PALMing Your Way Through the Educational Maze

Successful teaching is like navigating a maze; however, instead of twisting corridors of head-high boxwood or end-walls of streaky brick, a teacher’s maze is built of professional development, course and individual lesson planning, administrative details and managing the classroom. Each part of this teaching maze is fraught with dead-ends and time-consuming false steps toward the “right direction.” The challenge of successfully negotiating this labyrinth has been a point of interest for the two authors during their more than 40 years of combined classroom experience; they suggest handhelds offer teachers viable tools for piloting their way through the shoals of education.

Like most teachers, the authors considered a handheld as a sort of GameBoy that could hold a lot of addresses and phone numbers. They changed their minds while researching a project on the use of Palm III handheld devices in elementary classrooms. Both discovered that this miniature computer has a lot to offer educators who are seeking a way to slide more easily through the maze of educational tasks/obligations that face teachers every day, in and out of their classrooms. These tasks include grade book maintenance, attendance records, accessing up-to-date parent/guardian contact log information, easily available test and guidance data on students, recording quiz and class participation scores and keeping accurate textbook inventories. Teacher obligations include generating study and assessment materials, scheduling and remembering parent conferences, sharing successful lessons with peers, offering advice to mentored professionals, and acknowledging important events in both school personnel’s and your personal lives.

The handheld can be used to help teachers cope with and conquer the educational maze in four areas: Professional development, Administrative tasks, Lessons and Managing the classroom. Teachers who PALM their way through the education maze will find their way out quickly and efficiently.

Professional Development

Teaching is a professionin constant flux. Classroom teachers must become familiar with new methodologies, pedagogies and tools. Developing professionally means re-thinking, re-evaluating and refreshing methods and tools to make them more effective. Consider how many teachers use whiteboards now as opposed to old-fashioned dusty chalkboards, or how many use PowerPoint presentations instead of loading slides onto a carousel projector.

A new teacher tool is a handheld, a device with advantages for a teacher’s professional development. Perhaps the primary advantage is the handheld’s ability to store text. Just imagine one of those interminable meetings at which you take (and then misplace?) notes on scraps of papers, margins of agendas, or traditional legal pads. Once the meeting has ended, you must transcribe the notes, if you can still read what you scribbled. A handheld allows for legible and archive-able electronic note taking that you can then beam to other handheld-equipped teachers. The last function allows professional collaboration as teachers read and edit notes beamed by each other, and ensures rich discussion of the data after any meeting or workshop. It also prevents the loss of important information. By sharing notes and adding to them, everyone has the advantage of each member’s recall of important points and spontaneous ideas for articles, lessons or courses.

Another second advantage is the handheld’s ability to offer paperless organizational assistance. The calendar tool offers daily, weekly and monthly scheduling of one-time or recurring appointments and deadlines with alarms set to remind the user of impending dates and obligations. Some programs even attach contact and video information as well as important notes to a calendar entry, giving directions to the event and its agenda when the alarm sounds with an event-reminder. The To-Do tool allows the user to maintain and update those “I need to remember to” lists that currently pad teachers’ wallets, purses or briefcases. (Bassett, 2004)

A third advantage is the handheld’s ability to use beamed information. During a grade-level meeting, someone offers to be the leader and arrange meetings. Other members enter times and dates of their availability in their PDA calendars and beam these to the team leader. When the leader looks at the composite calendar, available blocks of time for all members will be obvious. The leader sets the schedule and beams it back to each member.

Administrative Tasks

Several years ago a conference lecturer discussed the wealth of “administrivia” with which teachers deal – all those mundane, yet essential tasks, i.e., attendance and grade record-keeping, textbook assignments, parent and peer teacher contacts, and student observations for IEP or AIP updates. Teachers have found that handheld devices can “significantly reduce” (Hudgins, 2001) the amount of time spent on such data entry.

Handhelds offer many software programs to assist teachers with administrative tasks.

  • ThoughtManager for Education from HandsHigh allows teachers to create and organize lesson plans, lectures and learning activities, design and give authentic assessments, and record student learning with checklists or rubrics. Teachers can also manage student records, including participation, behavior and specific tasks. For under $30, the program provides a flexible, yet manageable data base for teacher chores.
  • School Administrative Software by Rediker Software, Inc. ( contains attendance, grade book, schedules and discipline programs. Teachers can download student pictures to create visual seating charts and then take attendance by clicking on the student’s picture. Student information has the ability to be automatically published to a Website for parent perusal.
  • LessonPlan by Tapperware ( gives users the power to create and track lesson plans for multiple classes. The plans can be original format or inputted by template and can be printed out for distribution. This software tool costs under $18.00.


The key advantage of a handheld is its portability. It is essentially a portable mini-computer whose information is downloaded to a laptop or desktop computer after data has been collected. This portability allows teachers to create assignments that require electronic technology but do not require full size hardware. In fact, no paper need ever be involved as each lesson’s final document(s) may be beamed to the teacher for assessment.

There are many tailored lessons that take advantage of the handheld’s maneuverability:

Learning with Handhelds: Stock Market Risks
An Economics teacher could study risk-taking and decision-making by assigning money to different groups of students for investment in the stock market. The students keep definitions of terms as well as spreadsheets on their handhelds. They can beam quotes and changes to each other as well as maintain experience journals on Memo Pad. They can write reports with Word-to-Go and calculate percentages on Excel-to-Go or other spreadsheet programs. All these tasks are accomplished without the teacher hearing student complaints like, “That team has been on the computer too long.” or “When will the computer be ready for us to use?”

