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Handheld Technology in the Classroom:
Why does your child or your student struggle with the writing process in school or refuse to write? How might you help that child enjoy writing more or at least get it done in a timely manner? I wrestled with these questions for 10 years as a teacher in a private school for gifted and talented children. In searching for answers, I came to appreciate the incredible importance of respecting and meeting the individual needs of all learners. Once I realized that the learning differences of each of my students were the keys to both their uniqueness and future success, I became more effective in helping them develop as writers.
This shift in my own thinking, however, did not happen overnight. It took time to discover what might work with my students. Eventually, it was my curiosity and enthusiasm for new technology that transformed my thinking and my approach to teaching writing. Fortunately for my students, I was able to tap into the power of handheld technology to help them. Thanks to the availability of this technology in my classroom, students who were reluctant and unsure as writers became more confident and secure as learners in general.
When six desktop computers were installed in my classroom, I began to see the difference that technology could make for beginning writers. I saw that many of my third-graders needed a catalyst of some kind like a desktop computer to help them get their ideas out more clearly and effectively than they could with paper and pencil.
While these computers helped many of my students, they werent the complete answer for all writers. For example, there was Zach, a 2e learner who had great difficulty with manuscript and cursive letter formation. He was clearly more comfortable and successful writing with the AlphaSmart 2000, a small, portable word processing device that his reading tutor recommended.
In fact, since my school had the same AlphaSmarts available for student use, I began to offer other students in my class a choice of writing tools. They could use an AlphaSmart, a desktop computer, or stick with pencil and paper. The flexibility and portability of the AlphaSmarts were especially appealing because they allowed students to work anywhere in the room.
Soon my students had another electronic option in the classroom. It became available as the result of a grant proposal that I wrote with a collaborative team. Our school received 40 Palm IIIc handheld computers to use in our two third-grade classrooms. The grant proposal focused on using handhelds to help us differentiate the math curriculum. Teachers used the handhelds as a tool for assessing students. Students used the devices in several ways: to complete a pre- and post-test self-assessment of their understanding of unit goals, to keep track each day of their homework assignments, and to record their feelings about the use of the Palms and about math in general. It was obvious that the Palms definitely motivated our students and engaged them in learning.
Seeing how excited the students were, I expanded our use of the Palms the next year and began to see how effective the handhelds were in differentiating the writing curriculum. I got six portable keyboards for the Palm IIIcs and then offered my students an even wider choice of writing tools. Having this additional choice made an incredible difference in how some of my students approached writing. Resistance began to fade, and more students began to feel empowered as writers.
Dyslexia often made it difficult for one of my 2e students, Adelaide, to finish her work on time when writing by hand. The desktop computer wasnt a solution for her because she found the finish her work on time when writing by hand. The desktop computer wasnt a solution for her because she found the desktop environment disorienting. The Palm, with its portable keyboard, however, was just what Adelaide needed. As her confidence grew, she expanded her use of the Palm and the keyboard to write poetry.
Another student, Aidan, was a very reluctant writer until he started using the Palm with its tiny built-in keyboard. Then I witnessed an amazing transformation. Soon his words began to flow. He even organized a small group of writers who worked happily together, editing each others writing and beaming their stories back and forth using the wireless infrared port.
While an administrative decision ended the use of the Palm IIIcs in my classroom after several years, both my students and I moved ahead to explore the AlphaSmart 2000s in greater depth. As I worked with one student, Kevin, I observed how the AlphaSmart enabled him to access the stories he created in his imagination. The kinesthetic properties of a smaller keyboard allowed Kevin to communicate the words he had inside his brain and heart words that could not always be released with paper and pencil or a desktop computer. I witnessed how the use of technology, whether it was the AlphaSmart or the smaller Palm IIIcs, leveled the playing field and granted students like Kevin access to our curriculum and the world of writing.
My classroom experiences soon led me to investigate a newer model of AlphaSmart, the Dana. This rugged laptop alternative combines a larger screen with the Palm operating system and its built-in applications. My interest in the Dana coincided with the request from the parents of Christopher, a 2e middle schooler, to have their son use a Dana in the classroom. Fortunately, I was able to be a Dana resource and offer support to Christopher and his teachers in meeting his writing and organizational needs.
At the same time, another student with juvenile arthritis, Garrett, began to use the AlphaSmart 2000 in his fourth-grade classroom. His occupational therapist recommended the electronic keyboard as a way of protecting Garretts joints from the pain and fatigue he experienced when holding a pencil for a long period of time. Garrett met with increased success in the classroom because his teacher was insightful, flexible, and respectful enough to allow him to use the AlphaSmart as an equal option to paper and pencil.
All these experiences with so many different students taught me that there is much we can do to assist our young writers. By honoring our childrens learning preferences, we can offer them the writing options that will help them succeed. In allowing students to choose handheld technology as a tool, we will truly respect and meet their needs as learners and empower them as writers.
Risberg, M.A., is an educational consultant. As the owner of Minds That
Soar, LLC, she specializes in providing academic advocacy services for
gifted and twice-exceptional children and their families. Cathy has 15
years of teaching experience in public and private schools, the last ten
as a classroom teacher in a school for gifted and talented. She is an
adjunct faculty member for the Technology in Education program at
National-Louis University in Evanston, Illinois, and presents regularly
to various educational and professional groups. Cathy can be contacted