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SOUTH-CENTRAL : Computer Lessons With Teacher Input

June 13, 1993|GEOFF BOUCHER

For the past decade, bringing computers into South-Central classrooms has been a piecemeal campaign, consisting of donations or purchases of random, often impractical hardware rarely accompanied by proper support materials.

Rather than afford students the opportunity to gain practical, marketable computer skills that will be invaluable in an increasingly computer-oriented world, much of the equipment has grown dusty and outdated in a corner, "holding up a potted plant," said Alice McHugh, founder of Technology for Results in Elementary Education (TREE).

TREE, a nonprofit program that works with teachers in 13 South-Central schools, is hoping to change that trend by tailoring technology to classrooms. The program has teachers and technical advisers collaborating to find ways to apply cutting-edge equipment in the class. Funding is sought from the private sector.

The program's attention to detail and function helps teachers make education as exciting as the entertainment activities vying for young people's attention, and the program can open new worlds to students inundated with reasons to drift away from school, said Lisa Beebe, a fifth-grade teacher at Lenicia B. Weemes Elementary School.

Using computers and information networks, a laser-disc player and a video camera in her classroom--all accompanied by training for her and support materials--Beebe said she has been given a powerful tool.

"The kids have changed; they're different," Beebe said as three of her students carefully negotiated a computer mouse through an art program. "Rich kids, poor kids--they're all different now. They're bombarded by images and information. TV, Nintendo, videos, radio--it's all coming at them, and we have to show them a way to use that to grow."

Unlike earlier campaigns to bring high-tech equipment into classrooms, McHugh said TREE channels as much as 50% of its private-sector donations into training teachers to use the hardware and accompanying software.

"Technology has had less impact on education than any other part of society, and it's because it has been selected and applied from the top down," she said. "We get the teachers to tell us what will work."

With that high comfort level, educators can bring technology to bear on the teaching difficulties inherent in South-Central, McHugh said.

"The fact that it grabs the kids' attention and keeps it makes technology a potent force, and it can be even more valuable in teaching situations complicated by overly large classes or kids with different levels of language proficiency," she said, citing the individual learning pace provided by computers.

Beebe's students play decision-making computer games such as "Oregon Trail," where they coordinate an expedition across an electronic version of the American frontier. Lectures on science are accompanied by vivid, laser disc-generated images that add excitement to the material.

They also work daily on computers in small groups, huddled around a terminal while a math or art program keeps the class material lively and accessible. The laser discs are accompanied by an outline for Beebe to read as the students watch the images, and the children get workbooks to fill out as they follow the lessons.

"When they encounter a problem on the computer, they just sit there and sit there until they figure it out," Beebe said. "They get frustrated, but if it were a book they would just close it, get up and leave."

To one of her students, Edwin Chavez, the computers that helped him access information about Presidents and draw landscapes are the best part of school.

"I like doing projects on them," the 10-year-old said. "It's more interesting than doing it with books, and you don't get a headache from reading, like with books. I want to be a scientist when I get older so I can learn what makes the computers work."

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