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Geoffrey Duke <[log in to unmask]>
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Mon, 16 Jun 2003 10:26:08 -0400
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Headline:  Maine ushers in a laptop revolution in the schools
Byline:  Abraham McLaughlin Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
Date: 06/16/2003

(FREEPORT, MAINE)Until this year, Emily Foster - a red-haired,
freckle-faced, seventh
grader - "despised" math.

"I never used to be that good at math," she says, flashing a bright,
toothy smile. "But now, I've gotten a lot more confident."

A big reason for Emily's improvement is the small white computer she
totes around Freeport Middle School. The laptop is part of Maine's
first-in-the-nation program, which gave the state's 17,000
seventh-graders their own new Apple computers last fall.

Now, at the end of the experiment's first year, the consensus seems to
be that it's a hit. Emily says she especially loves "Speedmath," a quiz
game she has spent many hours outside class playing.

And teachers say laptops enable them to automate parts of the learning
process - including quizzes and tests - thus leaving more time for them
to focus on each child's needs. One report says it's even cutting down
on absenteeism and misbehavior.

There are downsides, including a greater risk of plagiarizing
information from websites. But many folks in this largely rural,
lower-tech state, relish the laptops' arrival - and Maine's pioneering
role in America's march toward higher-tech learning. In fact, the $37.2
million program is so popular that Maine plans to expand it to
eighth-graders next year - despite a $1.2 billion state budget gap.

Since the computers are all linked to a wireless network, "a student
can be walking down the hall and logging onto the web," says Kevin
Perkins, assistant principal at Memorial Middle School in South

"The laptops give them access to many more resources," than the school
library, he adds. The computers let them "go much more in-depth than
they ever did before." They can create PowerPoint presentations, make
movies, and design brochures.

Of course, many people here agree that the laptops aren't substitutes
for good teaching. After all, it was Alex Briasco-Brin - Emily's
long-haired, high-energy, math teacher - who wrote the computer game
that sparked her love of math.

An unusual math class

Mr. Briasco-Brin is no ordinary math teacher. This year, his students
launched model rockets, dabbled in aerodynamics and aspect-loading
ratios, and learned to calculate baseball statistics. They've even done

"Mr. Brin," as the students call him, is often more hyper than his
charges. Each time the school's office manager calls the classroom, for
instance, he instructs the kids to mimic an animal. "Cows," he yells
one afternoon as he picks up the phone. His students moo like

But Briasco-Brin insists that the laptops have transformed his
teaching. He says one of the best things he's done is develop the
Speedmath program. Similar to a video game, the program gives the
children progressively more difficult math problems, until they answer
one incorrectly. Students compete to see who can get the most correct
answers in a row.

"They've gotten hours and hours more practice than they did without the
computers," Briasco-Brin says. Freeport students can even take their
laptops home for extra practice. (Only about one-third of the state's
schools let students take laptops home.)

The laptops have also made it easier for teachers to design and grade
tests. Now that the computers do more of the work, Briasco-Brin can
spend time giving students one-on-one instruction. "That's the best
teaching situation - to get to know kids individually," he says.

Briasco-Brin has embraced the new technology from the start, but others
were more dubious. Elizabeth Miller is a seventh-grade social-studies
teacher at Memorial Middle School. She describes herself as a
techno-skeptic, who still uses a rotary phone.

When the laptops arrived at Memorial, Ms. Miller had two worries: that
she wouldn't be able to learn the technology and that the kids couldn't
be trusted to safely and responsibly handle the $1,700 machines. "I
have kids who can't even remember to bring pencils to class," she says,
laughing. But now she's a believer, even if a slightly cautious one.

Studying Silk Road by silicon

In a recent world-geography unit on the Silk Road, Miller's students
scoured the web for details about cities along the ancient trade route.
She found that the lower-level readers were dramatically more engaged.
"There's something about having it on the screen that means they're
more willing to stick with it," she says.

After researching the topic, the students wrote and edited their papers
during class - instead of in the computer lab - as Ms. Miller glanced
over their shoulders. "I got a far better quality of writing than I've
seen in my seven years of teaching," she says.

One danger of using the laptops, though, was plagiarism - which is made
much easier by the copy-and-paste feature of many programs. "If a
sentence has a dependent clause smack in the middle, and if there are
too many three-syllable words, you start to wonder," Miller says.

But there has been relatively little dishonesty or abuse, school
officials say. Briasco-Brin's students profess little desire to play
illicit games or instant-message their friends during class. They know
their computer will be taken away quickly if they do. And they know
that John Lunt, the school's computer guru, can see everything
happening on their computer from his office.

What research shows

Overall, a mid-year evaluation, conducted by researchers from the
University of Southern Maine, found that students using the laptops
were more engaged in school, doing more homework, and misbehaving less
than in previous years.

Other studies have come to conflicting conclusions about laptop use.
But regardless, the trend is spreading. Districts from Florida to
Virginia to California have launched similar projects.

Yet, for Ryan Petersen, one of Briasco-Brin's students, the computer
has been nothing but great. He was earning C-minuses in math last year.
Now he's getting B-pluses. The computer has also become an extension of
his personality. He has pictures of fast-and-furious cars on his
screensaver, for instance. The biggest bummer about the laptops, he
says, is that he and his classmates must turn them in before the end of
the school year. "I was really hoping that I could take it home over
the summer."

(c) Copyright 2003 The Christian Science Monitor.  All rights reserved.

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