COLUMBIA — In a second-grade classroom at West Boulevard Elementary School, students are learning about organs in the human body. They will break into groups and write reports centered on one organ, reports that will be shared with not only the classroom but also the world on a Google Sites Web page.
Media specialist Sarah Easley will join the classroom teacher for this assignment; helping the students sift through research and put their findings online is one way Easley has begun implementing Common Core State Standards into lessons.
This lesson on organs incorporates two of the Common Core standards: producing and distributing writing; and conducting research to build and present knowledge.
"My philosophy is that technology needs to be integrated with classroom learning," Easley said. It's not that the students are going to the computer lab and learning technology skills in isolation but that they are learning the skills by publishing online, she said.
The Common Core State Standards are new academic standards Missouri adopted in 2010. They serve as guidelines for what math and language arts classes need to prioritize, emphasizing the teaching of practical skills and improving non-fiction literacy. Columbia Public Schools finished revising its curriculum to align with the standards in December.
Right now, the district is working to make sure schools have the right technology to test students under the new standards. Also, media specialists like Easley are working to tweak what they're teaching — for example, helping students become more discriminating users of electronic resources.
Easley helps her students learn to use Microsoft Word, software to create comics and Google Docs, among other tools, in classroom work. She also works with various devices — for example, the school used its own funds to buy iPads, which teachers can check out from the library individually or in packs.
Easley said iPads are helpful for pulling up information when teaching a reading group and engaging in early literacy activities.
"There are a lot of apps installed on our iPads that can help students before they're independent readers with sounds and sight words," she said.
Teachers and students utilize online and offline activities on the iPads because the school does not yet have wireless Internet in all areas of the building. This technology will be installed before Columbia Public Schools begins Common Core curriculum testing in the 2014-15 academic year.
Changes in technology
In December, the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education released a statement saying about 95 percent of schools have adequate technology to administer the computer-based Common Core tests in 2014-15.
After receiving the statement, the Missouri Association of School Administrators distributed a technology survey to superintendents across the state. According to its survey of 383 school districts, 42 percent said they have the technology required.
Chris Diggs, Columbia Public Schools director of technology services, said the district is likely more prepared than smaller ones but is not yet 100 percent prepared.
"A lot of what we're doing is improving technology because we're aware of the requirement, but also because it's the right thing to do instructionally," Diggs said. "They work hand-in-hand."
Partly because of money received from a tax levy increase approved last spring, the student-to-device ratio is at least 3-to-1 at each school, and the district plans to continue reducing the ratio. Some schools received up to 120 laptops housed in mobile carts to meet the 3-1 ratio. This influx of new technology initially overwhelmed some students and faculty, Diggs said.
"We need to teach students and teachers the proper care for the laptops and make sure they have adequate training," Diggs said.
In addition to increasing the number of devices, Columbia Public Schools will continue to increase staff support for the devices, Diggs said. Each school has media specialists such as Easley who are knowledgeable, and district computer technicians service an average of 800 computers each.
The district is installing wireless Internet to be used with these devices in each elementary school, Diggs said. Although the elementary schools have wireless Internet in some areas, the updates will expand Internet to the entire building. All secondary and middle schools already have wireless Internet throughout their buildings.
The district is also improving bandwidth, particularly in buildings with antiquated data wiring. Each building is having its bandwidth tested, and the district wants to continue to improve overall bandwidth.
"We don't want (the students) losing connection," Diggs said.
The process for administering the computer-based tests will differ from the current one, Diggs said.
"When we do a pencil-and-paper test, it's quite a deal — we have to box them up and ship them," she said. "Doing (testing) online, it's just a matter if we have the device and the connectivity."
Changes in curriculum
The district's library media curriculum includes the state's information and communications technology literacy curriculum and International Society for Technology in Education standards. The district is reviewing the curriculum, a process that occurs every five years, and will replace the existing curriculum with one based on Common Core standards, said Kerry Townsend, Columbia Public Schools lead media specialist.
"We (media specialists) have to analyze Common Core standards to see how they fit into what we're already teaching and to see what's new that we might need to work with classroom teachers to implement," she said.
Focuses in the existing curriculum include Internet safety and analyzing online information for research, which are also part of the Common Core standards, Townsend said.
Easley teaches her students Internet safety at the beginning of each school year. An officer from the Columbia Police Department, a district partner in education, gives a presentation to students, and Easley follows up with students in a more conversational approach. Topics covered by the police officer, such as not putting pictures on the Internet and using good etiquette in Internet comments, are revisited during the year when students collaborate on projects.
Nonfiction and electronic resources will become more of a focus with the Common Core-based curriculum. The standards require students be literate in those areas in all disciplines, not just language arts, Easley said.
"The idea is not that students are reading more nonfiction, but that nonfiction reading in other subjects is looked at through an English/language arts lens," Easley said. "They're applying what they know about nonfiction to other content areas."
Easley said the nonfiction focus is not new for her, as she has always helped classroom teachers with research projects, but there is a new stress on students being critical consumers of information.
"Even in elementary school, we're asking students to identify bias and point of view," she said.
Columbia Public Schools subscribes to electronic databases — containing periodicals, videos and primary source documents, among other mediums — with frequently updated information on various reading levels.
"In fiction, a fabulous book can be written 50 years ago," Townsend said. "With nonfiction, we have to have the best resources and the most relevant and current."
In terms of teaching, integrating technology into learning brings exciting things for collaboration, Easley said.
"We've been doing great things in the (West Boulevard) building so far, and I'm excited to see what we do in the future," she said
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