Technology in Fort Smith
By Michael Simkins
Improving literacy and motivating kids—those are two of the main goals driving technology integration in the Fort Smith (AR) Public Schools. In January 2005, I had the good fortune of being able to visit several Fort Smith classrooms and see firsthand how students and teachers are putting technology to use in service of those goals.
At Sutton Elementary School, thanks to a grant from the Enhancing Education Through Technology program, 200 fourth through sixth grade students have access to Palm® handheld computers for daily use. When I walked into Janet Fretheim’s sixth grade class, the solar system was the topic of the day. Students were using an application called iKWL to help them consider what they already know about the topic, what they wonder about, and—ultimately—to record what they have learned.
After working independently to read from different reference books and take notes, students moved into small groups to share what they had learned. I joined the Mars group and got quite an earful. "Mars is circled by 2 moons. They orbit Mars." "I learned that Mars once had water that flowed over the surface. And millions of years ago it might even have had oceans." "The Romans thought of Mars because they thought of blood and war." "If you step on Mars without protection, your blood will boil inside your skin!" Ouch! I’ll be sure to pack my asbestos spacesuit.
In Bob Watkins’s fifth grade, students were also busy taking notes, but their subject was more down to earth. As they watched a streaming video about biomes, they took notes on their handheld computers using special packable keyboards . Though their computers and keyboards performed flawlessly, the video was not so cooperative and kept pausing on its own. Everyone took this in stride, and Mr. Watkins quipped, "Maybe the video is smarter than we think and it’s really stopping now and then so you can catch up with your notes!"
A handheld application called Sketchy was being used by fourth graders in Mrs. Fletcher’s class to help them learn vocabulary words. As student Linda Tran shared with me:
"It's like making cartoons. You can illustrate the words and then play the animation. For example, in Lesson 10 I illustrated six vocabulary words. The mouse is the star! In the first picture, the mouse is humble; he's peeking out of his mouse hole. Humble means unimportant me, so he's just looking out, no one is recognizing him. In this one, the word is endure. He's looking out and sees the cat and frowns. That cat’s trying to get him! The poor mouse has to put up and suffer with that cat."
"Drawing the pictures makes it easier to remember the words and the definitions," says Linda. "And of course, we get a test every week." Of course! Some things technology has not changed.
Though I saw lots of interesting uses of handheld computers, Fort Smith teachers make use of other technology as well. For example, at Sunnymede Elementary, each teacher has a digital camera, an ELMO, and a scan converter to allow projection on classroom televisions. Sunnymede is a Cox model technology school, and Cox funded much of the school’s new technology.
The literacy focus was obvious in fourth grade teacher Robyn Shotzman’s technology-assisted lesson on "functional text" (R10.4.1.8 in the Arkansas framework!). Students were using Microsoft® Publisher to create brochures about their school that could help a new student or community member get a quick grasp of Sunnymede and what goes on there. Selene was kind enough to show me her brochure, which was still a work in progress. "Right now, I’m writing about lunch. I’m going to have three panels when I’m done: the daily assembly, lunch, and recess."
Ms. Shotzman’s students also use Microsoft® Excel as a tool for meaningful work in mathematics . "We took a survey of the favorite stories of all the students in the class," Lashawna tells me. "We picked out the stories we thought would be good and put them on a list. Then the kids closed their eyes and raised their hands for the one story they liked best. The teacher did the counting. We typed the names of the stories in Excel, and then we put the number of people who voted for each one. Then we chose a chart. I picked a pie graph." Good choice, Lashawna.
What are the results of all this technology infusion? "It’s too early to see evidence in test scores," says district technology coordinator George Lieux, "but you can see for yourself how engaged the kids are. And would you believe, the kids want to write. They even ask to write more!" The focus may be literacy, but that’s music to any teacher’s ears.