Steve Wood's
View from the Classroom

iBooks for Backwash Elementary
May 23, 2002




800 MHz G4Today is my last teaching day for this school year. In a tumultuous and frequently confrontational school year, I'll leave the building tomorrow feeling pretty positive about next year. After years of hearing how we should all be using PCs at school, we finally got through to the powers that be and are receiving our first new Macs in over five years. That's my new 800 MHz G4 at right.

While some of the issues this year that motivated my consideration of an abrupt, midyear retirement were what I perceived to be (still do) the possible denial of services for my special education students, some were less critical issues such as computer platform choice. My school had once been an all Mac house that had even been an Apple Grant school at one time. When the first Macs rolled in years ago, I thought it unfair that the folks who already used PCs at home had to convert to the Macintosh platform. In the intervening years, the shoe had nearly moved completely to the other foot. We had been told that our corporation would purchase only PCs for school use in the future.

That situation began to change last fall when our building administrator got involved in the platform wars. He was a computer novice, but felt his teachers should have the technology tools they wanted and needed in the classroom. He stirred things up a bit by asking those of us who preferred using Macs to submit our rationale in writing. He then added his own cover sheet and bucked the whole thing up to the superintendent. My letter to the super appeared in Why I Prefer Macs in the Classroom.

An IDEA grant in January for low-income schools in Indiana promised $100,000 to be used for a technology based writing project. While there was some confusion at first on the subject, my principal and our school's superintendent both stepped up big time to make sure the Terre Haute Tribune Star's description of the project proved to be accurate: "The computers would serve primarily learning disabled students in grades K-6."

iBook cartLast week, the Evil NT Techie nearly busted a gut getting the first cart of 24 laptops ready for my students to use before the summer break. ( Dual G4 Mac...busting a gut to get a cart of iBooks ready...I think I may need a new pseudonym for the techie.) On Thursday afternoon, the cart of iBooks appeared ready for service in my classroom. The techie had not only assembled the custom carts, he'd configured all the laptops to boot into OS 9, which my students use regularly on several of our classroom machines.

First day iBook useKnowing that several of my special ed parents had a hand in making sure the grant funds were used as intended, I made sure the kids went home last Friday with glowing news of the new computers. While there simply wasn't time to get our mainstay application, SpellTutor, on all the machines, the kids each got an iBook from the cart and received a few minutes of instruction on how to use the trackpad. We also had the kids configure the trackpad to accept taps as mouse clicks. They each then wrote a short description of their summer plans, real or imaginary. We printed up the resulting stories and sent them home. Each story was nearly perfect, as we've used our antique classroom Macs for years for writing improvement. The basic recipe is to have the kids input their thoughts, listen to them being read back to them via text-to-speech, and also clean things up with the spell checker. At some point an adult sits with the child during the writing and/or editing process. With the number of kids in my class at times, that's pretty difficult, but I anticipate our older students helping the younger ones next year. We do a lot of that in other subjects already, out of necessity.

Note: The image above is purposely smudged, as I really can't put recognizable images of special ed kids on the web, due to confidentiality and safety concerns. And if that looks like a lot of desks for a special ed room, it is! Actually, there are six or seven more desks that don't show in the photo, and several of our kids don't have an assigned desk. We're going to need a balcony soon.

As we move into the phase of fulfilling the objectives of the grant, I find that the iBooks, although terribly small in screen and keyboard to me, seem an ideal fit for my kids. While I regularly experience "fat finger" keyboarding errors, the kids' small hands seem a perfect fit for the keyboard. So far, I'm the only one in the room to experience an exhausted battery, as the kids computing sessions are usually not over an hour. They come and go to and from special classes (art, music, P.E., library), lunch and recess, so the computers are returned for a recharge well before the rated 5 hour battery life becomes an issue. As with most laptops, I found the rating somewhat optimistic, as I got around four hours use before draining the battery of the one 600 MHz iBook.

In almost a week of use, not one laptop has been dropped, almost dropped, or knocked off a desk. The kids now independently get out a computer and put it away when done. They know to pick a laptop with a green full-charge light, rather than an amber charging light.


Along the way, a number of folks helped get our current technology effort moving. Our previous Apple Ed rep, Mandy Monroe, sent demo units and worked tirelessly in contacting folks to help break the "No Mac" edict at my school. While her efforts eventually bore fruit, Mandy had moved on before any sales were made. Also, I want to again thank John Martellaro for getting the ball rolling for us with Apple Ed.

Our current Apple Ed rep, Jeff Hartman, read our situation well. He quickly realized that any quote that was the Apple Education list price was doomed. He sharpened his pencil and made an offer we couldn't refuse. He was rewarded shortly thereafter with a followup order of six G4 towers! Unfortunately, Apple's reputation at my school is so eroded that 26 staff members chose Windows boxes...of their own free will! Can you believe it?

Actually, what didn't happen was a lot of high pressure political efforts from either camp. We'd had a round of less than wonderful Macs that hadn't been supported well by our school tech staff. Anyone ordering a new Mac was let know up front that support would be extremely limited. So...most folks chose Windows boxes. I think they'll regret it, but I'm also going to do my best to help make the transition as painless as possible for them. Education isn't a computing platform war: It's about teaching kids. I just think Macs make that job easier.

Software Evaluation and Selection

In a week or so, I hope to begin evaluating my "short list" of special education appropriate software. I feel like a kid dropped off at a carnival with a pocketful of money!

I'm looking forward to screening several titles from Don Johnston. Since we're in a language arts grant, I want to evaluate their Co:Writer® 4000, the Simon Skills Pack, which includes Simon Sounds It Out and Simon Spells, and some of their Start-to-Finish Books and Library Collections.

I also will be helping look through some adaptive technology programs and devices, so I hope to look at some items from the special needs technology specialists, RJ Cooper & Associates. They put out a great free CD with demos of all their stuff on it. Unfortunately, I loaned mine out and it never found its way home.

I've played just a bit with an interesting cross-platform keyboarding program from Ingenuity Works, All the Right Type 3.0. Their sales staff is really good about checking back with me without being pushy and readily answer technical questions.

I'd also hoped to look at some reading programs, but interestingly, the ones I most wanted to see, I can't seem to get. I've done everything but stand on my head to get one company to send me the demos I need. They seem positively inept at fulfilling a simple request to supply demos for evaluation for possible multiple or site license purchase. Anyone else out there having trouble getting Lexia Learning Systems attention? Some of their stuff looks great:

The Edmark Reading Program also looks interesting, but we've had some bad luck with Edmark software and stability in the past. I also have a demo of the Kurzweil 3000 reading software.

All of the special needs software is terribly expensive. Since the software fairy seems to only visit our school every five years or so, I really need to make some good decisions this summer. And that is what a column like this is all about. If you've had positive or negative experiences with the titles and/or companies above, please pass them along. Also, if you know of a really great title I've left off my list, let me know.

Odd thoughts while shaving between paragraphs:

Out my back doorI've been known to use this space for everything from an online resumè, to announcing the birth of my first grandson, to a photo of my pocket knife. The item that drew more response than any other was the winter photo at right. The frigid scene was shot from my back porch several winters ago.

Over the past few years, I've taken to snapping quite a few photos off the porch or out our second story sunroom window. I put some of those photos together last winter into the page, Out My Window, to illustrate the utility of John A. Vink's Mac freeware, Photopage. While I haven't had time lately to update that page, I grabbed a shot during one of the violent storms that lashed the Midwest last week.

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©2002 Steven L. Wood