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[book] Using Technology with Young Learners when Working with Limited Resources

Written by Kim Oldenburgh
February 19, 2011

Throughout the sixteen years I have taught, I have gone from not having a computer in my classroom to now teaching my own students how to successfully use different technology tools. As a second grade teacher, I have seen a wide variety of technology skills with incoming students, but I’ve been interested in discovering the impact of creating digital media with my second grade students to see if it fosters their writing abilities and impacts their motivation to write. I was excited to implement a worthwhile project with my students as I knew they would be able to use the computer skills I taught them throughout their schooling. That excitement was shadowed by a fear of the computers working well enough to implement this plan. Regardless of that possibility, with my students, I created a yearlong project to study and share my findings.

Many classrooms across the nation are well equipped with technology. It’s not uncommon to walk into a second grade classroom and see teachers and students manipulating objects on smart boards, creating movies on laptops, and viewing lessons projected with document cameras to enhance their learning. Where I teach, in a small University town in central Maine, technology is introduced slowly and the hardware support for our current computer system is not consistent or timely. In my K-5 school, teachers just received hand-me-down laptops from the high school teachers. Other than the laptop, most classrooms are equipped with 3 or 4 computers, an overhead projector, and a listening center so children can listen to books on tape and CD. If it’s not on loan, a teacher can borrow a document camera, a digital camera, a Flip camera, and a digital projector from our school library. Fortunately, in the last two years I applied for, and received, several grants so I can keep a document camera and a digital projector in my classroom and use it on a daily basis. We use our digital projector and Elmo almost daily. It’s easy to manipulate objects for math, science, or any subject so students can see them large and “real”. We also use it a lot to project student writing. My students love having their writing on Elmo. It’s a great way to showcase students’ attempts at lessons taught. It’s immediate and it leaves an impact on other writers and I find more students using writing craft and skills when they see what it looks like in their peers writing. I also hook my computer up to the projector often to show movies we’ve created or slide shows for new learning. I highly recommend pursuing any grant opportunities that become available. One site many have teachers are having great success with is

I’ve always been interested in computers and have taught myself many skills using different programs. When the opportunity came up to take a year-long course where I could implement a technology inquiry study with my students, I jumped at the chance, because I knew it would encourage me to stick to a technology plan. In the past, I had great ideas about how I would implement technology, but the plans were never implemented fully and I never accomplished what I had set out to do. At the same time I was designing this project I was also reading Because Digital Writing Matters, a publication of the National Writing Project. I wanted to emulate how Hodgson (p. 90) set up his project by teaching technology skills across a whole year, rather than isolated skills for one project. Originally, I admit our timeline project was a bit too technical for the kids as they had to learn many steps before they could begin composing, but we kept at it and they were able to do this easily after some practice.

About two years before implementing my project, students had entered my second grade classroom with knowledge of logging onto computers, opening programs and navigating around them, and working independently on different tasks they were instructed to do. When we began working with new Thin Clients in the classroom, a minimalist workstation that is connected to a server and operating with the Linux operating system, as well as enough in the computer lab so each child can have their own, students were not as computer savvy as they had been in the past due to lack of exposure to the computers. The problem has been our server. Most lessons I prepared at home to teach during computer lab left everyone a bit frustrated as programs would freeze or the likelihood of
even logging onto the computer was impossible. By December of that year, I, along with many other teachers, stopped going to the computer lab and we rarely turned our classroom computers on. That left many kids lacking the necessary computer skills they usually possessed in order to do some independent second grade work that is usually expected of them to access information for various classroom projects. We were promised the year I planned my project the server would be upgraded and we would see improvements. I remained hopeful and planned a meaningful project I wanted the class to be involved in that wouldn’t take the place of other important tasks they needed to accomplish on a daily basis, but would give them the exposure they needed with computers to become independent. I resigned myself to do the best I could with the materials we had.

Throughout the project, there were frustrations every single week. Most often the computers were operating very slowly and students had to wait for the cursor to appear or their text to move to the next line. Several months, the Impress program appeared to have glitches as the text box would move up and down and all around. Students would have to wait for it to settle in the middle of the screen again before they could type. The kids were patient, so I was, too. It would have been easy to log off and go back to our classrooms on several occasions, but I kept telling myself, we’ll do the best we can with what we have.

