Making the Most of Technology at Hand


With just a handful of digital cameras and networked computers to serve 250 students, Media Specialist Johanna Riddle is hardly rolling in technology. But at Samsula Elementary, a small rural elementary school in Volusia County in Florida, she uses a small range of powerful--and fun--software products, along with a philosophy of making do with what she has, to move students beyond the printed page.

Big things in small packages
Samsula Elementary's tiny media center, located in a room that was a library in 1926, is perhaps 20 by 25 feet. Despite the small space, Riddle focuses on using technology in creative ways to help students understand and interpret the world around them in visual ways.

"It's about using what we have to its greatest capacity," Riddle says. "I think we're typical of a lot of schools. We don't have a computer lab, and we don't have a lot of hardware…. It's that whole concept of teaching an empowered and independent twenty-first century learner. Technology is one aspect of that."

For example, Samsula fourth graders, inspired by a story they read, recently selected their own "future professions" from a hat, then dressed up accordingly and took pictures of themselves. Using an Adobe product called Photoshop Elements, which offers editing tools for digital images, students isolated their own images, moved them into environments they felt best matched their professions, and added layers of description.

Pay it forward
Using one of Riddle's strategies for extending the limited technology and resources she has, students then taught schoolmates how to use the software, in a "pay it forward" style of teaching.

Rather than regarding partnering students at computers as a setback, Riddle says she sees it as a plus. "We've found that there's a lot of benefit to two kids working together," she says, "because they rely on each other strengths. It really opens the way for a lot of critical and creative problem solving."

Samsula students are also exploring video technology, mostly around digital storytelling projects. Using Adobe Premier Elements, a video editing and management tool, students intersperse video clips into their written stories. They've also recorded science experiments; an added benefit of that, Riddle says, is "keeping a record of how our students are growing in knowledge through the scientific process, trying to build a real mastery in kindergarten through fifth grade."

Riddle describes a recent project in which fifth-graders read a book on Vermeer. They then researched life during the painter's time, created a portrait in that style, then used sophisticated tools in Photoshop Elements to alter the pictures. "It was great to see students having these critical conversations about the style of Vermeer," she says.

Use what you have
Riddle offers teacher training in several ways, including both formal training and informal coaching after school, but she's philosophical. "You take teachers where they are," she says. "Just getting a digital camera in [a teacher's] hands can be a new experience for some of them. And there's so much you can do with that."

Other products in use in the district include Apple iMovie and Microsoft PowerPoint, Publisher, and Photo Editor. In short, Riddle says, "You use what you have; you want your students to be able to use a lot of different software in a masterful and creative way."

"There are a million reasons not to do something," Riddle concludes. "What I really believe is, you take the resources that you have, and you do as much as you can with those resources."

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About the author: Linda L. Briggs is a freelance writer based in San Diego, CA.

Have any additional questions? Want to share your story? Want to pass along a news tip? Contact Dave Nagel, executive editor, at [email protected].

About the Author

Linda Briggs is a freelance writer based in San Diego, Calif. She can be reached at [email protected].