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Junior high teacher uses technology to improve learning

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Junior high students live in a world of technology and communication, and some teachers consider students' affinity for smart phones and other devices a distraction. But what if that use of technology was channeled into students learning how to communicate about literature or express themselves as a blogger, novelist, movie maker, or game designer?

Those are the kind of projects that the students in Laura Bradley's eighth grade English and Digital Media classes at Kenilworth Junior High are creating with the help of a full set of classroom laptops made possible by local grants.

Bradley, a National Board Certified Teacher who has taught for more than 20 years, became convinced of the importance of incorporating technology into her teaching while pursuing her master's degree in Education in 2009.

"I wasn't initially a tech person but I'm always looking for the best ways to teach," she said. "How do you engage students? How do you get them digging deeper? I took one class and was convinced."

However, school budget cuts meant that existing technology wasn't being maintained and access to the computer lab was limited because many teachers shared it, so trying to use technology was "a nightmare."

That's where the Petaluma Educational Foundation Impact Grants were able to close the gap. Bradley wrote her first grant for $15,000 in October 2010 and received enough laptops for half of her class. After seeing the success that Bradley's students were experiencing using the computers to write novels for National Novel Writing Month, PEF encouraged her to apply for another grant so that all her students could be writing at the same time. She did so, and the following year was able to complete her classroom's laptop set.

Bradley believes teaching students how to effectively use technology is critical and that it should be fully integrated into the curriculum rather than through a stand-alone class.

"It's all about teaching them how to use the tool so they learn how to use tech for educational and work purposes," she said.

Students learn many skills, including navigating a website, evaluating sources for their research, understanding Internet address suffixes such as .gov or .edu and composing an appropriate email. "I tell them, 'Your high school teachers will love it that you know how to email a question to them,'" Bradley said.

Another reason that Bradley believes that technology is such an important teaching tool is because it improves the way that students demonstrate their learning. "I taught them to use a class blog as a place to share and discuss their literary analysis. Everyone can read one another's blogs and comment."

Enthusiastic about what she saw happening in her classroom and eager to add to her tech toolbox, Bradley applied to the Google Teacher Academy last December. She spent two intense days on the Google campus learning about other tools and is now a Google Certified Teacher. "All Google products allow for collaboration," she says. She immediately incorporated what she had learned into her students' final exam. They were divided into teams and using Google Presentations, created their own presentation about themes in literature.

This is Bradley's third year using the laptops and she continues to try new ways to integrate technology in her lesson planning. Students have created online portfolios and online magazines and last year, students made book trailers for the novels they wrote in November, doing their own filming and even adding sound effects. "It was so powerful — to see kids have a way to express themselves besides writing," she said.

In Bradley's Digital Media class, students learn animation, game design, 3D architecture, coding and new this year, professional-level 3D animation and 3D sculpting. "The curriculum continues to develop as students show me new programs they want to try," Bradley explained.

"I can't imagine teaching without technology," she says.

(Contact Colleen Rustad at argus@arguscourier.com)

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