Littleton Public Schools in Colorado uses netbooks to support its writing workshops, say Connie Bouwman and Dan Maas. See the results at
Apr 01 2010

Inspiring Education

Littleton Public Schools watches test scores soar after utilizing netbooks in its language arts program.

Student postings on the district's blog say it all: “I used to not like writing,” types Lupita, a fifth-grader at Colorado's Littleton Public Schools. “Now I keep looking at the time and inside I am saying, ‘Is it time for writing yet?'”

Lupita adds enthusiastically that if people don't believe her, they should visit the school's blog: “You have to see it to believe it because your eyes will pop out.”

Indeed, when asked for feedback on the first year of what LPS calls its Inspired Writing program, more than 150 students posted similar insights on the blog. Inspired Writing provides each student with an Asus Eee PC at the start of each language arts class period. Students then return the netbooks when the period ends.

School officials say access to technology engages the students and makes them excited about learning. Students use the netbooks to post on blogs and wikis and collaborate with other students on assignments.

The netbook program is so successful that the district's “pencil and paper” scores for the writing portion of the state standardized test skyrocketed after the program's first year. Scores rose by double digits in seven of the 10 schools with Eee PCs, which are affectionately referred to at LPS as “our triple-E's.”

And that was just the beginning. During the current academic year, 1,800 Eee PCs will be used in all fifth-, sixth- and ninth-grade language arts classes, says Dan Maas, CIO for LPS. “In those one-to-one classes, we're reaching 3,675 students throughout all of our 24 buildings,” he adds.

Improving Skills

Improving test scores is a welcome result, but test-prep wasn't the goal of introducing the Eee PCs. Instead, the cost-effective netbooks were simply the tool used for a significant curriculum overhaul designed to boost reading and writing skills.

“In 2007 we began an initiative that ultimately changed literacy instruction to organize around a writer's workshop model,” explains Connie Bouwman, assistant superintendent of learning services at LPS. This model includes a short lesson, followed by independent work time and then a critiquing session – all within the class period.

There are various formats for the critiques, one of which consists of two or more concentric rings of individuals. Those in the inner circle discuss a previously assigned topic, from analyzing a novel's setting to critiquing each other's work. Those on the perimeter listen, take notes and respond to the discussion.

With the aid of the netbooks, teachers say, perimeter students become actively immersed and engaged.

“Before the triple-E's, outer-circle students would lose enthusiasm after one round of responses,” reports Tammy Falcone, a sixth-grade language arts teacher at Goddard Middle School. “With the netbooks, they go out to the web and find related pictures or video, and I can instantly display them on our classroom smartboard.”

Perimeter students are also constantly interacting with each other, Falcone adds. They post on the classroom blog, or create and revise related content on a wiki. Even students who usually prefer not to talk in front of the class are more involved than before.

Most important, the students are engaged well after the bell rings. “From the posting times on our blog and wiki, we can see students continuing the discussion long after class,” says Falcone. “Because students publish and revise continuously, it creates a community around writing in which students truly see themselves as writers.”

Lifelong Success

By ninth grade, students consider the workshop-netbook combination vital to lifelong success. “I came into ninth grade a slightly confident writer and person,” blogs Kailyn. “I am leaving as a completely confident individual, who is in charge of my own learning. Utilizing technology goes far beyond just learning to use spell check.”

Bouwman says much of the credit goes to CIO Maas. “Over the two years we were developing the workshop framework, Dan pushed every step of the way to include technology,” she says. “Not for the sake of technology, but as a tool to support the writing.”

As the framework for the curriculum developed, Maas identified logical areas where technology would play a supporting role; for example, as a means to display student work. School-developed blogs and wikis proved to be the perfect vehicle.

Before the technology could be deployed, adequate funding was required. Once again, Bouwman says Maas and his staff were creative: They partnered with nearby Englewood Schools to win a competitive grant; repurposed desktop refresh funds; and engaged support from the LPS Foundation, a nonprofit foundation set up to raise money for Littleton schools.

When the first netbook was introduced in late 2007, purchasing them made sense. “In 2005 I'd already started talking to vendor reps about developing a low-cost appliance, without all the bells and whistles,” says Maas. “When Asus came out with the Eee PC, we jumped on them.”

Everyday Use

Although Maas steered portable device adoption at LPS in Colorado, he credits Maine's one-to-one notebook program with paving the way. He says the Maine Learning Technology Initiative reports that daily use of notebooks makes a difference. “When used daily, students became better writers, even on pencil-and-paper standardized tests,” Maas says.

To ensure daily use at LPS, training focused on the writing tools the netbooks offered rather than on the devices themselves. “Unlike standard training classes, where you walk through all the technical capabilities, we suggested teachers select one writing tool to start,” says Mike Porter, LPS assistant director of instructional technology. “So one teacher chose blogging and focused on becoming comfortable and proficient with that tool.”

Additionally, training occurred in two phases. “One reason the netbooks have been so successful in our classrooms is the two-part training,” says 30-year veteran Lauri Hamill, a sixth-grade language arts teacher at Powell Middle School. Powell teachers were introduced to the netbooks last June, with a second training session in August, before they started using them with students.

“Since then, the triple-E's have invigorated me because I really feel everything that was right and good about education is just being taken to a whole other level,” says Hamill. “The netbooks are such an exciting new way to reach students.”

Off to a Good Start

Follow these best practices to get the most from netbooks:

Wireless comes first. Harnessing the power of netbooks requires fast, secure Internet access. Start by deploying a robust wireless network.

Celebrate learning, not technology. Target a subject area, such as writing, at certain grade levels. Then fine-tune and build out as teacher proficiency and confidence grows.

View curriculum and technology as a single initiative. Instead of simply setting up a wiki, focus on how to deliver curriculum components using a wiki.

Train in two phases. Start in the spring after school is out and reconvene in August before students return.

Shift ownership to end users. Minimize demands on IT with a field support structure, including self-service help tools and technology coaches in every building.

Select hardware with wireless cards. Access to the web is expected today, so adopt netbooks with Wi-Fi features.

Source: Littleton Public Schools

Enthusiastic Response

As netbook enthusiasm increased last year throughout Littleton Public Schools in Colorado, CIO Dan Maas' team developed literature to present and promote the value of the Eee PCs to stakeholders throughout the district. Schools and parent-teacher organizations quickly turned their fundraising toward getting netbooks for other grades and subject areas, Maas says. The result: More than $330,000 to buy the additional netbooks was raised, and the district now has more than 3,400 netbooks in use.

John Johnston