Student Centered Activities and Technology Spark Learning

by Leslie Blair
Published in SEDL Letter Volume XI, Number 2, August 1999, At the Heart of the Matter: Improving Teaching and Learning Through Professional Development

I can't imagine going back to teaching the way I used to," commented a teacher at Carencro Middle School in the heart of Acadiana, six miles northwest of Lafayette, Louisiana. Professional development sessions with staff members from SEDL's Technology Assistance Program (TAP) encouraged the teachers at Carencro to combine technology with project-based activities that foster the students' ability to think critically and solve problems.

Language arts classes at Carencro Middle School are two hours long to allow time for in-depth projects which often include Internet research and using the computer to write multiple drafts of a paper.

Most of the Carencro Middle School teachers grew up in Acadiana and learned to teach in very traditional ways. Carencro is a semirural, working-class area steeped in the Cajun culture, where bilingual means speaking French and English.

Principal William Butcher realized that changes in instruction were necessary to improve the performance of students at the school, which falls into the lower 20 percent of test scores for Lafayette Parish. Money for technology was available, so the timing was right to incorporate technology into the classroom. Butcher reports, "Technology is useless without training, and that is what SEDL has helped us with."

SEDL's Technology Assistance Program goes beyond simply instructing teachers to use software, which is often the focus of technology training. SEDL staff members model how teachers can embed technologies in their lessons to create a more active, engaging classroom and provide opportunities for teachers to reflect on and evaluate the classroom activities to make certain that student and curriculum needs are met. Although performance data is not yet available for the 1998-99 school year, Carencro staff report the shift from traditional teacher-centered activities to a variety of activities that encourage cooperative learning while incorporating technology has energized teaching and learning. Not only are the students more enthusiastic about their classes and their work, but teachers are collaborating more. Their professional learning community has expanded via technology—they are sharing thoughts about teaching and classroom activities via e-mail and an electronic bulletin board. They are eager to learn how activities have worked in classrooms at other TAP schools; some are asking for even more intensive training. Many are looking forward to year two of the training, which will focus on assessing student-centered learning and evaluating classroom activities more critically.

The more they have a part in learning, the more they learn things they can use—they are not just regurgitating facts," Chadwick says. She notes, too, that "technology makes the world smaller for students. It gives the lessons we teach depth.

Butcher finds that the teachers who declined to participate initially are eager now for the in-service training after experiencing the enthusiasm of the teachers and students who have been affected by the training.

There is no doubt the children are enthusiastic about using the computer—all of the Carencro teachers agree that students are more eager to work on projects when the computer is involved. Many teachers mentioned that technology is the hook to draw students into the subject matter, that students are more receptive to information that is presented using technology. But for social studies teacher Chris Cormier, the real payoff is that the students retain more knowledge by working in groups to create technology-based presentations. Her students work on group PowerPoint presentations at the end of each unit, something she terms a "culminating enrichment activity."

Science teacher Janet Castille agrees that student-centered projects help students internalize new concepts much more quickly. "The activities help them understand the background material—they aren't just reading something, they have to work their way around to the concept." Castille stresses that using student-centered activities does not mean there isn't structure in the classroom. She says that such activities require ground rules and presenting adequate background material before the students can begin the projects.

Language arts teacher Kay Chadwick, who has taught for more than 20 years, reports that because of the training in student-centered teaching, she now gives her students some control over their projects. "The more they have a part in learning, the more they learn things they can use—they are not just regurgitating facts," Chadwick says. She notes, too, that "technology makes the world smaller for students. It gives the lessons we teach depth."

Social studies teacher Lisa Sudduth reports that by integrating technology and student-centered projects, she is not "tied to the overhead projector" any longer. Now her classroom is more eclectic and open, and she can more easily encourage students to go beyond the book. Sudduth points out that she plans lessons within the curriculum framework established by the state, but she does not rely as heavily on the textbook for guidance as she did previously.

Sudduth also says that working in a more flexible environment has taken some getting used to on the part of the students as well as the teachers. "Students come to school with certain expectations, that a classroom should be set up a certain way," she notes. Initially, it was difficult for her students to become accustomed to working in groups and taking the initiative to make the decisions necessary to complete their work.

Math Teacher Torris Guzetta says that her students are more willing to work on difficult problems when they are allowed to work in small groups.

The group projects that Carencro teachers have been integrating into their curriculum often mean that students learn about subject matter and using the computer from other students. Interaction among students helps them clarify their own understanding, which is one of the reasons Chadwick uses small discussion groups called "literature circles" in her classes. Math teacher Tori Guzzetta believes that the children actually work much harder to learn material when they must explain it to someone else.

Guzzetta observes that the group work helps establish a positive environment in her classes and provides for many more teaching opportunities than in a traditional math classroom where the teacher models the work and students replicate what she has done. She says that while many students have had prior negative experiences in math classrooms, they are encouraged to attempt difficult material if they are able to work on problems in groups.

Guzzetta says, "SEDL has emphasized how important it is that we all learn together—learning is a team sport. It gives more kids an opportunity to shine—some kids are good with paper and pencil tests, but this way of teaching gives everyone a chance to do a variety of things to show what they have learned."

Leslie Blair is a SEDL communications associate and editor of SEDL Letter.

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