I had big plans for my year long project and quickly learned the Linux operating system would not allow me to do what I intended. Each year, I create two or three movies with my students. That means the kids write the scripts or poems and I do all the computer work to create the movie. Originally, I wanted to involve my students more in the digital writing component as the technology skills I had taught students previously seemed to be isolated skills that were disconnected. I originally envisioned children creating a timeline movie of their school year so they could learn to use a movie program, but more importantly have a document of their year in a multimedia project they could share. Because we don’t have that capability on our Thin Clients, I revised my original plan. My second plan was to have them create a timeline in Impress, which is a presentation program in Linux, and have them share their digital timeline with their family at the end of the year. I envisioned a monthly entry where students would write about something memorable that happened in school. It’s important for learners to reflect and this project allowed students to look back at their own learning after its already taken place. I was an OpenOffice newbie and had to do a lot of research on the program before I could proceed with my students. OpenOffice is a free open source software application we were operating with.


My overarching inquiry question was: How does the use of digital media foster students’ writing and motivation as they work to create a yearlong timeline of their learning? As soon as I began my project, many other questions arose to reshape my question:

  • Would students be able to accomplish a monthly entry given the nature of our slow computers?
  • How do I create a template for students to access quickly when they log on to their computers?
  • What can I do to make this project appealing to my students?
  • What is the best way to download pictures so students can access them quickly when they are ready to begin adding pictures to their work?
  • Will students be more successful if they prewrite or compose directly on the computer?
  • Will this be a worthwhile project to implement and study?

Implementing the Plan

I didn’t get started on the project as soon as I had anticipated due to state testing tying up the computer lab for four weeks. However, I was able to complete a lot of the background work that needed to happen before my students could even begin their work in the lab. The Technology Integrator (TI) assisted me in setting up folders for each of my students as well as setting up handout and drop box folders for me. I set up a template for the September timeline in Impress and saved it in my handout file. In the classroom, I feared it might be difficult to entice young students into such a lengthy project as their world revolves around immediacy, but I quickly hooked them by connecting this to their current passion: The Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney. Many children had seen the movie over the summer and several were reading the books. I bought the books for the classroom library and they were the first books to go off the shelf! I also had two children writing their own “Diary of a…” during writing workshop. As soon as I told them we’d be creating our own digital diaries, a yearlong one, they were eager to begin!

I learned a lot the first month implementing the project. The end of September, during writing workshop, I asked my students to think about their timeline, what they liked the best about September and what they learned from it. I told them their sentence starter and had them turn to a partner and talk about their plan. No one was talking! I began checking in with students and the first group I sat with said, “I just can’t remember what we did. The whole table agreed. We all gathered back on the rug and discussed September as I made a bulleted list on the easel. After this, they were ready to talk again and all decided on a topic they would write about. Since I wanted to try out different strategies each month to see which created the best writing, I did not have them write on paper prior to computer lab. We went to the lab with their writing in their head. That first session was a disaster. The day began with an email warning from the librarian alerting us that the computers were experiencing extreme difficulties (again). I decided to take my class regardless as I was sticking to my plan! I had previously modeled the whole process in the classroom and thought it seemed easy enough. I repeated the same lesson in the computer lab using the digital projector so everyone could see the computer screen as they would see it. I modeled with a student account and even typed an entry. While doing it in front of them, it seemed like a lot of directions and perhaps I should have made a tutorial sheet for them to take back to their computer. Back at their stations, students logged onto their computer with their username and password, then worked through the necessary steps they would have to master before they could begin composing each month:

  • Locate home box and double click (I found many are not able to double click)
  • Go to my handout box and double click
  • Double click on September (or current month) timeline
  • Go to file-save as
  • Click in front of timeline and type name
  • Save in student folder
  • Begin typing on timeline template

Many students were successful in completing all the steps in order to begin their typing and got right to work. While I was helping students double click, others didn’t follow directions and went ahead and began calling out, “What do we do now?” I had to stop everyone and have them put their hands in their lap if they had logged on and opened up their templates. I had to go back through the process step by step with the digital projector. Once everyone was ready to type, we had 5 minutes left in our 50-minute lab time! I then showed them all how to save their work and drag it to my drop box. As promised, the computers did work extremely slowly, but I don’t think it mattered because my students worked slow, too! The slowness would be an issue later in the year as they get more proficient. The TI was not in the lab with me that day and it was difficult working with 17 students who all needed my constant help, but I learned to create an instruction sheet for them to have at their computer spot, to have them follow along with me the first few times we work with any new technology program, and realize it will take twice as long as you think it will to implement something new. I was hopeful that as they got more proficient with the technical aspects of the project, I could teach them more about word processing, special features of the program and I could be available for conferencing with them while they type. On that first day, not one student was able to type a complete sentence and I was wondering if this project was too much to expect from a second grade student.

