By SUE SUCHYTA
MELVINDALE – Students at Strong Middle School, especially visual and English language learners, started the academic year with computer upgrades that improve the learning environment.
Principal Donald Fish said the technology upgrades began last year when the school’s library media center received 34 new desktop computers. For this school year, 30 additional new desktop computers replaced older units in the school’s second computer lab.
He said from a practical standpoint, new computers enable the school to administer the expected online Smarter Balanced student assessment tests from the state of Michigan, which are anticipated to replace the pencil and paper administered Michigan Educational Assessment Program as its phase-out begins.
Fish said over the summer the school upgraded its infrastructure, installed all new Wi-Fi, and purchased two new computer laptop carts to supplement the existing two for teachers to use in classrooms.
Laptop carts let the school take online testing portals to students in their own classroom without requiring them to move to a room with captive computers, which cuts into instructional time.
“There are a lot of great programs out there that we really could be utilizing to supplement our teaching,” Fish said. “So it takes care of two birds with one stone.”
Funding for teacher training, which will enable the initial group of teachers to later bring their colleagues up to speed, is part of the upgrade.
Teacher Jennifer DiMilia said the school received a classroom set of 30 iPads to let teachers show simulations to help students better understand new concepts.
She said the school also received iPad minis with software to help English language learners, which include recent Arabic-speaking Yemeni immigrants as well as Hispanic speaking students.
She said computers help by giving ELL common ground to interact with other students. It also provides translation applications, and lets her show ELL students a visual of something with which they might be unfamiliar.
She said Google Earth, for example, lets her type in the name of a place in the United States they are discussing in social studies class that their peers may already be aware of from a cultural perspective, and ELL students can instantly see and visually process the location reference.
DiMilia also is pleased that infrastructure improvements have made technology access more reliable and that all the computers work.
She said last year, they had problems with the old computer lab desktop units not running properly, and summer upgrades to the infrastructure allowed the school to update its wireless Internet for faster access and a larger broadband.
“When I plan my lessons with technology I am able to be confident that it is going to work,” DiMilia said. “I am not going to run into those issues that I ran into last year when I would have a lesson planned and the Internet would be down or the computers would not be working, so then you would have to do an alternative plan.”
“Technology is just taking over,” Dimilia said. “We need to expose (students) to things. We are preparing them for the 21st century. It is going to be technology-based.”
She said students enjoy technology, and it motivates them and pushes them to be critical thinkers when teachers integrate it into lesson plans.
“Not only does using the programs we have in place increase their motivation to learn, it allows teachers to differentiate instruction and students are able to work at their own level and pace,” DiMilia said.
She said one example of software they use is MobyMax, a program that students can access at school and at home, which focuses on English, grammar, reading fiction and non-fiction, math and much more.
Seventh-grader Kyra Berumen, 13, of Allen Park, who has used MobyMax in DiMilia’s classroom, said it gives students information that they need whenever and wherever they need it.
Visual learners can really benefit from computers as well, said seventh-grader Parris Cavill, 12, of Allen Park.
“Some kids have to see it by themselves to be able to learn it,” Cavill said. “They can’t have a teacher tell them it. They need to see it and they have to read it.”
She fondly recalls a sixth-grade science class that taught basic physics principles by letting students create and operate a rollercoaster online.
“You had to make it stop when it was supposed to stop, and if it didn’t stop at the right time, it would fly off the course,” she said.
Eighth-grader John Mellin, 14, of Melvindale, who said he is a visual learner, said computers offer a learning advantage for him.
“If I don’t get something, I can go back and re-read it again,” Mellin said. “It is better than just listening to the teacher.”
Seventh-grader Evan King, 13, of Melvindale, appreciates that a computer, as opposed to a teacher writing on a white board, lets him learn at a faster pace, because he does not have to wait for other students to understand something.
“If you just sit there and watch a teacher on a white board, it will take longer,” he said. “You are still getting something out of it, but you have to wait on other people to get finished with the assignment.”
DiMilia said teachers are able to use software like Socrative and Poll Everywhere to question students in real time through tablets, laptops and and even their own smart phones to gauge the understanding level of each student in the class as well as the level of understanding for the entire class.
She said she also uses Padlet, an online graffiti wall that lets teachers and students collect feedback, discuss topics online, share web links and videos and post notices, to ask real-time questions in class to determine right away if her students understand a concept she is teaching.
She said a student who might be afraid to raise his hand and ask a question may post a question on Padlet, and the teacher or a classmate can reply in real time.
Seventh-grader Marina Salazar, 13, of Melvindale, said being able to do homework online, especially math, is more efficient and the computer program provides immediate feedback.
“For me it’s hard to do (with) pencil and paper,” she said. “If I get it wrong (the computer) can tell me to re-do it, and when I get it right (it) will tell me.”
Eighth-grader Zarresha Carr, 13, of Melvindale, said she prefers learning from a computer instead of a book, because she has immediate access to much more information.
To provide more information and spark student curiosity in a learning environment, DiMilia said educators should continually find new and innovative ways to use technology to teach children.
“Things have changed since we have been in school and (for) today’s generation of kids, technology is a part of their everyday lives,” DiMilia said. “We need to shift our paradigm and encourage technology use in the classroom.”