David A. Welton
Entering their classrooms in the fall of 1995 was an intimidating experience for some of the teachers at Ramirez Elementary School--a Professional Development School (PDS) that works with Texas Tech University. Over the summer, at least three new computers --each equipped with CD-ROM drives and enough capacity to handle the multimedia and graphics requirements of contemporary software--had been installed in their classrooms. The new technology was not a surprise, at least not for most teachers, because the principal had announced the purchase earlier that spring. Despite the advanced warning, some teachers were intimidated nonetheless.
This article describes how the teachers at Ramirez, along with selected teachers elsewhere, have learned to use technology as a vehicle for teaching social studies and for enhancing their students' literacy skills. The prospect of having three or four fully-equipped computers assigned to their classroom is something many teachers only dream about. Thus, some background information on how Ramirez Elementary reached this point may be useful.
The Advent of Computers at Ramirez Elementary
In elementary and middle schools across the country, new computers are often placed in computer labs that typically serve every student in the school. The old machines, which are often Apple IIe computers that date from the 1980s, are then parceled out to classrooms. Unfortunately, such outmoded hardware is often suitable for little more than word processing and some database activities.
Enter Mrs. Lucy Brown, the principal at Ramirez Elementary, who says, "Administrators are often reluctant to put new technology into classrooms where teachers don't know how to use it. I take the opposite position. I believe most teachers are too busy to learn how to use technology that they don't have. If we want teachers to take advantage of what technology has to offer, we need to make sure they have access to it. That's why we left our old Apple IIes in the computer labs, where we focus mainly on keyboarding skills, and put the more powerful machines in classrooms where teachers can use them to teach."
Mrs. Brown continued, "To justify our investment, we had to provide support for teachers, especially for those who'd never used computers before--which was most of them. That's why we hired Mrs. Darlinda Rogers, our computer resource specialist. Too often schools purchase new programs, but classroom teachers have no idea whether the programs would be appropriate to what they teach. That's why we have faculty meetings from time to time where Mrs. Rogers gives short demonstrations of new programs and what they can do. She also sets up special equipment, works with small groups of students on special projects, and often works one-on-one with teachers until they feel comfortable using a program."
For example, one of the special activities that Mrs. Rogers coordinates is the school's Earthquake Mapping Project. Several times a week, she downloads recent earthquake information from the Internet [http: //wwwneic.cr.usgu.gov/ current_seismicity.shtml or http://home.synnpse.ru/cgi-bin/eq/]. As explained by Mrs. Brown, "the students then use latitude and longitude to plot the location of the earthquakes on a huge world map in the hall. The earthquake-prone areas become apparent very quickly when you map them, and our students can show you where they are and explain how continental plates shift--all that stuff. I'm convinced that this project has helped our children to become more geographically literate--especially in dealing with latitude and longitude--than our students used to be."
Having a computer resource specialist who is always available, and who can stand by a teacher's side and demonstrate what to do, was a key component in helping teachers learn how to use computers. Even when teachers began striking out on their own, they were comforted by the fact that they had someone to call on if they ran into problems, which they did regularly. In some schools, computer lab teachers might fulfill this function, but it would be difficult if those individuals were also scheduled to work with children all day. One can also question whether it is necessary for elementary and middle students to have six to eight years of computer lab classes, especially if keyboarding is the major emphasis.
There's no question that hiring a computer resource specialist is an expensive proposition, but it was one that Ramirez, with over 725 students, was able to afford. For smaller schools, reallocating the assignments of existing personnel may be a more feasible alternative. For example, having the computer lab teacher devote half time to classes and the remaining half time to a support role is perhaps not ideal, but reflects one way of providing the support function. The Ramirez experience suggests that providing support for teachers as they learn the new skills that technology so often requires is vitally important.
Computers as Learning Tools
There are many software programs that can help children learn skills, such as how to punctuate sentences correctly or how to read the symbols on a map. Such programs usually fall into the drill-and-practice mode, and are essentially aimed at helping children refine their existing skills as opposed to learning new information. Some drill-and-practice programs also use game formats that--when combined with colorful graphics, sound, and instant feedback--make them a far cry from traditional workbooks. In these instances, it is the software and not the computer that does the actual teaching.
Another application of technology takes advantage of the computer's ability to simplify on-going tasks. People who use word processing program understand what this means almost immediately, for no longer must they retype entire pages to accommodate editorial changes or correct spelling errors. Computer technology also makes it possible to create illustrated reports and dramatic presentations, complete with animated graphics and sound, for large audiences. Most of the examples described below reflect this second category of application.
Using Technology to Enhance Writing Skills
Database, spreadsheet, and word processing programs have been available for almost two decades, and most of them will work on the Apple IIes that many teachers have available to them. However, integrated application programs such as Appleworks (Claris), Microsoft Works (Microsoft), Clarisworks (Claris), and Greatworks (Symantec), incorporate these formerly separate entities into powerful programs that often exceed the capacity of older machines. This means that tasks like importing database materials or photographs from one program format to another, or writing scripts and then adding a narration and music, are usually out of the question.