The next week, students were able to do all the necessary steps in order to get back to their September template. Several had not saved the previous week so they had to start at the beginning, but they have not forgotten to save again! Everyone was successful finishing their work and after two lab sessions they all completed their September entries. I still saw the need for helping those that were having difficulty double clicking and logging in and getting to the template. Before the next lab time, I had them practice those skills in the classroom as we have three computers available.

Throughout this resource, I will share two students’ work. One is Franc’s, a reluctant writer who was a new student in our classroom this fall. He is a very pleasant, shy boy who told me the first week of school he doesn’t like to write. For the first few weeks of school, he wrote one sentence and each day he would trace over the letters or get a new piece of paper and write the same thing. I was gentle with him and praised him for each new letter or picture he added and always ended my conferences with him by saying, “Wow, look at you…That’s just what writers do!” Franc also doesn’t like to share, but over the months, he’s became more comfortable sharing his writing. In December, he told me he likes to write and he is very proud when he tries something new that I’ve taught.

Franc’s September Timeline Writing: I can’t believe September is over already! The best thing about September in Room 14 was my favorite thing was the puffball because I could step on it. (The italics indicate my sentence starter)

My second writer is Ana. She enjoys writing and is a very proficient writer, but doesn’t enjoy sharing her writing. Initially her fear of sharing impacted what she’d write.

Ana’s September Timeline Writing: I can’t believe September is over already! The best thing about September in Room 14 was writing stories because I started publishing one of my stories.

In October, kids were able to decide on their topic a lot easier with the use of the chart we created on a daily basis.

I had them turn and talk and tell a friend what they were going to write about. Some asked if they could write about something that wasn’t on the chart. Franc was one of them. That month, they wrote their learning on a large sticky note. I asked them to write their thought and told them they could elaborate on it while composing on the computer and later in the day, they took their sticky notes to the computer lab.

Franc wrote: The pencil thing and the apple.

Ana wrote: Harvest party.

The computers all worked at once since the servers were upgraded that day. Because they get weekly practice in the computer lab, they were all able to log on quickly and get right to work. Most were able to complete their timeline typing, except for a few students who wrote so much, they were not able to finish. They were quite excited to know they could finish it the next day in the classroom during writer’s workshop.

Franc’s October Timeline Writing: October was such a busy month and I learned so much. Did you know I got an apple and I got a pencil for tying Cameron’s shoe and his shoes are cool because they are blue?

Ana’s October Timeline Writing: October was such a busy month and I learned so much. Did you know that we had a harvest party? The food was great! We made yarn pumpkins and apples. We also made fall bookmarks.

I wasn’t sure what the kids would produce based on their sticky note thought, but I was quite pleased with what they all wrote. Most wrote a topic sentence with at least one detail. What I learned that month was, due to practice, students were able to log on and open up the program quickly. They were getting quicker at typing and beginning to know where many of letters were on the keyboard. I also learned I’d need to do some lessons with punctuation and creating capital letters as many were asking how to do it.

The kids were very motivated to do this work, even though they were not seeing the whole picture yet. I didn’t have a sample to share with them and wondered if I should have made one to share with them when I introduced the project. Something else exciting occurred in the classroom that surprised me as I didn’t really think they thought of their timeline other than when they worked on it. They actually thought about the timeline during work times! It was not uncommon to hear whispers around the room of, “I’m so writing about this for my timeline this month.” That was exciting for me to hear second grade students planning their writing for the future.

Again, in November kids were able to easily choose their topic for their timeline writing.

This was the first time they wrote their complete entry on paper first. They were very excited to use the stand up clip boards in the lab they had been wanting to use since the first week they went to the lab.

Franc’s November Timeline Writing: November was a fun month because we did the best part of me. I like the best part of me. (Note to reader: each student wrote a poem about their Best Body Part and we created a poetry movie. You can watch it at his link)

Ana’s November Timeline Writing: November was a lot of fun! I loved going to Germany. We learned how to say good morning in German-Guten Tak! Did you know that gummy bears, Christmas trees, and wristwatches were invented in Germany? I knew that the capital of Germany is Berlin.

In December, I had previously taught them a few lessons during our regular lab time as many had been asking how to make uppercase letters, how to make question marks, exclamation marks, and how to make the words bigger. I taught them how to do all these things as well as change the font and color. Many have also been asking what the squiggly line is for under words. Now, they are much more aware of misspelled words and they want all their spelling to be correct! Some students are even backspacing and attempting the spelling a different way. They are also learning correct hand formation and do amazingly well keeping their index fingers on the “J” and “F” keys. While the lessons may sound quite simplistic, they are another step in the digital writing process for young learners.

