Berkshire Use of Technology in Teaching at the Berkshire School

by DR. JOHN A. RICHMAN, Superintendent of Schools Berkshire Union Free School District Canaan, N.Y. The Berkshire School is often visited by educational experts who want to see a school where technology is thoroughly integrated into the curriculum. Some observers may be drawn from our designation by the U.S. Department of Education as a Blue Ribbon School of Excellence, citing our leadership in curriculum and education. Visitors always ask where we got the idea for the design of our main building. "The mall," I reply. They usually seem surprised and frequently will take another tack: Where did we derive our fundamental belief in technology? "The mall," I say again. No one should be surprised. Young adults congregate, socialize, and, for the most part, conform to fairly strict rules of behavior at the mall. It is part of the culture of the mall. Every mall-as well as every school system, bank, office building, family and neighborhood-has a culture. And while by nature, each of these institutions resists changes to it, it is that culture-popular or otherwise-that needs to be studied before any attempt is made to change it. When designing a school for today's kids, some of my greatest lessons have been learned while observing popular culture. Changing the Culture of the School Seven years ago I took the job as superintendent of the Berkshire district. I knew immediately that changes were needed to its culture. In fact, when I gave my wife her first tour of the school, after much hemming and hawing, she declared the place "a dump." She was right. The halls were dull, the floors filthy. There was no pride reflected anywhere. That was 1988. The existing culture included our campus neighbors' fear of the 260 boys at Berkshire High School, as well as an accepted practice of referring to them as the "bad boys." Most of the boys are from the inner cities of New York state. All are here because they have made a choice-come here for a year or go to jail. Despite the best efforts of the school, many wound up in jail anyway after their year here. In an effort governed in no small way by the enthusiasm of a first superintendency, I set about to change the culture of the Berkshire School by setting the goal that each boy would learn so much and do so well that he would return home after his year with us and graduate with his class. We began with the obvious. We replaced the box lights with florescents, painted the halls bright blue and yellow instead of institutional brown and green, and cleaned the place from one end to the other. The staff, of course, noticed the changes. I knew that to succeed we had to make every one of them feel they were not only an important individual, but also an important member of the team. We gave teachers the choice of what color to paint their classrooms and invited them to meetings on the redesign. Together, we planned to redesign the whole school. And together, we got stuck. Where we got stuck was on the design of the hallways. On paper, the placed looked like a prison, with long wide hallways affording constant observation of the boys. It wouldn't do, we realized, to make the learning environment appear so repressive. Equally, however, it wouldn't do to have the boys move from class to class unobserved. Finding Inspiration in "The Mall" Then, one night at the local mall, I watched my son, who was then nine, play a video game. (Told several years before that I was no longer a worthy opponent, I had been relegated to audience status.) Another young man significantly older than my son ask if he could join him. As those two strangers from different generations negotiated-"you take the bombs, I'll take the rockets"-what I saw was an agreement to complete a task together. And in that I saw the key to reaching the boys at the Berkshire School. It had to do with computers. As we were walking out I also noticed the "galleria" design of the mall-the mall's two sides were separated by an interior space. Each floor had a view of the other through the open area. There was no pushing or shoving among the shoppers and strollers. Traffic was orderly. There was no place for anyone to conceal himself. I went home and called the architect. "Make it look like the mall." Much to my surprise, she said, "Okay." At the same time, coincidentally, I had just been through a personal experience with my youngest son, diagnosed as having a learning disability in math and spelling. After much effort, my wife and I were able to convince his teachers to let him use a calculator and an electronic speller. With the assistance of these technological aids, he immediately began to build on his strengths. Then it struck me: we had just made a fundamental change in the way our son was going to learn. I remembered the video game experience at the mall and wondered if technology could be the key to motivate those who had never been motivated before. It also could allow for group work and group problem-solving. I wondered if every student in my school-regardless of IQ, gender, ethnicity and functioning level-would take advantage of today's technology if it was offered. It seemed a great equalizer. The Power of Technology Extensive visits to other schools followed. I read publications on technology and education and attended demonstrations and seminars to see the latest applications. It became our fundamental goal that the redesign of the Berkshire High School had to support the latest in instructional technology. And I realized that to support that decision, all my staff and I had to develop a deep understanding of the power of that technology. It was no longer acceptable to be an observer of the information and technological revolution. That's when I called IBM in Albany, N.Y. My research had convinced me they were the leader in development and support for the courseware, hardware and software for education. I invited the company to send representatives to meet with our architects, consultants, video experts