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Tampa school involves parents in classroom technology

Middleton Middle School of Technology gets children and parents together and in front of computers.

By DAVE GUSSOW

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 26, 1998


TAMPA -- The kids turn into teachers, the parents become students, and the teachers, well, act as tour guides and cheerleaders.

It's just another day at Middleton Middle School of Technology in Tampa, where parents join their children in a special training program to learn how technology is used in the classroom.

"We've had 300 parents (this school year) come and sit down for two hours to watch what their kids do at school," said Lynn Fell, the school's curriculum integration resource teacher. "That's the part I like best."

Middleton pioneered the parent training sessions about five years ago, and it has spread to other Hillsborough County schools. It is the type of program schools have created to help teachers, parents and students learn how best to use computers, the Internet and other technology in the classroom.

The debate about technology in schools has shifted in the last year. It is not just focusing on how many computers schools have and how best to use them. More critics are questioning the huge investment in equipment at the expense of other school needs and whether computers might even be harming student achievement.

However, a recent survey by the Educational Testing Service for Education Week magazine (http://www.edweek.org) showed public support for technology in the classroom: 79 percent said computers are very helpful in teaching high-tech skills, and 51 percent said computers are very helpful in promoting problem-solving skills and in teaching basic skills. Florida received good grades for funding technology and for a requirement that a portion of the money go for teacher training.

One interesting gap showed up: 58 percent of those surveyed said computers have helped improve student performance a great deal; only 31 percent of teachers agree.

Teachers at Middleton would disagree with their peers on that point. As a technology magnet school, Middleton gets teachers who want to use technology in the classroom and it touts its students' achievements. (The entire school is a magnet; it is not a special program within a regular school.)

The school also sought to involve parents in technology from the beginning, an effort led by a small group of teachers. For their children to attend the magnet, parents are required to attend one of the training sessions.

The teachers volunteer their time, Fell said, to help "realize the vision of the school." This particular session started at 4 p.m., 90 minutes after school let out, and ended just before 6 p.m. Fell said the school will accommodate any parent's schedule, even when that means night or Saturday sessions.

Several parents interviewed during the session shared some common concerns, including how the school makes sure students cruising the Web aren't exposed to pornography. They also shared a determination that their children share in the benefits of technology.

"I just want my children to have the opportunity to use technology like this," said David Thomas, a state corrections officer with two children in the program. They don't have a home computer or Internet access and most of his concerns were based on what he had heard and read.

Chante Thomas' twin sons, James and Jermaine, are in the program. They have an old computer at home but are not online. "They wanted to do it," the nurse's assistant said. "Everything is getting computerized."

At the training session, the students mostly took the controls, maneuvering the computers as their less techno-savvy parents looking on.

Fell told about a dozen parents that students will use computers for research, writing, computer presentations and communicating -- all related to class activity. No Nintendo or MTV sites. No games. It is "a tool for work."

But Fell also told the parents, "They're not always going to write papers. They're not always going to use pen and paper."

She outlined responsibilities and rules, such as not sharing passwords or leaving a computer logged on; ethics, such as honoring copyrighted information; and e-mail safety, such as not giving out personal information.

Violating the school's rules can be costly. A first offense is five school days off the computer; a second is 30 school days. Fell estimated that 10 to 15 kids a year commit minor violations that bring the five-day penalties, such as using someone else's account or bringing in a disk from home.

She recalled only three cases of major violations that brought more severe disciplinary action. Students brought Internet material they had downloaded at home to school on a disk, but were caught before they could e-mail it to others, Fell said.

"Either we are very lucky, or our teachers do an excellent job of teaching and reinforcing appropriate technology use, and supervising technology use," Fell said.

She explained the filtering software that blocks access to inappropriate sites, recalling an incident two years ago where one slipped through but was quickly caught and blocked.

That eased Thomas' concerns. "I can see they're taking appropriate precautions, so I feel a little better about it."

At the end of the session, which included letting the kids and parents surf the Web, parents had to sign a permission form to allow their children to go online. In five years, only one parent wouldn't sign, Fell said, and that was in the first year when uncertainty about the Internet was much higher.

The school didn't want to wait for parents to come ask about technology, said Micki M. Caskey, one of the initial group of teachers that set up the training and now an assistant professor at Portland State University. The group's message: "Please learn it with us so you'll be comfortable."

Caskey wrote her doctoral dissertation at the University of South Florida on the program. Winning over parents at a technology magnet was easier than it might be at a regular school, she said, because they had chosen the school for its technology.

Her study showed that parents came into the school with concerns. Their attitudes improved once they were trained alongside their children, more so than parents who were trained without the children present, Caskey said.

The Internet still can be a scary place for parents and teachers, she said.

"The Internet has become much more commercial, and it has so much more information," Caskey said. "It becomes cumbersome to use for someone who doesn't have strategies to use it."

For students, "they have to know how to be a very critical consumer of the information. They have to know if the information they find is credible. It's the kind of critical thinking we need to teach our children."

A key, most experts agree, is training teachers. Hillsborough has a "train the trainer" program in which representatives from various schools attend sessions and then go back to their schools to train others.

Cindy Luiaoconi, supervisor of technology and media services in Hillsborough, said teachers can be divided into three groups: those who use traditional teaching methods, fear change and resist technology; a group interested in trying it and beginning to train; and the gung-ho types, such as those at Middleton.

"Time is the big enemy," she said. Teachers have so many requirements for training, from curriculum to health and safety to state and district standards "and now we're putting technology on top of it."

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