Freedom to Learn :: Part 3—The Missing Link :: 4/06/2006

T.H.E. Focus: April 6, 2006
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April 6, 2006

Freedom to Learn
**Part 3—The Missing Link

By Neal Starkman

This is the last of three articles about Freedom to Learn, an innovative program implemented during the past few years in the state of Michigan. The hallmark of Freedom to Learn is providing middle school and some high school students in needy areas with laptop computers: one student, one computer. The results have been overwhelmingly positive. Michigan Education Assessment Program (MEAP) scores have increased in the targeted schools, parents and students alike have welcomed the new access to technology, once-wary administrators are now seeking ways to get more laptops, and teachers have observed a new enthusiasm in their students. This article will focus on the experiences of teachers, students, and parents in three schools: Bear Lake School, Oakdale Christian School, and Whittier Middle School.

Roark Pargeon didn’t want to miss school, but his son was sick with strep, and Roark, a high school history teacher, had to stay home with him. Roark’s students didn’t want him to miss school, either; he’s very popular. But for the past year or two, there’s been a link between teacher and students that wasn’t there before. The link is a computer, more specifically, E-mail between teacher and students. All during the day, Roark received E-mails from his students. “It’s like I never left the classroom,” he says. To some teachers, students in constant contact may seem like a burden, but not to Roark: “I like to be part of them, and they like to be part of me,” he says. “The technology allows you to remain in touch with your students.”

This fortification of the relationship between teacher and students is one of the perhaps surprising, but no less valuable, achievements of the Freedom to Learn program in Michigan. The computers haven’t separated students from teacher and from each other; quite to the contrary, they’ve provided the means for a community that hadn’t previously existed. Links between students and sources of information from around the world, links between each other, links between them and their potential: It’s all there, courtesy of one laptop for each student.

Roark Pargeon uses Class Server as his technological platform. Students come into his class, log on, and get the day’s agenda, a notice of school events, assignments, and references for on-line research. Maybe today it’s the Cold War and the foreign policy of containment. Maybe tomorrow, it’s Pol Pot. Maybe they’re creating a collage or putting together a PowerPoint presentation or preparing for a debate. In any case, says Roark, “They’re not just stuck on page 115 of the book, answering questions 1 to 5.”

Amanda Harthun teaches in the same school, Bear Lake—350 students, 35% free- and reduced-lunch, very rural, up in the northwestern part of the state. Amanda has just been named the Michigan Teacher of the Year. She loves the Freedom to Learn program.

“Young people are information natives,” she says. “Adults are information-immigrants. This is the wave of the future.” She’s seen the doubters—including the principal—become believers. She’s seen teachers who initially resisted the technology now “90% paperless.” She’s seen the school’s MEAP scores go from 75 to 88 to—this year—somewhere in the 90’s. And she’s seen parents clamor to keep the program, even if it means raising taxes.

One such parent is Charlie Brooks. Not only does he have two children in the program, but he’s also a member of the School Board and of the Building Leadership Team. Charlie thinks that the ones who really benefit from Freedom to Learn are those children who haven’t had previous exposure to computers and the Internet. “The laptops,” he says, “have really opened up new avenues” for these students. “The Internet creates this huge textbook.” Charlie has been impressed with the way the teachers at Bear Lake have adopted the program and “run with it.”

Of course, there are the “little” stories, too: the seventh-grader who hadn’t been interested in any schoolwork at all, but who logged on to a math practicum at home and is now beating everyone, including his teacher, in math games; the smaller students who were previously bullied and are now fixing the bigger students’ computers; the girl whose parents were divorced and who took a test at her father’s home in Florida—through Class Server and her laptop. Amanda Harthun sees it as students taking control of their learning.

You can also see that at Oakdale Christian School in Grand Rapids. Gary Warners teaches 6 th grade there. Oakdale is in its second year of the Freedom to Learn program. Students earned the privilege of taking home the laptops by putting the machines away when they were through with them, using them as tools and not as toys, and in general being responsible with their use. Warners points out that some of his students didn’t have Internet access before the program was implemented, and that others of his students, who were more familiar with the Internet, have become the support staff for both him and their classmates.

“It has broadened the walls of my classroom,” he says. “It can happen so quickly and so easily, too.” Gary teaches quite differently these days. Instead of providing a stack of books and photocopies of articles for an independent research project, now he can give his students the URL’s for the websites and “turn them loose.” His students’ projects are more attractive and more comprehensive. The quality of their writing is way up. And they like the idea that Gary lets them sit in the hallway and do their work. “It’s empowering,” explains Gary. “They feel like they’re college students.”

