Northeast Hamilton looks to ‘transform’ education

BLAIRSBURG – Last year’s decision to update high school computers placed Northeast Hamilton High School as a technology leader among the county’s schools.

In May 2012, Northeast Hamilton needed to update its computers and the district was faced with two options: either update to a short-term, low-cost fix or invest in costlier technology.

Joe Wakeman, then Webster City CSD technology specialist and advisor to the NEH district, recommended that Northeast Hamilton develop a new technology plan.

The plan included updating the school’s wireless system to professional-grade quality and purchasing iPads for the high school students.

“The purchase of iPads will transform the quality of education,” Wakeman predicted.

The school board approved the purchases of iPads for 80 high school students and 20 teachers at a cost of $95,000. The cutting-edge technology made its debut in the high school during the 2012-2013 academic year.

This spring the School Board continued its march toward the future when it approved the purchase of iPads for the lower grades at a cost of $85,000.

The laptop computers were in the hands of the elementary school students who began using them this fall.

Computers are becoming an important tool in education, said NEH Superintendent Larry Frakes.

“We are learning how to use this technology in the learning

environment,” said Frakes.

While the new computers don’t eliminate paper homework, it is a tool that helps streamline it.

One of the biggest challenges for the NEH school district has been updating the building for WiFi, he said.

“Our building was not made for technology,” said Frakes of the

original structure built in the last century. “It has many dead zones.”

In addition to the building having limitations, some students do not have internet access at home, he said.In order to address that issue, homework is downloaded daily on a student’s computer so they can access their assignments at night.

“From my standpoint, there are no cons to the new technology,” said Frakes, except the need to keep up-to-date with developments.

“Unfortunately, technology updates quickly,” the superintendent said.

Another challenge has been to teach the teachers the new technology, he said.

“The teachers have to re-learn while the kids are really good at

technology,” said Frakes.

This juxtaposing of skills has created a new learning environment, he said.

“Sometimes, the teachers have to give up authority because the kids know more,” said Supt. Frakes. “The teachers may not have all the answers.”

The computers have opened up new horizons for all NEH students and faculty, said Frakes.

“It is a different way of learning, but students can readily find answers and work on their own,” he said.

Even with a steep learning curve, teachers are an integral part of the equation, said Supt. Frakes.

“We have to teach students the correct way to learn and the correct way to use technology,” he said.

“Technology is here to stay,” said Frakes. “Education has to

develop to keep up with it”.

Frakes considers Third Grade teacher Tammy Massman as NEH’s resident technology guru.

“She’s the one everyone goes to when they have a question,” he said.

Massman laughs at the moniker, but admits she has plunged head first into the new technology. She credits Webster City CSD technology advisor Matt Madison who is on campus several times a week for helping the faculty

become fluent with their computer skills.

The Prairie Lakes AEA is also helping teachers develop their skills, said Massman.

Last year, teachers were equipped with iPads, but this is the first year for elementary students.

“NEH is on the cutting edge of technology in the classroom,” said Massman. “I tried to find other Iowa schools who had iPads in the classroom last year and they were few and far between”.

By incorporating iPads into her classroom, Massman has taken an entirely new approach to teaching this year.

Desks have been eliminated and have been replaced with tables and chairs, couches and lounging chairs.

“I am turning learning ownership over to the kids,” said Massman.

Make no mistake, the teacher is still in charge and has access to all the students’ computer activities, but students don’t have to be repeatedly told to study their lessons.

“I wanted them to learn more and dig deeper while tapping into their creativity,” said Massman.

That philosophy has allowed Massman to individualize the course work to cater to each students’ needs.

After the day opens with the “Pledge of Allegiance”, students have the option to chose which study skill they would like to drill on and they eagerly get down to work without much prompting from Massman.

The computer exercises help the students learn at their own level, said Massman. While one student may need to concentrate on one skill, another student who has mastered that skill, can move onto the next level.

Google provides over 50 apps for the classroom, said Massman. The chalkboard of old has been replaced by a Smart Board that is interactive with each iPad. Students can also view Apple TV via their computers.

The technology has opened up a new window to the world, said Massman. This year, her students will participate in the Global Read Along, Global Handshake and the Mystery School project. The students also contribute to a Quad Blog with other students throughout the nation and the world.

“We are not restricted to just our classroom, anymore,” said Massman.

But with such widespread exposure, comes the necessity to protect the privacy of the student, said Massman.

Each child has a secure password and access to any child comes through the teacher’s computer first.

In addition, children are taught proper computer use, said Massman.

“We want to protect our children, so we instruct them on what

information is safe to put on a computer,” said Massman. “We also instruct them on safety and Stranger Danger.”

While this innovative curriculum is new to most parents, it is the future for today’s children.

“The jobs these children will have are going to be worldwide,” said Massman. “And some have not even been created yet.”

Massman and her entire class have been invited to be presenters at the Iowa Technology and Education Conference on Oct. 14 at the Iowa Events Center in Des Moines.

Peeking in the doorways throughout NEH, students in every classroom can be seen incorporating the iPad into their daily studies.

Next door to Tammy Massman’s room, first grade teacher Kim Schimp is using the iMotion app to document the development of a Monarch Butterfly from caterpillar, to chrysalis and eventually to butterfly.

“I have taken one shot per day to show its progress,” said Schimp of the project that will combine lessons in science and Social Studies.

“We are going to show the development of the butterfly and document its migration from Blairsburg, Iowa to Mexico on Google Earth,” she explained.

The final product will be viewed by the students on Apple TV.

While Schimp uses iPad applications to help promote global awareness and it is used during basic skill instruction, she still relies on the tried and true methods of drilling and practice.

“There is still a lot of hands-on instruction,” said Schimp.

Middle and high school Language Arts instructor Sherry Leksell uses technology to conference with one student or several students together in real time from different locations while on a secure site.

“Geography (your location) doesn’t matter anymore,” she said.

In addition, Leksell uses the computer to assign, edit and grade student work.

“This is one-on-one teaching,” said Leksell. “It is in it’s early stages – especially for teachers of a certain age.”

Taking graduate classes at Iowa State University, Leksell is committed to giving her students the knowledge to harness technology for their future benefit.

“I try not to be afraid,” she smiled. “I keep my fingers crossed and hope it works out as well in the classroom as it does in my head.”

Recently, her middle school students participated in an interactive exercise on sentence structure. They incorporated five objects they brought from home into an iMotion presentation on the five sentence types, said Leksell.

“They just ran with it,” she said, clearly impressed with their

enthusiasm and imagination.

While it seems that the evolution of technology moves at the speed of light, sometimes it is a good thing to step back and analyze its benefits, said Leksell.

Safeguarding students is tantamount to any educational benefits it can deliver.

“Technology is a learning tool,” she said. “It should not be used as a driving force.”