Freedom to Learn
Part 2 — Students Taking Charge
By Neal Starkman
This is the second of three articles about Freedom to Learn, an innovative program implemented in a variety of Michigan middle schools, the core of which is maximum student access to laptop computers and associated technology. The first article focused on Hale Area Middle School in rural Michigan. The third article will focus on Bear Lake Schools and Whittier Middle School. In this article, you’ll see how Freedom to Learn has affected students in three quite different schools—Clare Middle School in Clare, Cherryland Middle School in Elk Rapids, and Evergreen Christian School in Grand Rapids.
Clare Middle School
If you want to see how Freedom to Learn encourages multi-disciplinary education, come to Clare Middle School, 500 students in grades 5-8, right in the middle of the state of Michigan. Take a look at Jason Lundin’s sixth-grade language arts classroom, where his students are being taught about King Arthur with the help of a visiting math teacher. Why is a math teacher helping to teach about King Arthur? It’s because Jason’s students are plotting the narrative on an Excel program. While Jason is telling them about plot points and levels of conflict, the math teacher is telling them about surface area beneath curves. The students can “see” the rise and fall of the narrative and thus better understand the mechanics of not only story structure but also geometric functions.
Jason Lundin has been working with students and laptops for 3½ years. When they first got the computers, he and the students “played for three days” to figure out what to do. That first year, Jason admits, the use of the technology wasn’t integrated into the curriculum, but slowly—with the essential help of the students—the laptop and curriculum became inseparable. And now—well, now students read King Arthur and plot the story. Now they write journal articles warning other students about Internet predators. Now they work on planners, write E-mail questions, take quizzes, and conduct research—all on their laptops.
Are there benefits to this technology in the classroom? If you count increased test scores (principally on the statewide Michigan Education Assessment Program), higher attendance, and fewer incidents requiring discipline—and if you count a testimonial such as “You changed my life,” this from an 11-year-old—then there are benefits. Students are performing more, performing at a higher rate of proficiency, and performing without being prodded; those are all benefits, too. Before, Jason said, he felt that he had to compete with television and Game Boys for students’ attention. These days, he says, “It’s like, ‘Can we get on to the machines?’”
There are yet other, somewhat hidden benefits. Jason notices that some of the quieter students, the ones who previously might have been ridiculed or picked on, are coming into their own. Why? It’s because they’re doing good work on their computers and drawing the attention of their classmates, who also want to make the letters turn to 3-D and change the colors on their report and find an easy way to search for a site. Someone who might have harassed them before is now saying, “Wow, you can do that? Show me how!” Jason, whose older sister was very shy and would be not-so-benignly ignored by teachers, is acutely aware of these students. He’s proud that the structure of Freedom to Learn encourages them to blossom: “You watch their self-confidence rise because they’re helping others. It’s not about what you can do; it’s about what you can help others to do.”
The environment in Jason’s classroom is designed for students. Physically, the chairs aren’t in rows; students sit next to each other in little communities. They’ve learned to rely on each other and to determine in part what and how they’ll be learning. This is a common theme with teachers who participate in Freedom to Learn: They have willingly given up some control to students. The very interactive and student-driven nature of the technology demands that teachers trust their students to know what to do. For Jason, it wasn’t that difficult to give up control. As he says, his students go by the maxim, “Ask three before me”—they ask each other before they ask him.
It’s not so easy a transition for other teachers. Jason regularly goes to conferences and notices some resistance—not from the younger teachers, who think, “Why not try this technology? That’s my world”; and not from the older teachers, who feel that “with the technology they’ve become a brand new teacher and can teach for another 10 years.” Jason says that he meets the most hesitation from teachers who are about 35 years old, who have finally settled into a comfortable pedagogical pattern, and who are reluctant to be budged from it. What does he tell them? “It’s better to let the kids lead. All you have to do is let go.”
Cherryland Middle School
Donna Eberle is another teacher who has chosen to let go. She teaches language arts, math, and social studies at Elk Rapids’ Cherryland Middle School, 350 students strong. Donna’s students have participated in Freedom to Learn for about a year. Before the school adopted the program, they’d go back and forth to the crowded computer lab. Now, she says, about 80% of her students hardly ever use paper and pencil at all.
