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Tech-savvy Teaching Methods Bringing Change to Preschool Setting

Leah Shaffer
Eden Prairie News
December 2, 2009

It’s painting time for the four-year-old students in Crystal Thompson's preschool class but they’ve left no mess of water colors and paint splatters in their wake. Instead, the children patiently wait their turn until it’s time to walk up to a large screen at the front of the class, an interactive whiteboard. Students tap a color in the corner of the whiteboard and drag a thick line of paint across the screen. Some draw happy faces, mixing colors atop other colors and, with one more tap on a tool bar, the screen clears, ready for another student’s turn.

Art time in Thompson's class is but one of example of the notable changes instructional technology is bringing to the classrooms at the Eden Prairie Family Center, where the district's early childhood and parent education specialists offer preschool and school readiness programs. In many cases, Family Center programs are using technology to better connect to students (and parents) from non-English speaking families in a variety of ways.

Research points to the impact early childhood and parenting education can make in child's life and for society as a whole. Economist Arthur Rolnick, the senior vice president and director of research for the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, has stressed the importance of the investment in early childhood education, estimating that the annual public return on such an investment is 12 percent.
“We’re finding that the sooner we can get kids into the educational system, the more impact we can have on their achievement,” noted Sally Knaeble, an instructional technology coach at the Education Center.

Knaeble's position as a coach stems from the Eden Prairie School District's Classrooms of the Future initiative, which was financed by a referendum passed back in 2004. The COF program has, over the years, brought more and more SMART Boards or interactive whiteboards into classrooms. Coaches like Knaeble work with teachers to sort out what classroom goals they wish to achieve and to determine what technology could aid in that instruction. Over the years, the interactive whiteboards have become an increasingly prevalent sight in the district, now even at the preschool level. The Family Center is now equipped with 11 SMART Boards with more on the way over the next two years.
“They’re very popular. Teachers want to use them,” added Knaeble.

The children they serve through ECFE programs really rely on visuals she added, so use of the interactive whiteboards, “really engages the children.”

Engagement is the key word when it comes to this technology. Often, the students are up at the whiteboards, tapping the screen, working through a lesson and, in the case of older students, designing their own presentation. At the preschool level, the interactive whiteboards can be used for very simple lessons. Knaeble offered up the example of how even a class of two year olds could use the SMART Board to learn the names of their classmates. In that particularly lesson, the photo of the student would appear on the board, along with their name.

“Our teachers here are really good at taking a tool and adapting it to the primary preschool level,” said Knaeble.

Over in Thompson’s classroom students used the SMART Board for painting and for a lesson in which they learned about the letter P. For that lesson, the student would go up to the board and tap on it, and would need to identify the object that appeared on the board, say, pea pods, or a pan.

“It’s really engaging for the kids,” said Thompson about the SMART Board.

Thompson is in the process of converting much of her lessons over to the SMART Board. Once you know how to use it, it’s really an easy program, she added.

“I really like it. It lets me make and do whatever I want.”

The interactive whiteboard is not the only gadget in use at the Family Center, back in 2008, the program received grant from ADC to purchase 16, child-sized digital cameras.
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It was really important for them to not only to use technology for teaching, “but to actually put the technology in the kids’ hands,” added Knaeble.

The camera project ties into the school readiness program, a program that helps ensure groups such as English Language Learners are on the same page as other preschoolers. That could include teaching simple tasks like knowing how to line up for class or put away a coat, but also having experiences with technology that other students might have.

In one lesson, for instance, if they were studying orange, students would take photograph of something orange. Kids took photos of different stages of seed growth, and then printed out the photos to chart the beginning middle, end stages.

The two popular tools this year are both small and cost under $100, noted Knaeble. Use of is the Flip camera and the iPod touch is increasingly popular. Teachers use the small Flip Video to document how students are progressing. Special education teachers can use the Flip Video to make instruction videos for parents.

“Teachers are really using that as a tool,” said Knaeble.

The iPod Touch also offers applications that include a number of basic lessons. One application would let students take a short quiz which records their score and progress.
“We’re looking for something like this that will help us assess kids,” added Knaeble.

When it comes to making a difference in early a child’s education, parent involvement is key. But, with the district’s non-English speaking families, communication can often be a problem. A few years ago, Knaeble recalls talking with a teacher who was having a hard time communicating with parents. Many of the students served in the Family Center are part of the district's Somali population. To send parents instructions in English wasn’t helpful because many do not read English.

To solve that, three years ago, staff at the Family Center developed an oral newsletter for Somali parents with children in the school readiness program. After checking to make sure families owned a CD player, students were sent home with CD that include an audio version of the newsletter, spoken in Somali. In its second year, the program was expanded to a Spanish and English version and was sent to all 154 families in the program, once a month. The different tracks include information about what their kids do in class, and what they should be working on at home. The CD includes general information about what days they don’t have school and what number to call if the child is sick.

Knaeble said it worked out better to have a new CD every month but, this year, they didn’t have the budget to keep that up. Instead the Family Center distributes the CD once a year, with different tracks for different months. They asked parents last year if it was something that was helpful and the overall response was very positive, she added.

Parents like this, they wanted to have more communication this way, she added.

“This was a really good use of technology to solve a communication problem.”





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