and engineers. We presented them with our needs: The building had to have student computers and a teacher presentation station in every classroom, and it must be fully networked, bridging both administrative and instructional systems. There had to be access to the media center from any classroom, and an ability to broadcast from any room. The network had to be brought into the auditorium through a projection system. A fiber optic backbone should run throughout the building. Teachers had to be able to monitor the students' computers from each teacher station and to project displays on a large television screen in every classroom. We needed cable in every classroom and live wire services in all building areas. In short, we had become convinced that the key to doing things differently at Berkshire, to changing its culture, was the infusion of technology across the board. The IBM experts asked questions; incredibly, four hours later, the plan was on paper. Changing the Mindset of Staff Getting the staff of the school on board was as critical to changing the culture of the place as any amount of brick and mortar. It would be these teachers who not only directed the hands of the students onto the computers, cameras, monitors and digital equipment, but also had to enjoy using them as well. As a faculty we agreed that we would teach differently-that technology would become a part of our culture. As a district, we decided to support this by a commitment to teacher training. Before we built the school, we trained our teachers and whetted their appetites. Today we have an in-house training center for teachers plus a coordinator and a technology assistant who are available to help all day. We solicited 22 faculty, administrators, aides and support staff and went on a retreat for three days. During that time, we established ground rules for our working relationship and developed a strategic plan that included our belief statements, a mission statement, objectives and strategies. Integrating technology into our district's long-range plan was paramount to the success of our overall effort. We emerged from this retreat ready to build a unique program for students with special needs. We were a bit wrong in that, however, because what we have built, in fact, will work for all children, everywhere. But it wasn't until after we had worked it for a while that we realized that. Technology Pieces and Applications Each of the Berkshire's 32 classrooms contains four student machines. In addition, we have two advanced computer application classrooms equipped with DigiSpeech text-to-speech capabilities in a Novell environment. Classes are limited to 12 students so everyone can readily access the computers and network from any class. Every teacher has a classroom presentation station connected to a 27" television monitor. Because our teachers are always on their feet, these stations are at lectern height. The presentation monitor can display information from a CD-ROM, videotape, videodisc or cable TV sources. And through a program called XChange, classroom PCs receive more than 20 live international wire services throughout the day or night via cable TV. News, sports and weather from these international sources provide an up-to-the-minute, 24-hours-a-day learning adventure. It has allowed students to experience history as it happens. They love it. The computers are networked throughout the school, with six file servers, two CD-ROM servers and 21 CD-ROM drives accessing more than 100 software programs and CD-ROM titles. We've also acquired three Knowledge Platform Solutions, a multimedia hardware and software bundle from IBM that runs under OS/2. We had custom carts built to hold the Knowledge Platform hardware and a 27" monitors; three of these setups can be rolled into any classroom or the auditorium, so we can share the Ultimedia systems throughout the school. The Knowledge Platform runs IBM's acclaimed educational Illuminated Books and Manuscripts series, such as "Columbus: Encounter, Discovery and Beyond." It also supports multimedia authoring programs such as IBM LinkWay and LinkWay Live. It's fancy and it works. How We Teach Our Students The system serves the unique schedule at Berkshire High School that substitutes for a school year. Students merely spend 12 months with us, and in that time we try to give them whatever educational background they need to rejoin the classrooms of their age peers when they leave. Some students arrive and some leave every day, meaning our curriculum must be flexible enough to accommodate the individual needs of each student. The technology that IBM taught us to use allows for this flexibility. Each new student participates in a 10-week computer literacy course that covers an introduction to spreadsheets, word processing, databases and desktop publishing. Students also learn how to use the network. When they leave here, hopefully they take back this knowledge to their schools. We also hope they will take back an ability to work with others, something we reinforce every day by having them work in teams on "cooperative learning." As adults, we work together on projects, and we want to prepare students for that kind of real-world experience. Using LinkWay or LinkWay Live, students produce a variety of multimedia projects, both individually and in groups. One class, for example, recently took a trip to a Holocaust exhibit and photographed it for a LinkWay presentation. Students digitized and stored the images, wrote and recorded their narration, imported music, then presented the program to the entire school. During such projects each student keeps a journal of everything he d'es. Then, during a presentation, they receive a team critique, so that at the end each student can relate his part to how it affected the whole project. As in the workplace, each student sees that he is a necessary part of a whole, and that he can't slip through the cracks when working on a team. In our 11th-grade writing classes, students use LinkWay with desktop