Whitson Elementary School
White Salmon, WA
Even before you step through the front doors at Whitson Elementary School, you know that this school is all about children. Handprints of all sizes and colors cover the wall near the door, each handprint labeled with a child's name. The children have literally made their mark on this school. Once inside the school you can see and hear how enthusiastic and involved the children are in their work. Diann Beseda's second grade classroom is alive with activity. Few of the children sit at desks. On the carpet a child sews up a paper quilt. At the computers, children try a new software program -- at one computer two children work together, one child using the mouse, the other the keyboard. In another area children are spread out on the floor using pattern blocks to build shapes with symmetry. They take pictures of each other's shapes using a digital camera. In the midst of all this activity, one of the guinea pigs in the center of the room (in a cage) lets out an excited squeal, and some children come over to see why.
Whitson's principal, Vicki Prendergast, empowers the staff to use their enthusiasm and expertise to create this child-centered learning environment. The administrators and teachers have long understood the positive benefits that technology, if integrated wisely into the curriculum, can have as a learning tool. They are motivated to apply for grants that provide more resources to carry out their goals. A few years ago, the school received a TELDEC (Technology and the Essential Learnings Developing Effective Classrooms) grant. This grant provides a professional development model for using technology to support and integrate the state standards into teaching and learning. Last year, the school received a Gates Foundation Grant that will expand this model to further a child-centered, technologically-enriched educational experience in every classroom for every student.
The technology team includes the principal and five teachers. The team plans the direction the school wants to take, and provides leadership, inspiration, and support to other staff members in integrating technology into the curriculum.
The music teacher, Mary Orcutt, provides a unique role for the team -- because she teaches children in all grades, she can offer a perspective on what's appropriate for children at different levels. In her classes, Orcutt takes a unique approach in using technology. The students use a music software program's paint palette to create their own songs. The program generates different sounds as the user "paints" on the computer screen. Learning how to compose music in this way is as much visual as it is auditory.
The students create songs that tie in with projects in their classrooms. For a third grade project on insects, Orcutt has the children choose an insect, and then asks the children, "What would the insect sound like? Do you want to create a sound like they make, or an impression of what they sound like?" After the children create their songs, she uses the large screen television to share each student's compositions with the class. Sharing the compositions with the class is very powerful for the students, says Orcutt.
The technology team models uses of technology for other teachers. Some staff members are uncomfortable with the idea of using technology, but the team encourages the staff to take their time, experiment, and observe others so they gradually become more comfortable with how certain technologies can benefit students.
Some of the teachers were concerned that the children are not working on oral communication, reading, and writing skills when they use computers. The technology team demonstrates how to integrate technology into writing, spelling, and oral communication, so that it can be more exciting and fun. Some teachers use software that first tells a story with the text on the screen, and then shows the pictures again, this time without the text so that children can retell the story in their own words.
Children use computer slide shows to present information, and are very eager to demonstrate their projects. The slide shows let children create their own drawings and accompanying text. The children can record their voices reading the text aloud. This enhances their literacy learning, and their verbal and written skills, as well as providing opportunities to create art. Electronic portfolios are used as an effective tool to document how well students have progressed with reading, writing, and oral communication skills. The children record samples of their reading at various times throughout the year. When they play them back, they can hear for themselves how much progress they have made. When parents hear these reading samples, says Beseda, they are excited about their child's progress.
One example of how a teacher saw firsthand how technology enhanced learning involves a boy who is bilingual and not a reader. The boy found one computer program with a book on it that became his favorite -- he read and listened to that program over and over again. His teacher was not quite sure if this was a good use of class time. One day the boy went to a box of books in his class and picked out the same book as the one on the software program and began to read it, the first book he had ever read. He was so excited, he went to the principal and read it to her. The teacher then saw how this technology inspired the boy to learn.
Whitson is evidently a place where children come first, where the staff are dedicated to giving students the freedom to explore, experiment, and grow. The phrase "all children learning" is not just a clich?here, it is a fact.