From laptop carrying high school students to website creating middle schoolers, technology has moved beyond the walls of a computer lab and is now being used throughout all curriculum areas. Elementary schools are no exception.
Thanks to technology, today's elementary students not only have the opportunity to learn how to use the latest tools and software but are also learning a lot about themselves and the world around them.
"Technology is taught as a tool to be used, just like pencil and paper," says Amanda Davey of the Science & Arts Academy, Des Plaines. "Technology skills are integrated into our everyday curriculum, rather than being taught as a separate class. Students begin using the Internet, Word, PowerPoint and Kidspiration in 1st grade as tools to complete projects in language arts and social studies."
For example, last year students in 1st/2nd grade homerooms used the technology tools to help them with an oral presentation on a state.
"They searched the Internet for relevant facts, took notes in Word, and then prepared a PowerPoint presentation that they used during their oral report," says Davey. "These same tools are used in all our grade levels, with the skill level and complexity increasing as the students gain more experience each year. "
"Technology is very real for children. It is very much a part of their everyday life," says Phillip Jackson of Chicago Grammar School, Chicago. "Young children view technology as a form of entertainment. Why not show them they can actually learn something from it as well?"
Toward that goal, Chicago Grammar School uses large screen monitors connected to teachers' laptops, and uses the Internet to help further illustrate in-class lessons, encourage discussions, provide structured breaks to enhance attention to tasks and reward positive behavior.
"The ease of the Internet is such that augmenting lessons with audio and visual examples becomes so facile that there is no excuse or reason not to do so," says Jackson. "Additionally, as things come up in discussion, a live Internet connection allows the teacher to provide visuals or information that keeps the conversation flowing, rather than 'let's look it up later.'"
While integrating technology into the classroom is an important part of the elementary curriculum, computer classes have not gone away.
"Our computer program has its own curriculum, but technology is being used throughout all classrooms," says Jeff Oldham of Da Vinci Academy, Elgin.
Students gain experience using the keyboard as well as various software programs such as Microsoft Office-all of which are incorporated into their classroom work outside of the computer lab. As with many other schools, Da Vinci believes that technology is a tool.
"We try not to get too bogged down in the specifics of what the tool looks like today," says Oldham. "It is important for students to realize that technology will continue to change and look different than it does today. We want them to be flexible and adaptable to new tools."
Technology has gone a long way towards helping students prepare for the world outside of their classroom, but it has also brought the real world to them. For first grade students at St. Michael School, Orland Park, a lesson on penguins became more relevant when their interactive lab allowed them to not only view penguins in their natural habitat, but have real conversations with experts in the field-even though "the field" was located in Alaska.
"We have been blessed beyond words to have donors give us access to such tools," says Bernadette Cuttone of St. Michael. In addition to learning about penguins in Alaska, students have visited with a Holocaust survivor in Germany and even invited local Veterans into their school to have a conversation with U.S. soldiers currently serving in Iraq.
Use of the Internet also allows for a smooth transition between classroom lessons and at-home learning.
"Our first unit in science is a study on the moon," says Becca Yu, third grade teacher at Christian Heritage Academy, Northfield. "Each night, students need to look up the phase of the moon in the Internet and do a moon sketch."
Teachers also post documents and websites on the school's internal website, which is also sent to parents. This type of learning environment in school and at home motivates students to do their work.
"When they know they get to practice online, they get excited and become more motivated to learn," says Yu. "This motivation means they will often work longer and harder on a technology-based exercise as opposed to traditional methods."
Taking this one step further, many schools are using technology to better communicate with parents on everything from upcoming tests and homework to providing advice for parents on what areas of learning need extra time or attention.
Chicago Grammar School has daily online reporting that gives parents an "eye into the classroom and beyond" (along with photos and video clips if relevant).
"It helps the parents help the child," adds Jackson.
Regardless of how technology is being used, educators agree that embracing new tools and strategies is the best way to keep students engaged in learning.
"Students today learn differently than students of the past. Before they enter school, they have learned an enormous amount from television, movies, and probably computers," Davey says. "They play games on consoles and cell phones. Using technology in today's schools is not only necessary to keep students current with knowledge they will need to succeed, it is necessary to engage and keep their interest. Technology allows students to be interactive while they learn, rather than passive."