publishing tools to create their own autobiographies-writing text, importing graphics and photographs, sharing online with other students and printing completed works. What we find most consistent is the positive, immediate gratification that students get from the multimedia approach. This is particularly evident in the P'etry unit, where students design their own multimedia greeting cards and write original verse as the inside message. Using LinkWay's paint tools, they add pictures and graphics, combining art with p'etry to make something they can send home to their families. P'etry becomes something real they can make, see and send to someone for whom they care. Even our remedial students, who function two years below grade level, have showed tremendous enthusiasm and enjoyed great success with multimedia work. On a recent project about slavery, for instance, they digitized photographs then added pieces from CD-ROMs (sound and video) using LinkWay and LinkWay Live. They couldn't wait to present it. The piece opens with historic images of six different people and uses maps to illustrate where each one entered the U.S. as a slave. When a picture is clicked on, the program branches to one of the several segments-plantation life, cotton fields, the Underground Railroad, etc.-which, in turn, go to other related maps and pictures. Choose the Underground Railroad, for instance, and the program takes you to maps of free and slave states and of Canada, one of the railroad's end points. The students are hooked, and I believe it is because of the multimedia approach. When I look at my own teenage son and recognize his boredom at his traditional school, I'm having an increasingly difficult time telling him he's wrong when he says he's being taught in a boring way. For instance, recently he read The Odyssey by Homer. He was enthralled, but when he took the test, the first question on it was, "How many ships did Ulysses take to sea?" That's not a particularly important question. Why didn't they ask him, "What did Ulysses learn about courage?" or, "What did he do that makes him a hero, and what her'es in contemporary culture can you compare him to?" When we study explorers' voyages at Berkshire High, we can call up maps, read biographies of the explorers, hear modern historians analyze the journeys and, in Home Economics, even cook with the spices they went off to find. Another point to consider is the limitation created by academia's artificial boundaries. For instance, a student cannot learn science without knowing some math, and yet in the traditional model, we teach these separately, behind closed doors. With the multimedia approach you don't have to keep them unnaturally apart. And we are having success with this approach. Although before the redesign no such statistics were kept, we now know that six months after leaving the Berkshire School, 68% of our boys are back in school at home, a very favorable statistic. Working on a Deeper Scale One of the biggest changes the staff and I have noticed from the boys is the fact that many of them inquire about college. This is from boys who had never experienced success in school prior to coming here. We have also noticed a change of climate on campus. Politeness reigns in the hallways. There is greater self-esteem. There's no graffiti, no computer viruses and we have experienced no vandalism. Of course, there are other factors-we do have strict dress and disciplinary codes-but I believe the positive changes are closely related to the active learning that multimedia allows. These students are now active participants in their learning, and there is no doubt in my mind that the responsibility permeates to other areas of their lives as well. The bottom line is that multimedia technology is giving my students a chance to see the positives about learning, about school and about themselves. That is not because of the quality or quantity of technology at the Berkshire School, but because of where we place the importance of technology in the school. Technology is not an add-on here, it is the foundation. It is not an event, it's a process. We are not doing traditional "chalk-and-talk" teaching here, standing in front of the class and telling students what they should know. We are, instead, acting as the traffic cops along the Information Superhighway, directing our students where to go to learn. Between 1,500-2,000 people come to observe our school each year, sometimes by the busload. They can be divided into two groups: those who want this for their school and those who want it, but can find myriad reasons why it won't work. The first group will find a way. The second say it only works at Berkshire because our kids are "different." I say, if it works for unmotivated kids, think of what it could do for motivated ones. They say because we are a "special school," we don't have to deal with the regulators. I say, right-only the New York State Department of Education and the New York State Legislature who, because of our "special status" oversee everything we do. But when they say there's no money to do this, I always suggest they look at where they're spending what they get, and see if it's furthering their goals for change. And then, if they remain unconvinced, I suggest they go spend a few dollars of their own at the mall and, while they're there, take a look around. Berkshire High School is a residential boys school that serves as an alternative to jail for youthful offenders. IBM Corp. designed the computer network and assisted Dr. Richman in realizing his vision of a technology-integrated learning environment. Products and companies mentioned: DigiSpeech; DSP Solutions, Palo Alto, CA, (415) 494-8086 XChange service; Ingenius, Denver, Colo. (800) 772-6397 IBM Knowledge Platform Solution: • Ultimedia PS/2 Model 57 • Canon digital still camera Columbus: Encounter, Discovery and Beyond; LinkWay, LinkWay Live; IBM EduQuest, Atlanta, Ga., (800) IBM-4EDU

This article originally appeared in the 09/01/1995 issue of THE Journal.