When it came time for December timeline writing, I was happy to see most kids keeping their fingers on “F” and “J”, using one space between words instead of 12, using punctuation at the end of sentences, and some even used internal punctuation as we had been doing an inquiry study on punctuation during writer’s workshop. The transference of daily writing skills to digital writing has been amazing to witness. Overall, it was a good day in the computer lab, even though the computers worked slowly again. The class has not yet caught up to the speed of the computers!

Franc’s December Timeline Writing: Even though we only had 15 days of school in December my favorite was pajama day because the classroom got to watch the Polar Express movie and we got to drink hot cocoa.

Ana’s December Timeline Writing: Even though we only had 15 days of school in December I had a lot of fun. My favorite thing was the Polar Express. I loved the hot cocoa, the doughnuts and the movie. Yum!

For January, I first had students sit with a partner and talk about their plan for their timeline writing. For that month, I told them I would not provide a sentence starter and they would have to be sure to communicate to their audience they were writing about January. After they discussed their plan with their partner, they wrote in their writer’s notebooks. When they were finished they conferenced with their partner to praise what they heard and ask questions. Based on the questions, they each went back and revised.

Over half the students wrote about penguins, as they had been working diligently to adopt a penguin species. They had been keeping an adoption journal where they researched what their species would need in order to survive so they could learn how to take care of it. They were very motivated with the penguin writing as when they learned all they could, their penguin (a plaster penguin I made and painted for each student) would come to live with them. In January, both Ana and Franc chose to write about their penguin.

Franc’s Notebook writing for January:

On the computer, Franc typed: I’m adopting a penguin in January and my penguin is an emperor penguin. My penguin can dive off a cliff from 70 feet up. My penguin is a emperor penguin.

Ana’s Notebook writing for January:

On her timeline, Ana wrote the same thing she had in her journal: In January I adopted the Macaroni Penguin. It weighs about 10 lbs and is 20-24in. The Macaroni penguin eats krill and fish and it has a bunch of orange feathers. My penguin lives on subantarctic islands. Leopard seals, skuas, fur seals, sheathbills, and petrels all think a macaroni penguin would make a good snack. I’ll keep my penguin away from them!

In the lab in February, I tried something new and wished I had done it sooner. I invited our fourth grade care buddies (Carebuddies meet biweekly, usually to read together) to the computer lab and modeled what I wanted them to accomplish. Because their fourth grade teacher, Sara Kreutz, had been working on peer conferencing, I knew they had the language needed to help their buddy. We stressed the importance of revision-not editing as it would be tempting to correct second graders spelling! My students were able open up any template they were interested in revising. Then they read their work to their fourth grade buddy. Their buddy would praise their work, then ask them a question about it. The second graders then told their buddy what they would add. I was impressed with what they were all able to accomplish and in the end, the fourth graders said, “That was fun.” And now they want to share their writing with us. Mrs. Kreutz and I plan to have them do some buddy revision with their writing workshop folders and notebooks. This process was really amazing. All students were on task and really listening to each other. The fourth grade students asked great questions to elicit more writing and the second graders were more than willing to add it to their existing text. While working with Franc’s group, Franc’s buddy asked him what happened when he stepped on the puffball. Franc said, “Oh, smoke came flying out of it.” His buddy said, “You could write that!” And he did, kind of!

Franc chose his September timeline. His initial writing said: I can’t believe September is over already. The best thing about September in Room 14 was my favorite thing was the puffball because I could step on it. With his buddy’s suggestions, he revised it to read: I can’t believe September is over already. The best thing about September in room 14 was the puffball because I could step on it. Smoke came out of the puffball!

Ana chose to revise her October timeline. Her initial writing said: October was such a busy month and I learned so much. Did you know we had a harvest party? The food was great! We made yarn pumpkins and apples. We also made fall book marks. She added: We made them with glue and paper.

For February, students are writing a weekly entry in their writer’s notebooks about something they learned that week. At the end of the month, they will have four entries to choose from and some may choose to combine some of their entries. I also told them to think about writing in their notebooks whenever they have one of those, “I’m so writing about this on my timeline” moments. It will be interesting to see if anyone chooses to.

In March, I plan to have them write from a picture by choosing from a file of pictures from March activities.

To Do:

  • Student interview: I will be interviewing Franc and Ana about the timeline process and their thoughts.
  • What I have learned: Here I will highlight my learnings from this inquiry and my plans for next year.
  • Updates: I plan to update this source through the end of the year.

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