tutoring kids in the school who aren't part of the program, and there are plans to widen laptop usage in District One, first to the students at P.S. 19, and then to other schools in the district.

Those who aren't sold on the idea of laptops in the classroom point out that laptops can be stolen, they can break, and they can lead to kids' being isolated from one another as they work. The administrators of both C.A.P. and Trevor Day School address this last issue by having students work in groups, where group problem-solving is encouraged. These students are lucky, the administrators note, not to have to deal with a problem sometimes found in schools where only a few computers are available: more aggressive kids monopolizing the technology. To Anderson of Trevor Day, none of the drawbacks that others cite are unresolvable, and none can make a dent in the overwhelming benefits the computer provides.

"Laptops mean anytime, anywhere learning," he enthuses. Rosenberg, of the C.A.P. project, is equally enthusiastic, citing vastly improved reading and math scores since these kids entered the C.A.P. program in 1996.

The laptops are heavy; they weigh about four pounds, which is quite a load for Trevor Day School students to carry back and forth to school. That's the one downside Dexter could think of when asked to describe any difficulties he had encountered in being one of the pilot schools of The Schoolbook Project. This is something the C.A.P. kids don't have to deal with, since the school owns the laptops and they stay at school overnight.

Heavy computers seem to be a burden that Trevor Day students, being pioneers, are willing to shoulder, however. The laptops are fun, after all. And there's a good chance that with the changes Trevor Day School and the C.A.P. students are setting in motion, students of tomorrow will be walking around with five-ounce, paper thin laptops that do the same work as the chunky laptops of today. Considering the changes we've all seen even in the past 20 years in the world of technology, that's not so farfetched.


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