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Keyboard Wizards Getting an Education for the 21st Century


GLENDORA — Everyone in Carol Gilkinson's third-grade class is a technical wizard of some kind.

There's Nicholas Pardon, who operates the laser disc player. Brooke Peterson boots up the desktop publishing software. Bianca Monreal is a trouble-shooter on the keyboard. They learn in a Glendora classroom that hums with the sounds of the 21st Century and a teacher who in January was one of five in America awarded Christa McAuliffe fellowships for their work in educational technology.

Crammed into Gilkinson's classroom at Washington Elementary School are 10 personal computers, two modems, a photocopy machine, two telephones, a fax machine, a videocassette recorder, a television, a computer scanner, a video camera and a video laser disc player.

There are also stacks of software that allow 8- and 9-year-olds to roam electronically through Grolier's Encyclopedia and swap stories with students as far away as Russia and Belgium.

Much of the equipment has been purchased through grants. Some comes from the Charter Oak Unified School District or is donated by high-tech firms and computer companies. Gilkinson also relies on civic donations, parental rummage sales and awards, and she often shells out her own money.

The prestigious McAuliffe Fellowship--honoring the teacher-astronaut who was one of seven killed aboard the Challenger space shuttle--comes with $5,000 and the opportunity to help plan a Stanford University conference on educational telecommunications.

Gilkinson says she will funnel her award money back into the classroom.

"She has been a real beacon of light for many people," said Craig Blurton, director of the California Technology Project, which receives state funds to promote technology in education. "She does a magnificent job of showing how technology can improve learning. If we could clone Carol, the issue of how to get technology into the classroom would be moot."

In Gilkinson's classroom, students work in small groups or individually while she supervises, often walking around with a portable phone with which she talks to parents, school administrators and other teachers.

Pupils do almost all of their lessons on computers, from math to geography and science. Most of the class is still digesting multiplication, for instance, but Gilkinson says one of her students, who is two years ahead in math, can use the computer to forge ahead into fractions.

"A lot of children get into trouble, historically, because they can't sit still, but if they can use the keyboard, they can move at their own pace," Gilkinson says.

Gilkinson calls computers a great equalizer because they hook in kids who might not otherwise enjoy the three Rs, while also challenging bright kids who are easily bored in traditional classrooms. "If kids don't feel success in school by the end of third grade, you can begin to see who's going to drop out," she says. "Computers give every student an alternative way to experience success."

Gilkinson knows, of course, that high-tech equipment alone can't solve the problems faced by public schools today. But she points out that computers can motivate some youngsters weaned on video games, MTV and electronic gadgets.

Gilkinson's students plead to stay in during recess to work on their computer projects. They hang around after school, eyes glued to the phosphorescent screens. One boy slipped into class during last year's Easter week to work on a science program while his parents waited impatiently to head off for their family vacation.

Jeanine Pardon, mother of 8-year-old Nicholas, says her son begs to stay after school to work on a computer newspaper.

"It concerns me because he doesn't want to go outside and play," Pardon says. "But he thrives on these computers, and Mrs. Gilkinson has taught him things he can't get anywhere else."

One recent Friday afternoon, Bianca, 8, deftly demonstrated the Typewrite, a portable laptop machine that teaches students to type, compose and edit their class writing assignments. Bianca's fingers glided swiftly and surely across the keys.

"Writing with your hand takes longer and your hand gets tired, but with a computer it's so exciting," she said. "You just push a button and you can make up stories for people and save them on a disc."

Gilkinson says she has seen aptitude in math and science rise since students began using computers in class. Their work is more creative, their essays longer and more polished. In addition, visual skills are blossoming and immigrant children who barely speak English are learning more quickly, she says.

She complains that today's standardized exams don't measure skills honed by her students, such as cooperative learning, problem solving and visual creativity. "The old tests measure rote thinking and memorization skills, but those aren't skills you need for the workplace of the 21st Century," she says.

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