Oct 31 2006

Reading, Writing & Social Responsibility: Technology Improves Student's Literacy

At New Jersey's Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. School Complex, technology helps increase literacy and foster goodwill.


It was a newspaper article that touched the hearts of teachers at Atlantic City's Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. School Complex. A former student of the inner-city K–8 school – where more than 90 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch programs – had been shot and killed.

The mood spilled over into a staff meeting where administrators had gathered to discuss possible uses for grant funds from the Students Using Technology To Achieve Reading-Writing (STAR-W) program, funded by Federal Title Programs.

“A theme became obvious during the meeting,” recalls Marilyn Cohen, the school's STAR-W project director. “We decided then that we wanted to promote options for students that led in a positive direction. If we as teachers could help one student at a time make a decision to do the right thing versus belonging to gangs and being involved in the violence of the city, it was what we wanted to do.”

From this ambition came the “Bullies to Buddies” program, the first of several initiatives implemented at MLK, thanks to the purchase of a variety of equipment, including notebook computers, word processors, digital cameras, video cameras, visual projectors, scanners and a host of software – all made possible through the STAR-W grant.

Beginning in 2003, more than 300 students relied on these tools not only to increase language arts literacy but to help improve the school's social climate and effect positive change in the community, by creating projects aimed at promoting friendship and conflict resolution.

Bullies to Buddies

“Bullying was becoming a problem in our classrooms, and we wanted to address the issue by teaching the children different techniques in how to handle these situations,” says Claudette Brower, technology coordinator at MLK. “By using technology as a tool, we used language arts activities and lessons to create meaningful scenarios that addressed the issue, in addition to providing educational value. Technology has allowed us to channel our energies in positive ways.”

For one assignment, students used notebooks to write dialogue and scripts as part of a role-playing exercise. Different scenarios on how to best handle bullying were then presented as skits in front of the school and videotaped by students.

For another activity, students wrote poems and created booklets using publishing programs. They also designed magnets around a theme of how to be better friends.

“It has helped,” Brower says of the program. “The climate at our school has definitely improved.”

Adds Cohen: “We showed students alternatives that they may turn to as they leave our schools and move into the real world.”

Games with Purpose

To build on “Bullies to Buddies,” teachers looked for additional ways to promote social awareness. Students participated in the “A.C.-opoly” project, modeled after the Monopoly board game, to highlight the city's many diverse communities. After researching streets throughout their community, students wrote scripts, shot video and converted the clips into an iMovie for the school's Web site. “We wanted to uplift the students and make them aware of the good things and the attributes of their community,” Brower says.

Students also took part in a food drive to benefit the Atlantic City Rescue Mission – South Jersey's largest provider of homeless services. Students used graphics software and other tools to decorate collection bags that were then posted around the school and the community.

New Love of Writing

Perhaps most important to students' educational development, the new technology has improved reading and writing skills, Brower says. Among the most popular activities of the grant have been the extensive online writing and picture prompts, in which teachers assign various questions online for students to
respond to using their notebooks to e-mail answers to the instructors.

For example, one prompt, “Welcome to Fourth Grade,” asks students to write about what they are looking forward to in the coming school year, as well as share details such as what makes them special, if they have any pets and what sports they like.

In another example, a cartoon showing children being bullied was posted on the prompt site, and students were asked to respond to the question, “What's wrong with this picture?”

“This was seamless integration of technology that the students enjoyed and therefore took care in writing and editing,” says Cohen.

Brower says, “Students commented about how much they wrote because they loved the typing process. The growth we saw was just wonderful.”

Indeed, as interest was piqued at MLK, literacy and test scores increased. The program's success is chronicled in an independent analysis completed on data in
language arts literacy over a three-year period.

Reading and writing proficiency among fifth-graders jumped from 28 percent to 55.7 percent. What's more, third- and fifth-graders showed increased improvement each year of the program.

In fact, the district has now budgeted for the equipment and training of a third- and fourth-grade teacher from each of the schools not included in the original grant.

The school also dedicated funds to professional development for teachers, including an in-class support mentor who works with instructors to help them infuse technology into lessons. “If teachers have not been trained, the technology may sit in a classroom unused,” Cohen points out.

Seamless and Exciting

“Technology needs to be seamless, not forced,” she advises. “A student should go to a notebook or word processor to write as easily as they would reach for a paper and a pencil. The students learned to use a plethora of equipment … [which] allowed students to choose their own way to research information, design a project and present information and skills learned.”

Brower says technology excites students. “Technology has pulled it all together for this generation. It captured their interest and made them want to learn. I've seen incredible student growth. The students are really doing well in class, and when you see how efficient the student product is, you see how well the [technology] has worked.”

Ideas for Motivating Young Readers

Scavenger Hunt
Divide the class into teams and give each team a copy of the same book. Have them find the page numbers of particular objects, events or people in the book.

Read to the Principal
Recognize student accomplishments in reading by selecting one or two children daily to go to the principal's office to read to him or her. Before starting the program, make a computer banner that says “I READ TO THE PRINCIPAL.” Hang the banner in the principal's office and ask the children to sign the banner.

Two Characters Meet
Pick a favorite character from each of two books and write a new story or play in which they meet. Have the class read or act out the new story.

Bullying Facts

80% of adolescents report being bullied during the school year.

90% of 4th through 8th graders report being victims of bullying.

15% of students bully regularly or are victims of bullies.