Helping teachers ride wave of technology

Gone are the days of chalkboards and globes. Now students have iPods and online satellite imaging.

And teachers have to catch up.

Teachers from Cabarrus County Schools and Kannapolis City Schools participated last week in Engage21, a technology conference meant to prepare them for learning in the 21st century with workshops on topics ranging from Microsoft programs to interactive white boards and video editing.

More than 600 teachers registered for the conference, held at Cox Mill High School. This is the third year Cabarrus County Schools has hosted the conference and the first year that teachers from Kannapolis City Schools were invited.

During the three-day conference, teachers filled the seats in classrooms where students will soon sit when they return to school Aug. 25.

Steven Johnson, a technology facilitator at J.N. Fries Middle School, led a session on using iPods in the classroom.

"Let's embrace it and try to teach students how to use them responsibly," he said.

Johnson taught the group the basics: How to turn on the iPods and connect to the Internet. Then they moved on to finding applications for students to use in class.

Raymond Hylton, a physical education teacher at Northwest Cabarrus Middle School, said he was considering having students use iPod applications to record their exercise regimens.

Karen Gailey has used iPods with her sixth-grade math students at J.N. Fries Middle School. Her students play Fraction Factory, a math game, when they finish class work, and she connects with students' iPods to send questions to individual students.

"They come in and say, 'Are we using iPods today?'" she said.

Gailey said teachers must set expectations for their students before they get their hands on the iPods, but they usually serve as tools rather than distractions.

"This is what the kids want," she said. "They're digital natives."

Patti Freeman, Cabarrus County Schools' instructional technology coordinator, said some technology tools, such as iPods, have significant potential in the classroom.

"We don't use them as toys," she said.

Some teachers are resistant to change brought on by the fast pace of ever-advancing technology, but change is necessary, said Brenda McCombs, Kannapolis City Schools' director of instructional technology.

"They're either going to have to teach technology or move on," said McCombs. "It's not right to not teach with 21st century tools."

In 2008, Kannapolis City Schools was one of four N.C. school districts chosen to receive an IMPACT grant from the N.C. Department of Public Instruction. The grant, given to districts with high poverty levels and a need for technology, gave Kannapolis schools more than $1.5 million to improve classroom technology and provide teachers with technology training.

Leaders at Cabarrus County Schools have been working to update classrooms, including the installation of SMART Boards, or interactive whiteboards.

But recent budget cuts sliced funding for technology in Cabarrus schools.

The system lost funding for its computer renewal cycle, which calls for the replacement of 3,000-4,000 computers of the system's 15,000 computers every five years. No computers will be replaced this school year.

The school system needs to be creative with grants and work to integrate technology across all curriculums, said Kelly Propst, Cabarrus County Schools' assistant superintendent of technology and accountability.

"The world students live in is totally different from 20 to 25 years ago," said Propst. "If they're going to advance and be competitive, they have to have this technology in their hands."

The conference has no budget and is free to teachers in the Cabarrus County and Kannapolis City school districts. Sessions were led by technology facilitators or teachers who volunteered their time, and local businesses chipped in to donate food and prizes.

Teachers are not required to attend, and they don't get paid for coming, but they do receive credits toward the renewal of their teaching licenses.

Russell Olson, a retired Army colonel who teaches history at Jay M. Robinson High School, taught a session on using Google Earth to find sites of battlefields with geographic coordinates.

Doug Byrnes, an eighth-grade social studies teacher at Kannapolis Middle School, said he's used online mapping programs to have students create maps featuring N.C. geography, including rivers and lighthouses.

"It's good for hands-on geography learning," he said.

Sherry Harris, a technology facilitator at Bethel Elementary School, led a session on using Skype, an Internet service that allows users to make video and voice calls for free. She said she was excited about incorporating Skype into the classroom.

She's used it once already with a student who was forced to miss three weeks of school. To prevent the student from getting behind, Harris set up a Skype account so the student could watch and listen in on class from home.

Harris also showed teachers how to export videos from Flip video cameras and create movies using iMovie. She taught teachers how to edit the video and add music and transitions between slides.

Harris had fourth-grade students create their own movies after they took a field trip to Raleigh this year. Using photographs and videos collected by their classmates, the students created short movies about the things they saw and learned at the state capital.

"It's about putting creativity back in the classroom," she said.