Sometimes his students are almost too empowered. On an evening when students were displaying their independent projects, visiting parents were disconcerted to hear loud shrieks and screams coming from one of Gary’s students’ PowerPoint presentation of the Salem witch trials. Some people were annoyed, but the presentation drew the greatest number of onlookers. Another student, who walks to and from school, had been begging to take her laptop home and finally got her wish. She was incredibly excited that afternoon, but the next morning had second thoughts: The laptop, along with her violin and backpack, was just too heavy.

But the philosophy of empowerment is typical of Freedom to Learn teachers, and Gary Warners sums it up well: “It’s really okay to learn along with my students, and not to feel that I have to be in total control of what they’re learning and not to feel that I have to know all the answers.” He steps back and allows students to be the teachers; and when they’re using the laptops, they lose their inhibitions.

Wynn Draper-Bryant espouses that philosophy. She teaches science at Whittier Middle School in Flint. Visitors watch her students perform an on-line simulation and are amazed at their focus. And the computers are infused throughout the school: Students use them in drama class for conducting research into costumes. They use them in language arts class for writing and editing. They use them in Wynn’s class for her “Place Out of Time” activity, in which students take on the personae of different scientists—e.g., Marie Curie—and write about a current issue from their perspective. Students take the lead at Whittier, and Wynn thinks it’s great.

In particular, Wynn cites the example of one student who’d been doing so poorly that he’d had to repeat seventh grade and still wasn’t faring well. But then he got interested in the laptop and increased his proficiency to such an extent that he became Wynn’s helper. Ultimately, he shone: He was one of four students from one of 20 schools across the country chosen to meet legislators in Washington, D.C., as part of a Microsoft-sponsored program, “Meet the Millennials.”

Marsha Snyder is another Whittier Middle School science teacher. As part of her Master’s thesis, Marsha has compared her classroom—which participates in Freedom to Learn—with another classroom, which doesn’t. The curriculum content for both classrooms is virtually the same, but that’s where the similarities end. Marsha’s students have had higher assessment scores, higher attendance, more positive attitudes about themselves and their peers, more optimism about the future, and fewer behavioral referrals.

Marsha’s students are doing projects—but these aren’t your father’s projects. Working in teams, the students are trying to identify ways to beautify the school, and get funding for it as well. They’re writing letters to home warehouses, asking for donations. They’re looking at websites for ideas. They’re pricing paver stone flowerboxes. They’ll be making multimedia presentations that summarize their efforts. And Marsha barely needs to guide them.

“My kids feel empowered,” she says. There’s that concept again. “It’s amazing, even to me. They’d do PowerPoint all day long if I’d let them. They’re totally at ease.” Think about that: What an advantage it is to feel confident presenting your work in front of a group of your peers. And what about the students who aren’t as comfortable with the technology? Their classmates help them. They belong to the community; they’re linked with each other.

There are challenges, of course. Some of the teachers aren’t as “techno-savvy” as others; just like the students, though, they help each other out. And batteries for the laptops run down and aren’t always charged on time. And Whittier Middle School is over 75 years old; connectivity is sometimes an issue. Still, Marsha can put up with all that quite easily if it means that she can now take questions from her students on line so they don’t have to be embarrassed about asking a question, if it means that her students can take standardized tests on line and get data back the same day, and if it means that she can set up lessons beforehand and students can use the software to go at their own pace. Everyone benefits. The learning, the assessment, even the interaction is greater with Freedom to Learn.

All the data aren’t in for The Freedom to Learn program. Parent Charlie Brooks estimates that it will take three to five years to give it a fair test, although he acknowledges that Michigan legislators are impatient. But right now, it’s looking awfully good: Test scores are up, interest is up, involvement is up. Teachers, administrators, and parents believe that the program works. And the program opens up new worlds for students.

It’s also the great equalizer, as Whittier’s Wynn Draper-Bryant points out. Wynn says that no matter what their socioeconomic status, students thrive with Freedom to Learn: “With these laptops, it doesn’t matter what my kids have at home. They can get anything that anybody else can. They can go places online that they may never get to go in real life.”

How many programs can do that?


**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.

**Read part two of this series to see 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.

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