Even when teachers lack access to updated machines and new programs, it is still possible to use the older machines to teach social studies and enhance students' literacy skills. Consider, for example, the approach that Mr. Larry Lewin, a U.S. history/English teacher at the Monroe Middle School in Eugene, Oregon, uses to involve his students in the historical events of 1492 and to sharpen their literacy skills.1
Mr. Lewin's long-range assignment is for students to write a fictional short story from the point of view of either a Spanish sailor or a Taino Indian. The stories, which must be revised at least once, are judged on how realistically they present the characters, the setting, and the events that occur. Before beginning the stories, Mr. Lewin and his students spend several weeks reading and discussing various works of historical fiction in order to understand the genre. Based on these activities, Mr. Lewin then asks his students to write a short expository piece titled "A Sailor's Life." Only after they have successfully completed the preliminary story do the students begin on their long-range stories. The target audience for the final stories is fifth graders, who are also studying 1492.
A second example of how teachers with older computers can teach social studies and literacy skills occurred in Grahamstown, South Africa, where students sought to answer the question: Do women live longer than Men?2 The 12-year-old students collected data from the gravestones in three local cemeteries regarding the name, sex, date of birth, date of death, and age (whatever was given on the tombstone) of deceased persons. The students then transferred the information into a database program, which permitted them to organize and sort the data according to various criteria. Two of the hypotheses the students created and tested were: women live longer than men, and people in the 20th century live longer than did people in the 19th century.
Trying to interpret their findings using the raw data led to a host of problems, in part because the population of the area in the 20th century was larger than in the 19th century. For example, the students found that there were 22 deaths of children under the age of 10 in the 19th century, and 35 deaths in the same category during the 20th century. The raw data made it appear that the death rate of children in the 20th century was higher than in the 19th century, yet when students recalculated their data on a percentage basis, the picture was quite different. Over 25 percent of the 19th century deaths were children under the age of 10, whereas children accounted for less than 3 percent of the deaths in the 20th century. Once the students learned to provide the proper instructions, the computers did the necessary mathematical calculations. The students then turned to their word-processing programs to write the reports of what they had found.
Both of these examples show that it's possible to accommodate social studies and literacy skills, primarily contextualized writing activities, using older technology. However, for teachers who have access to newer technology, the possibilities increase significantly.
Using Integrated Application Programs
The integrated application programs noted earlier, which combine data-base, spread sheet, and word-processing into a single package, offer multiple possibilities. For example, during their study of Africa, each of the fifth-sixth grade students in Mary Llanas's combined class use one of the four computers in her room to produce a travel brochure on an African nation. One topic in the sixth-grade writing curriculum is persuasive writing, which students employed in their brochures to appeal to readers to visit their nation. However, these brochures were not the traditional "reports" that almost any word-processing program could produce. Rather, each brochure was filled with pictures and illustrations, many in full color, that students either downloaded from the Internet or reproduced from various books or other sources (potential copyright problems notwithstanding).
After students identify an illustration they wish to include, they place it (or the book it is in) on an easel, and then use a video camcorder to incorporate the image into their report. However, getting the equipment hooked up to function properly posed a problem that required the services of the computer resource specialist. After Mrs. Rogers showed Mrs. Llanas and her students the correct connections, they were able to use the equipment independently.
The ClarisWorks (Claris) program that Mrs. Llana's students used was sophisticated enough that, in some instances, students could use scenes indigenous to their nation as the background for the text they wrote, which appeared in a contrasting color in front of the image. At other times, the text was either above or below the illustrations. In either case, Mrs. Llana's students found themselves making decisions about the total effect that their brochures would create, and not just the words they were writing
Using Presentation Software to Enhance Literacy
Presentation software usually refers to hypertext programs such as HyperCard (for Apple computers) and Linkway (for PCs) that permit users to navigate interactively through audio, video, and text modes. Hypertext programs are assembled much like a deck of index cards, each of which contains information that can be arranged and rearranged in different ways. For example, Mychael Irwin's second grade students used a simplified hypertext program, SlideShow, to prepare presentations on prominent historical figures.
For background information prior to working with SlideShow, the students viewed the CD-ROM Explorers of the New World (Future Vision). Christopher Columbus is one of several individuals from the Age of Exploration--others include Magellan, De Soto, and Henry Hudson--whose voyages are chronicled on this software. The first animated scene in the Columbus episode shows Columbus in King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella's courtroom pleading for funding. Occasionally, the explorers share their hopes and concerns with viewers, and, in Columbus's case, he also reads excerpts from his journals of his voyages to the new world.
To prepare their SlideShow presentations, Mrs. Irwin's students first decided which of many clipart illustrations of people would best represent their historical characters. They then wrote a text describing what their figures had done. In the next phase, students wrote scripts for a narration that was later recorded and used in their presentation. One student, whose figure was Queen Isabella, could not locate a suitable picture, so she selected one of an elegantly dressed female who looked as if she had just stepped out of Napoleon's court, powdered wig and all. However, the student was aware of the discrepancy and, in her narration, indicated that the picture was only symbolic of Isabella, and that viewers should not think this was what she actually looked like.
