Monday, November 13, 2006

Paperless In South Florida

One south Florida elementary classroom has gone paperless:
It's first period in Judy Herrell's fifth-grade class at Flamingo Elementary, and students are learning about the Civil War. But instead of a textbook, the children's eyes are glued to the computer screens built into their desks.

''Who was General Sherman? Who was commander of the Confederate Army?'' Herrell asks, moving back and forth between her computer in the back of the room and a screen in the front where images from her monitor are projected for 24 pairs of eyes to see.

When she assigns students a report on Civil War heroes, the students take off on their own using websites like Google and Dogpile to do research, cutting and pasting photographs into documents and saving their work on disks.

''Instead of writing with a paper and pencil and your hand getting tired, we can do it on a computer,'' said Robert Toledo, 10, as he read a site about Abraham Lincoln. ``It's faster and better.''

Here in Miami-Dade's only paperless classroom, websites are used in lieu of textbooks, PowerPoint presentations substitute for written essays and students get homework help from their teacher by e-mail.

''I can use the skills I learn here in sixth grade and in college,'' said Marissa Seijo, 10.

Started in 1999 with a $500,000 federal grant, Herrell and her paperless classroom have taken on an almost cult status at Flamingo Elementary. Fourth-graders whisper to one another about the fifth-grade class with the computers, and parents clamor to sign their children up. The concept was so popular, this year school administrators split up Herrell's class into a morning group and an afternoon group in order to give access to more students. Students must have a computer at home with Internet access to take the class, but there are no other requirements. With 86 percent of the school's students getting a free or reduced-priced lunch, Herrell says her classroom offers a rare chance for students.

''This is the only opportunity they have to join the 21st century,'' she said. ``Without education, children in this classroom don't have a chance at the American Dream.''

Though teachers who lead them swear by them, paperless classrooms have been slow to take off, both in Miami-Dade and across the country.

Computers must be updated every couple of years, and Herrell estimates that she spends more than 10 hours a week finding age-appropriate websites that match her lesson plans.

''Most people would like to use the same websites,'' said Herrell, who has been teaching for 36 years. ``But they're always coming and going. ''

Increasing technology programs across the district has been central to Superintendent Rudy Crew's plans to improve Miami-Dade schools, but none has gone as far as Herrell's class.

Professional-development classes that teach teachers how to incorporate technology into their classes are widespread. Forty schools, including Flamingo, now offer an after-school program in partnership with Dell that teaches students to build a computer. At the end of the 40-hour program, students take home the computer they built. Several schools also offer technology magnet programs, and two more elementary schools are slated to be added to that list next year.

''We've found that it enables you to catch the child that's more kinetic-minded, you catch the kids that might otherwise get bored,'' said Valen Mayland, an educational specialist in instructional technology.

Though many teachers will attest to the fact that doing work on a computer is more fun for students and keeps them engaged in learning, there is still controversy about the best ways for schools to use technology in the classroom.

''Good teachers use technology really well. Bad teachers use it poorly, and, in those instances, technology may mask bad teaching,'' said Eugene F. Provenzo, Jr., an education professor at the University of Miami.

As more classrooms start to look like Herrell's, Provenzo said educators must ask themselves what is lost when they start teaching on a screen.

''Technology is one of the best and worst things introduced in schools in the last 20 years,'' he said. ``It can be an extraordinary tool. . . . But it can also be the difference between watching a movie about Venice and actually going to Venice and smelling the salt air.''
We believe that in a few decades most classrooms will have "gone paperless" in that textbooks will be replaced by some form of E-book with most student-generated work submitted in an electronic format.

We also believe that cursive handwriting will continue to be taught in the lower grades
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