West Tisbury students learn, then teach

From left, Sue Miller, Willa Vigneault, Sydney Johnson, and Valerie Becker at their last after-school training session before heading to Baltimore. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

Last year, Livy Pate, Sydney Johnson, and Willa Vigneault were in Sue Miller’s fifth-grade classroom at the West Tisbury School. Ms. Miller had decided to teach the year’s curriculum using only computer-based lessons, instead of traditional textbooks. She says that her students embraced the new technology and took it beyond what she taught them. The girls chose to stay in at recess and lunches to explore ActivInspire, one of the computer programs used in their classroom.

“Sue had asked if she could take the girls’ projects to a conference,” says Willa’s mother, Sarah Vail. “Willa’s dad, David Vigneault, suggested that she take the girls along, too”

This past summer, Ms. Miller and technology teacher Valerie Becker took the girls to present their work with ActivInspire at Building Learning Communities, a conference in Boston. Representatives of Promethean, the company which publishes ActivInspire, a software used to create interactive, multi-media lessons, saw the girls’ presentation and were so impressed that they sponsored the girls and their teachers to show their work again at the National Middle School Association (NMSA) conference in Baltimore, Md., earlier this month.

In preparation for the NMSA conference, the girls created presentations about subjects they’re studying this fall. “We had four practice sessions where we ran through the presentations several times with them — not saying ‘um,’ keeping your front to the audience,” Ms. Miller said.

The presentation consisted of three lessons, constructed by the girls, which demonstrated different features of the program. Willa Vigneault had made a lesson on Nelson Mandela using a flip chart, which is a bit like an electronic book or a PowerPoint presentation, but with the potential to include links to web pages and other multi-media elements. “We got to do a lot of nice stuff like going to the aquarium and nice restaurants, but the highlight of the trip was being at the conference, and I definitely enjoyed walking around the vendors,” Willa said. “They were handing out free stuff, like pens, and it was advertising, but it was a lot of fun.”

Sydney Johnson’s lesson was about figurative language, and used magic ink. With magic ink, the user drags a magnifying glass across the computer screen, which reveals objects written in the invisible ink as it passes over them. “The trip to Baltimore was really fun,” Sydney said. “The audience was supportive, and everything went well.”

Livy’s lesson was about phases of the moon and used containers. In the lesson, the student moves pictures of the moon in various phases to a line of boxes in the middle of the screen, to put them in the correct order. The picture bounces out if put into the wrong box. Livy said, “I think it’s good when children go and present, because it shows the teachers that children can do it.”

The girls from West Tisbury were the only students to make a presentation at the conference, although there were also a few middle school bands. “We were young, we were like the only kids there,” Willa said.

Regarding the audience for the girls’ presentation, Ms. Becker said, “I got the feeling that the people there were learning; it was an introduction for them.” Not all schools have the large touch-screen computers and clickers that Ms. Miller uses in her classroom, although the screens are in every classroom at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. The clickers sit on each student’s desk and look like a cross between a bulky mobile phone and a TV remote control. Students use the clicker’s keypad to text in answers to questions on the main computer, which can then appear on the main screen. The presentation software allows for ongoing assessment of students’ performance in the classroom.

“Teachers don’t have to know everything,” Ms. Becker says. “The children figured it out and I learned from them. The teacher does the content, but they don’t have to really worry about the technology, because the kids are adept at it.”

Ms. Miller is enthusiastic about the shift away from traditional textbooks in her classroom, but her decision to present the curriculum in purely electronic format isn’t the norm.

“Teachers are taking this at their own comfort level,” she says. “I took a leap of faith and decided to just go full-bore, but it wasn’t anything I’d been told to do or mandated to do. This board just came in last December. Our content is the same, it’s just how we access it that’s changed. It’s not just the board, it’s that the students are creating content. The assessment changes because the input changes. They still do paper and pencil tests and write papers, but they’re very excited about the multimedia.

“I’ve taken the lead with this technology because I love it, because I love the creativity of it. The students are already wanting to take the next step, and the challenge for me is to keep up with them.”

“Livy, Sydney, and Willa are examples of expert learners,” says Ms. Becker. “They mastered the tool and they taught others. They were graceful and great and relaxed at the conference, and they did a fabulous job. It was stunning to watch.”