The students in Judy Rogers's third-grade class used a different presentation program, TimeTrip USA (EdMark), as a vehicle for writing activities. In this instance, the children created an animated book of colonial occupations. The TimeTrip USA program comes with a variety of scenes, including a colonial harbor, a colonial village, and the inside of a building that could be a store. The program also has a large menu of objects, including crates, barrels, and a horse and carriage, as well as people in various forms of dress that students can select from and then insert into the background scene. Most of the inserted objects can be animated, in effect creating a moving picture.
Each student wrote the text for his or her chosen occupation, which they added to the program. They also wrote scripts and, in some instances, selected music for the narration. Mrs. Roger's students also borrowed a technique from the popular Richard Scary children's books, in which a tiny worm peers over the activities on each page. Instead of a worm, the children decided to insert the image of a child who periodically pops out of a barrel. In addition to running on the computer, TimeTrip USA also generates a videotape of the completed program that can be played on any VCR. Multiple tapes were needed to accommodate the demand.
There is no question that working with computer-based presentation programs can motivate students to write, but some related issues must also be considered. For example, most students working with the TimeTrip USA program knew that a horse and carriage in the distance would be small, but would gradually grow larger as it came closer. Nevertheless, it often took hours for students to learn how to correct the perspective problems they encountered, such as creating horses or people that were three or four times larger (or smaller) than the buildings in a scene. Although their task was not related to social studies or literacy, the tenacity that some third graders demonstrated in trying to incorporate the correct perspective into their animations suggests the computer's potential as a motivational device. Those students were not about to quit until they got it right.
One benefit of being a Professional Development School like Ramirez is that the University permits it to connect into its computer system via telephone, or what is known as a PPP account. The important part of this arrangement is that for approximately $90 per year, Ramirez has unlimited access to the Internet. However, there are also some hidden costs, such as modems and the charges for a dedicated telephone line. Connecting to the Internet via an extension phone usually proves unworkable, because any time someone picks up an extension, the connection will be lost.
Once the hardware needs are met, the Internet's vast array of resources become available. For example, via the Internet, students can tour places like the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities in Cairo (http://interoz.com/egypt/museum) or the 12th century Durham Castle and Cathedral in England (http://www.dur.ac.uk/~dla/www/c_tour/tour.html). Closer to home, students can visit Plimoth Plantation (http://spirit.lib.uconn.edu/ArchNet/Topical/Historic/Plimoth/Plimoth.html) or the website of Colonial Williamsburg (http://www.history.org).
From a purely social studies perspective, the Internet offers more information than students (or anyone) can possibly use. However, incorporating literacy skills into Internet-related activities often means that the Internet's capacity as a communication medium overshadows its role as a provider of information. This is what occurred when Myra Robinson's sixth grade class at Ramirez embarked on their Small World Project. Based on contacts through the College of Education at Texas Tech University, Mrs. Robinson's class was paired via the Internet with a similar class at a school in New Zealand. Both classes were given e-mail addresses, but nothing else. Their task became one of determining who was talking to whom.
The ground rules were that both groups could answer only questions posed in a "yes" or "no" format that did not reveal the identify of either class. This meant that a question such as "Who are you?" was not permitted, but that questions such as "What is your weather like?" and "How far are you from your nation's capital?" were acceptable. The students in both schools were faced with deciding what were the best questions to ask, and how they should be phrased. However, the answers sometimes posed situations that required further explanation.
For example, the Ramirez students had to determine why the weather for their partner school was warmer in January than in June, whereas students in their partner school had similar problems interpreting our weather pattern. It took almost a month of daily e-mail correspondence before the students in either class could identify their partner school's location with any degree of accuracy. Once they had done so, students from both schools used their respective university's interactive video systems to conduct a face-to-face meeting. Their e-mail correspondence continues.
Gaining access to computer-based technology is still a problem in some schools. However, once teachers have gained access to the necessary hardware and software, they are devising creative ways for using that technology as a vehicle for teaching both social studies and literacy skills. In the process, they are discovering that although computers themselves do not teach students to be literate, their power as motivational and learning tools is considerable.3
1 Cited in J. O'Neill, "Making Assessment Meaningful," ASCD Education UpDate 38 (1996): 1, 6.
2 James R. M. Paul and C. Kaiser, "Do Women Live Longer than Men?" Learning and Leading with Technology 23 (May 1996): 13-15.
3 For an excellent recent source on using technology in social studies classrooms, see Joseph A. Braun, Jr., Phyllis Fernlund, and Charles S. White, Technology Tools in the Social Studies Curriculum (Wilsonville, OR: Franklin, Beedle & Associates, 1998).
About the Author
David A. Welton is a professor in the Division of Curriculum and Instruction at Texas Tech University and focuses primarily on methods of teaching elementary social studies.