Reaching Reluctant Learners While Staying On-standard

Every technology teacher has seen it a hundred times: a student comes to the computer lab looking completely uninterested and even sullen. These unmotivated students can be from any grade, any teacher, either gender, high-achievers and low-achievers, and from any economic status. One would expect that a trip to the computer lab would perk them up, but if they are unmotivated in class chances are they will be unmotivated in the computer lab.

At Woodville Elementary School, our students are no different than any across the country and probably around the world. But whether its an unmotivated student or a high-achiever, all teachers believe that each student holds promise and that our mission is to help them find their potential.

My role as a technology teacher is similar to the librarian’s. I support our classroom teachers by giving their students enrichment activities that supplement classroom instruction. We have a host of resources to choose from and I try to know something about every student so that I can anticipate their needs before they arrive in the lab. I also specialize in knowing what programs will hold a student’s attention.

One of my favorite tools is a program called Kids College, a Web-based enrichment tool for math and language arts instruction. We find it a great resource for all our students but a real find for the unmotivated students I so often find in my lab.

What makes software interesting to students?

In general, if you find the hook that draws them to take the first step then after that it is much more likely that the student will keep working. Let the software lead them forward, rather than push them from behind. This is what Kids College, or KC, does.

The unique aspect of KC is that it teaches math and language arts under the guise of a sports game – either football, baseball, soccer, or basketball. Our students can select the sport they want to play and KC assigns them a sort of avatar – a boy or girl character who attempts to score points by answering questions correctly. I think our students enjoy learning tools like this because they receive immediate gratification when scoring points, which they can do only if they answer the questions correctly.

What makes software helpful to teachers?

Our teachers want to know that computer time is well spent. The Kids College program stores data for our teachers so they can monitor progress, and we find through these reports that many of our students will go back through the program on their own to increase their scores and earn “trophies.” This program is well-designed, however, because students cannot merely click through the program to rack up points. Students must answer each question before moving on. If their answer is incorrect, they receive a clue to give another chance and thus reinforce the lessons.

The reporting functions on any software product are helpful for benchmarking, to track student progress, and for parent conferences. Woodville’s grades three through five are departmentalized, so reports are also an integral part of coordinating and integrating the learning process for our students. Because of the departmentalization, Woodville teachers work as though they were middle and high school teachers, teaching to their strengths. These teachers rely heavily on reports so that they can integrate the learning process and ensure that all the skills are covered and mastered.

What makes software effective and easy to use?

Teachers are often overwhelmed with new software, plus being concerned about the benchmarks which they must monitor and the standards to which they must teach. Therefore, I have to make it easy for them to get started with any program or they are reluctant to use it. It must take less than a prep-period for a teacher to assign activities to all students. The best programs automatically prescribe activities but also allow flexibility. Teachers should be able to prescribe activities with one keystroke or drag-and-drop names to an assignment field. Software should also identify each standard being covered with its familiar name but then reference the specific standard number in case that information is needed later (this tends to be more important in the reporting phase).

We teachers intuitively know that a software program with a sports theme like KC is effective in teaching mathematics because of the relation to numbers; however, we find its language arts questions are just as thought provoking. We want our software to be strong in multiple subjects so that we don’t have to coordinate multiple programs or learn different management systems and reporting functions.

How do you justify using software?

Frequently our students come to the lab and are instructed to work on a particular skill being taught in class. It is crucial that time in the lab is spent wisely so we want our remediation and enrichment activities to meaningfully apply to the district curriculum and our goals in AYP. The actual math and language arts content each student works on is customized to their needs based on assessment in excellent programs like Reading Plus or SuccessMaker Enterprise. When our students come to the lab to use Kids College for enrichment, I can select from the specific grade and skill area, and then drill down the specific skill that is aligned to our state standards.

With this specificity and correlation to standards, our teachers realize that Kids College is a valuable resource. KC started out being a "treat" for our students who were successful with the "real" programs that were subject-specific. Soon, students were asking to use KC because it was fun and helping them with their core skills. With their added work, I could print out reports that proved to the teachers that KC was not only relevant to standards but was having a positive effect on test scores. Our teachers realized that the students were motivated by “playing” Kids College and it was having the intended effect. Now our teachers use Kids College in their classrooms as well and that tells me that I selected the right math and language arts curriculum!

Sandra Meador