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LAPTOPS ON EXPEDITION
A Maine middle school provides top-of-the-line education for all students.
LAPTOPS ON EXPEDITION
by Diane Curtis
At first, it may look like they're taking part in a graduation ceremony,
but the students who march across the stage at Maine's Falmouth Audubon
Society to shake hands with their principal and teachers aren't walking
away with diplomas. They're walking away with tangible results of their
In this particular case, the 85 seventh graders from Helen King Middle
School in Portland each received a copy of "Fading Footprints," a CD-ROM
they produced about Maine's endangered species. During the ceremony, which
included thank-yous to teachers and experts who had helped on the project,
some students explained the process. "I made sure all the links worked."
Others talked a little about what they learned. "You can ask me anything
about the Harlequin duck." Then they all repaired to a courtyard for cake
"The state's Web site probably doesn't have as good information as what's
in here," says Mark McCollough, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service expert on
endangered species who had advised the students. "I want to share this with
our regional office."
An Outside Audience
The students are heady with the knowledge that outsiders appreciate their
work, and that it may be used by professionals. "The hard work that went
into it -- people are noticing it," beams Amelia, the Harlequin duck
expert. "I know I worked a little harder because I knew it was going to be
seen," says Miranda, another seventh grader.
Celebrations with everyone from parents to community members are an
important part of the learning process at King, which has adopted the
Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound model of personalized, project-based
learning. At least twice a year, students, who stay with the same group of
teachers for two years -- a practice called "looping" -- undertake 4- to
12-week interdisciplinary projects. Besides incorporating such subjects as
art, science, and language arts, the projects include well-considered use
of computer technology, which has been enhanced by the decision of the
state to provide all Maine seventh and eighth graders with iBook laptop
The culminating event can come in a number of forms -- a performance of an
original play or presentation to younger students of a geology kit or
production of a CD-ROM or a book or video, all of which incorporate state
curriculum standards. Projects at King have included an aquarium design
judged by local architects; a CD narrative of Whitman's "O Captain! My
Captain!" by students learning English; Voices of U.S. [a book of immigrant
stories], a guide to shore life of Casco Bay; original music composition and
production; documentaries on learning with laptops; a claymation video
explaining Newton's Laws; and a Web site on pollution.
Ann Brown, the eighth-grade science teacher who oversaw the claymation
video production, likes the effect of such projects on the students, who
really have to understand the concepts to portray them accurately in a
movie. "I think it makes for an interesting way for kids to represent their
learning," she says. "It's a lot more interesting than having them simply
write about it or draw pictures of it because they really have to think
about how to communicate with an audience and use text and images that make
sense to people who haven't studied what they've studied."
"The goal for us at King Middle School is to create opportunities for all
kids to do representational work about their learning," says David Grant,
King's technology teaching strategist. He works with both students and
teachers to ensure that any video or computer or Web production furthers
the curriculum. "It's in the making of things that kids actually do their
learning," he says. "When you start to make something, you look at it, you
reflect upon it, and you begin to be informed by your own representation.
And then in that way, you either go out into the world to get more data to
support your ideas or you begin to think about something new in your mind
and you start to re-represent. And that's how the learning gets deep."
It's also how to tell whether students know what they're talking about.
"I'm sitting right down at the computer with the kid and I'm saying, 'Well,
how does that show us Newton's Law?' And they might have gotten that answer
right on the test. But when you sit down and look at their representation
and you hear from them what they're trying to say, and you pull it apart a
little bit. ... you wind up in this space where you really get to see what
they know and what they don't know. And that's always where we want to be
working from -- what they know and what they don't know. And working with
these media allows that to happen."
Learning From Each Other
Brown likes the fact that video requires students to work in teams and
learn from each other. "That adds to the final product because the
different angles produce different ways of approaching the same problem,"
she says. "You get pieces of the best ideas coming together, so the final
product is that much better, and they're also learning from each other and
King put an end to tracking and special education "pullout" classes at
about the same time it adopted the project approach to learning and began
emphasizing the use of technology. Since then, test scores have shot up --
a major accomplishment for a student population that is 60 percent
low-income and 22 percent refugee and that comes to school speaking 28
different languages. Following years of below-average scores on the state
achievement test, King students began outscoring the state average in six
out of seven subjects in 1999, and they even moved into the top third in
A Gifted and Talented Education
Principal Mike McCarthy, a National Principal of the Year in 1997, believes
that giving all students -- not just those at the top of the class -- the
highest quality and most challenging education makes the difference at
King. "I've heard people describe what a Gifted and Talented classroom
would look like. ... It should include field experiences. It should include
technology. It should include independent work. It should include work
that's in-depth. That's basically what our school is. Everyone has access
to that kind of learning."
The close relationship of students and their families with teachers through
looping also plays a significant role in students' success, McCarthy adds.
"That means they can get heavily invested in each other. And I think that's
part of the reason we produce such great work. ... One kid said a few years
ago, 'Nobody feels stupid around here anymore.' I think that was one of our
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