Hands-On Learning

The Avery Coonley School is an independent, non-denominational elementary school serving academically gifted pre-K through eighth-grade children. Fourth-grade teachers Mrs. Jennifer Garetto and Mrs. Laura Bojkovski researched existing handheld computer projects at other schools and determined that most programs address limited components of students’ educational needs. Desiring a more comprehensive solution, the educators pioneered an innovative program to seamlessly integrate handheld computers into all areas of the curriculum and foster increased student organization. The school also decided to hold students accountable for the palmOne handhelds throughout the day and allow students to take them home at night as preparation for the itinerancy of Middle School the following year.

Although small in size, a handheld is a powerful learning device that helps the student become a better reviewer, note-taker, writer, mathematician, and all-around organized individual. Garetto and Bojkvoski quickly realized that if not properly managed, the handhelds could cease to be an educational aid and become a diversion. Therefore, the educators crafted a strategy to plan, prepare, educate, and integrate handhelds into their classroom.

Planning was the most time-consuming part of the initiative. Garetto and Bojkovski relied on Avery’s Director of Technology, Joseph Janovjak, along with the rest of the Technology Department for crucial input regarding equipment, infrastructure and support, while the educators planned strategies to address classroom management, student responsibility, and parent expectations. The teachers reviewed their existing curriculum and found areas where the handhelds could be integrated with little modification while adding significant value to the learning process. Garetto and Bojkvoski agreed to replace note taking, homework planners, and the writing process with handheld functions Memo Pad and Tasks and the word processing software package Documents to Go. They planned enhancements to the science and social studies curricula through collaborative research projects via the ‘beaming’ capabilities inherent in handheld devices. The educators also procured NoviiAnimator, an animation software solution, which allows students to creatively demonstrate their understanding of scientific and mathematic processes. Garetto and Bojkovski determined they could reduce paper consumption by ‘beaming' assignments to students instead of distributing photocopies, and found Quizzler, a software assessment package, which allows educators to implement paperless quizzes.

With ideas in place for the modified curriculum, Garetto and Bojkovski prepared to educate and integrate. The educators relied on Janovjak to procure a full cache of handhelds, charging stations, protective cases, a Bluetooth printer for wireless printing, and a Margi Presenter-to-Go, which allows palmOne handhelds to interface with LCD projectors. The educators handled classroom details including software installation, synchronization and charging processes and locations, and usage guidelines. The teachers focused on cultivating an environment where students could use tools that complement their learning styles, recognizing the natural alignment between young people’s tendency toward technology and the educational benefits of adopting the handheld initiative. To accomplish this, Garetto and Bojkvoski created a license program for students to demonstrate their responsibility before taking equipment home and scheduled ‘Handhelds Parent Night’ to manage parent expectations regarding the increased responsibility.

Garetto and Bojkvoski implemented the ‘Pilot License’ program to educate students on proper care and usage, as well as to ensure that the nine-year-olds possessed the appropriate maturity and responsibility necessary to take their handhelds home. The students participated in seven mini-lessons on hardware basics, graffiti, calendaring, tasks, word processing, beaming, and hot synching. As students mastered each new skill, they earned a qualification mark on their ‘provisional’ licenses, and after satisfying all requirements, they were issued ‘Handheld Operator’s Licenses’ to reward their efforts. To further cement student mastery of the handhelds, the educators applied the well-known pedagogy ‘people retain what they teach’ and structured the parent night around student-led mini-lessons and tech support. They also interacted with parents to answer questions, explain home technology requirements, and address parent concerns.

According to Bojkovski, “Taking time to plan and prepare was crucial to the program’s success. It helped us anticipate many obstacles and find appropriate solutions.”

As Garetto and Bojkovski fully integrated the handhelds, the students whole-heartedly embraced their use. Benefits include:

  • Documents to Go reduced the need for computer lab access and benefited all areas of the curriculum.
  • Science lab and research project collaboration improved due to students beaming data to each other.
  • Field trips were more productive as students transferred classroom lessons to authentic, hands-on experiences by taking pictures, drawing sketches, and creating charts.
  • Language arts was simplified by beaming worksheets to students, compiling vocabulary lists and learning definitions via an optional dictionary software chip, and writing assessments via word processed essays, in addition to the obvious reduction in paper consumption.
  • The math curriculum incorporated spreadsheets to organize survey data and master accounting lessons, reinforce new concepts by animating algorithms, and more easily assess computational skills via Quizzler.
  • Students’ social studies research efforts benefited from handheld Internet access, and Quizzler was used to master various facts, including states and capitals.
  • Student organization improved because notes, assignments, and projects were in one location.
  • Long-term projects were easier to manage because fourth-graders have a much steeper learning curve with organization than with technology.

Perhaps the best example of comprehensive integration occurred while studying prairies. Students took notes on class lessons and activities in their handhelds; they then were beamed data sheets from their teachers. The class subsequently visited a local arboretum where students measured biotic factors with probe attachments, took pictures of flowers studied in class, and performed a lab study in which they drew pictures of what they observed under microscopes. Upon return to school, students shared data via beaming, combined field trip data with classroom data, and wrote comprehensive reports via Documents to Go. The unit culminated with a Quizzler, which was easier to administer, more fun to take, and easier to assess than traditional paper and pencil assessments.

When asked about his handheld, fourth-grader Andrew replied, “They are really cool. They’re really awesome and you need them. I don’t know what I’d do without one!”

With handhelds in hand day and night, students were engaged in the learning process, organized, and motivated to study. Due to the positive feedback from students and parents, Avery will continue the program in 2004-2005 and expand it to include grades five through eight. The successful integration of the Palm Program is a continuing opportunity to provide immediate and unlimited access to technology.

When asked about her personal motivation for this program, Mrs. Garetto replied, “By equipping our students with this newest educational technology, we are merely providing them with the tools required to succeed in a digital age. While we shouldn’t lose sight of the basics, it only makes sense that we reach this technologically literate generation on their own ground.”

Jenny Garetto