Learning with Handhelds: Walking the River’s Edge
A Science teacher interested in actual on-site watershed research might have students use handhelds as data-collection tools to test water quality. Students take notes on habitat inventory and pictures of water pollution, then create spreadsheets incorporating notes and images, which they then beam to each other for editing, with no waiting for a classmate to find a printer. Add-on probes allow the students to do “real science” as they test for pH, nitrate, dissolved oxygen, fecal coliform, air and water temperature, flow rates, turbidity, streambed analysis and benthic macro-invertebrate counts.

Learning with Handhelds: You Are What You Eat
A Health or Family Consumerism teacher could have students learn about human nutrition while developing an awareness of their own diet and eating behavior by using Memo Pad to track their personal eating habits for one week. Once the data are collected, they analyze the fndings in light of their increased understanding of the elements of good nutrition. Critical thinking occurs by having students propose changes to their diet and explain thoroughly why these changes would help their overall health and well-being. Next, the teacher could divide students into groups and beam each group a sample menu for a fictional family. Students would evaluate the eating habits of the family, take notes on their handhelds, beam those notes to the teacher at the end of each period, and present their recommendations to the class for a diet that will improve the nutritional value of the family’s meals.

Handhelds in the K-12 Environment
Language Arts teachers allow students to create, peer-edit and publish stories in Memo Pad on their handhelds. For example, after discussing the traits of a “scary character,” students would be asked to generate their own lists in Memo, and beam them to at least two peers in order to create a main character. Then, incident by incident, in round-robin fashion, each student within the writing group creates the next event in the story. Both peer editing and reviewing happen as the story is being created, not after the fact. Additionally, communication, editing and diplomacy skills are enhanced. When the story is completed, they beam (publish) the story to the rest of the class for review.

In addition, there are many examples of freeware and shareware offering teachers a multitude of handheld lessons.

Expedition ES
Math teachers take students outside to learn mapping and surveying skills with a piece of string and this program for a handheld. For $5, you can have an entire class discovering how tall a tree is, how wide a field is, or how far apart distant places are by using one piece of string and the stylus of the handheld. The equations come to life as the students are outside “doing math,” not inside reading it from a textbook.

Mr. Cring’s Classroom
Jason Cring, a teacher of Special Education at a New York high school, offers several lessons that he uses with his students. He writes Hall Passes on Notepad which provides a time/date stamp and saves paper. BooksLog allows his students to enter data about the books they read for the Regents Exam. B-Dicty, a freeware dictionary, assists students in all his classes to “know the word.” Inflation Master encourages his economics students to determine the value today of something they are reading about that was used 100 years ago. Cring also notes that individual educational plans (IEP) are much easier to write and to update when he uses Handango’s Observation Log program, a $10 piece of shareware.

Vocabulary Cards
German, Spanish and French language teachers are able to use a freeware program designed by Guenther Erhard to create vocabulary flashcards rather than “carrying around a large and heavy stack of flash cards.” (Erhard, 2004) Students can make sets of flashcards for a specific language, then use the cards to quiz themselves on the vocabulary in several formats. Also, the program maintains statistics on student achievement.

Pre-school teachers can utilize Rodrigo Marban’s KidColors, a freeware program that teaches colors and their names by having the students tap the color and see the name appear on the bottom of the handheld screen.

BeamBooks is a freeware program by Applied Thought that allows users to beam whole documents (books, papers, reviews, etc.) to other users who can edit and/or read the files.

Managing the Classroom

Teachers are concerned about how to make the most of the few minutes they have with their students each day. They ask themselves and others for advice in balancing book time, lecture time, group work and individual work with seating formats that are conducive to learning. They are desperate to take full advantage of the limited resources available in the individual classroom.

Handheld devices enable teachers to maximize their classroom resources in new ways.

  • When supplemental reading material is required for a class, teachers can beam the entire text to student devices, “eliminating the need to copy content or share limited texts” (McCampbell, 2001).
  • Student desks need not be arranged in rows so all can see the board, as teachers can place students in work groups and beam assignments to each group individually ( Billings and Kowalski, 2004).
  • Within a group, students can beam and edit information to create a truly collaborative document that can be published to the whole class. (DiGiano, et al., 2003)
  • Students’ competitive natures can be used to enhance learning when the teacher beams the same lesson to diverse groups, then at a pre-appointed check-time asks groups to beam their solutions to at least one other group. The group then checks their rival’s solution for holes or gaps and reports back to that group its findings. (DiGiano, et al., 2004)
  • Beam study guides to students who missed lessons or who need supplemental assignments. (Eib and Welton, 2004)
  • Minimize lecture time by beaming pre-prepared materials, worksheets or PowerPoint presentations to student devices. (Liu, et al., 2003)
  • Students can maintain a personal reflection log and beam it to the teacher for evaluation.

In conclusion, the maze of education is a mass of dead ends and blind alleys that can befuddle even the most experienced educators. There are just too many answers for every question asked. While there is no perfect solution to the maze, a tool does exist that can eliminate some dead ends and open some blind alleys. A handheld device can minimize those tedious tasks that erode so many possible teachable moments and can maximize collaboration and cooperation between teacher and students as well as among students. Any handheld can eliminate excess paper (does anyone really want a wallet like George had in that one memorable Seinfeld episode?) It can also make meetings more “user friendly.” Finally, a handheld can be a miniature alarm clock and appointment minder.

A handheld can make a teacher’s life less complex, not to mention more entertaining (after all, you can download and play games on a handheld device too!). And, who knows, as you become more at ease with the device and begin to explore its possibilities, you may begin to consider how it could impact the students in your classroom.

Supplemental Materials

On-line Publications:

Software Programs:


Dina Mayne, Marty Mayer


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