Donna’s students don’t take the laptops home with them, but they certainly make use of it in school. Some examples, in the students’ own words:
- “We believe that the electronic encyclopedia Encarta has helped our learning because it makes it easier to look up things. You don’t have to flip through all of the pages of an encyclopedia. . .” (T.J. and Ali)
- “Bridge Designer has helped us learn in many ways and it is quite fun. In it we build bridges and learn about engineering. We have learned that the shape X is the sturdiest for building bridges. We also learned that different materials, different thickness, and making the tubes hollow or making solid bars affected the bridge and the price . . .” (Donnie and Jon)
- “Google Earth is a program that we can use to see things around the world at the push of a button . . . It shows the elevation of an area and the buildings found in any city . . . We like Google Earth very much because it’s like we have the whole world in our hands.” (Tyler and Dougie)
- “Discourse is a very useful program to use for taking tests on the computer . . . It makes it easier to correct our own mistakes. It can be useful because we can read at our own pace.” (Chris, Holly, and Katie)
- “Inspiration teaches us to put our thoughts onto a piece of paper on the computer and how to brainstorm. It also teaches us how to get prepared for something coming up by making a web for ideas . . . Inspiration has really improved our writing skills.” (Mitch and Dylan)
Donna’s students are effusive: Ryleigh says that WORD helps her with grammar and PowerPoint helps her make presentations. Mackenzie likes to send his assignments home with Gaggle and do them there. He says, “It’s fun, and your grades improve. There’s more resources on the computer; in the library, you have only so many resources.” And Robin, who likes that Connected Tech shows her how to run other programs, says that the classroom is quieter, and she’s better able to concentrate. What’s more, “It makes you more excited to do assignments.”
What more could you ask for? Donna Eberle points out that before the laptops were incorporated into the classroom, students struggled to write one- or two-age short stories. Now, she says, “They’re writing dozens of pages, without getting fatigued.”
Evergreen Christian School
With 85 students, pre-kindergarten through sixth grade, Evergreen Christian School is much smaller than the other schools highlighted in these articles. Still, the issues are similar. Tim Quist, whose fifth- and sixth-grade class comprises all of 16 students, echoes other teachers’ attributions of increased writing proficiency to the use of the laptops. As he says about one student, who was doing poorly but is now at least getting lots of practice writing, “I’m sure she’s growing faster than she would without the technology . . . If she had to write that all by hand, it wouldn’t happen. It just wouldn’t happen.” Tim notes that the student even writes more now by hand, because she’s used to producing more material.
Tim also speaks to the rapidity with which students accustom themselves to the laptop. Two years ago, he remembers, one student had been home-schooled and had never touched a computer in her life. She’d had no idea how to hold a mouse and no keyboarding skills. Within a short period of time, however, and with the help of her fellow students, she became as proficient as the others.
If you visit any of these classrooms—at Clare, at Cherryland, at Evergreen Christian, you’ll notice something different, but you may not know exactly what it is. Maybe it’s the focus of the students; maybe it’s the lack of side chatter; maybe it’s that not everyone’s doing the same thing. Tim Quist says that if you walked into his classroom, “some would be working on laptops, others working in a group . . . It would look like a little office.” But there’s so much going on in these classrooms. Clare’s Jason Lundin observes that, “We’re like ducks on water. Underneath, we’re a mile a minute with our feet. On top, it’s like, ‘That’s cool. Let’s try it.’”
These students have taken so readily to Freedom to Learn not so much because it’s fun to play with computers, nor even because they can learn so much more than with books, pencils, and paper. They’ve taken so readily to Freedom to Learn because they have an opportunity to participate in what they’re learning. They choose what to research, how to present, and which questions to ask. They’re empowered to learn, and they like that. As Jason Lundin says, “Engagement is the key.”
Read part one of this series to see how the Freedom to Learn program has improved test scores and student behavior at Hale Middle School.