The media center at Flowery Branch High School was somewhat of an alternate universe Tuesday afternoon.
Hunched over laptops and pages of notes, it was Hall County teachers who became the students during an all-day summit held to bring them up to speed on the future of classroom learning.
The latest initiative by the Hall County Schools Board of Education to usher in more “21st Century Classrooms,” the summit was emceed by Dell computer representatives and allowed teachers to sample some of the technology they could soon be applying in schools.
“We, as a community, have to reinvent education,” said Aaron Turpin, executive director of information and technology for the school district. “We can’t keep (teaching) the same way we always have. It’s not as affective as it used to be, and we can’t afford it.”
The school board doled out 16 technology grants this school year that totaled about $110,000, enabling schools to jump start projects such as videoconferencing, which gives teachers the power to be in two places at once.
At East Hall Middle, students studying Mandarin Chinese receive lessons via videoconferencing from North Hall Middle’s Chinese teacher.
Although state budget cuts continue to result in fewer teachers and larger class sizes, Turpin said students’ education does not have to suffer thanks in part to better technology.
“If you think about how kids live today, they live and work differently than I did,” he said. “I think technology opens up another set of possibilities. It’s not just technology, it’s about a different form of instruction.”
Physical education students at C.W. Davis Middle School track their heart rate with digital monitors and children in wheelchairs are able to participate in sports for the first time through gaming equipment used in some elementary school gym classes.
“There’s so much you can’t do if you don’t have these (resources) in the classroom,” said North Hall High math teacher Jonathan Lillie. “You’ve got to have the tools.”
Representatives from each of the county’s schools included principals, lab technicians and teachers. Huddled in small groups, they put together presentations on how to manage a 21st century class by hooking students on technology while still meeting high education standards.
For most teachers, their biggest reward is seeing the students take an interest in learning since classes are beginning to use Web tools they recognize.
Literature teacher John Hardison said he tried for several years to spark student interest through technology but usually ended up using his own video cameras and equipment because his classroom lacked resources.
That changed when Superintendent Will Schofield caught wind of Hardison’s vision.
Now, East Hall High world and American literature students have taken lessons on the classics to a new level, acting out skits on a stage built in the classroom and recording songs to fit literary themes. Students have access to a dozen computers and recording and sound equipment. A green screen was recently added.
The room is two classrooms merged into one and shared by four teachers who instruct between 45 and 60 students per class.
“(The project) just grew legs, and it’s a beautiful thing that we have now,” Hardison said. “We definitely take the hands-on approach to literature. We might have them create a movie, do a newscast, write original songs and perform them. (Student) talent starts to ooze out, and it just adds to the literature.”
But there is a fine line between enriching material with technology and having students abuse such privileges. Cyberbullying on social networking sites is becoming common at all grade levels.
“I’ve seen fifth-graders come in with lots of drama from Facebook,” said Juliana Dean, a teacher at Wauka Mountain Elementary School. “They’ve created drama amongst themselves, and they bring it into the classroom.”
A safe-use technology policy was included in school codes in recent years to keep technology abuse at a minimum.
But the overall consensus among attendees was that introducing the latest technology tools into the classroom benefits more than hurts the success of students.
“Kids are loving it and having a ball,” said Kenny Childs, a science teacher at North Hall High. Childs’ chemistry students recently were able to teach a Mount Vernon Elementary class a lesson through videoconferencing.
“I’ve got kids demonstrating the highest level of literacy in teaching a lesson. It’s wonderful,” Childs said.