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When digital kids rule the classroom

By Stefanie Olsen
Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Published: April 26, 2006 4:00 AM PST

Teachers may be the masters in the classroom, but when it comes to mastering technology, a growing number of schools are turning to students.

Take Megan Kennedy, an eighth-grader in Hill City, Kan. She's one of 40 students participating in a program called GenYes in which kids teach teachers how to use technology. For her project, Megan and two classmates worked with a local kindergarten teacher to integrate an Apple iMovie into a lesson about clocks. They made a 3-minute movie showing the 5-year-olds at various times in their day, with the The Jackson Five song "ABC" as background music.

The film was an instant hit with both teacher and tykes.

"They thought it was so cool, they were all laughing and dancing to the music," Megan, 13, said in a telephone interview. As for the teacher, Megan said, "We showed her how to upload the video from the camera, cut clips and add titles to the bottom of the slides. Next year, we're going to do a Web page for her and link it to our movie."

The initiative is one of a number of similar projects bubbling up in school systems in California, Texas, Arizona, New York and other parts of the country. These projects are an acknowledgement that kids often know more about technology than their teachers do.

So why not let tech-savvy kids turn the tables and teach the teachers? Everyone wins, believe educators like Scott Parker, a teacher at Megan's school. Students learn career skills like collaboration and meeting deadlines, and teachers get on-the-job training in technology for the classroom, he said.

There are larger issues at play than just making sure the adults can talk tech with the kids, of course. Advocates say school-tech projects are more important than ever because U.S. children are lagging behind their international counterparts in math, science and tech proficiency.

"Tech is the 21st century. We're putting kids behind the eight ball if they don't have any contact with computers," said Jamal Hicks, a teacher of social studies and technology at Jonas Salk Middle School in Sacramento, Calif.

"We're putting kids behind the eight ball if they don't have any contact with computers."
-- Jamal Hicks, teacher

Proponents also say such programs are more important than ever to counterbalance the fear felt by parents and teachers who want to keep kids away from sites like MySpace.com.

"Schools tend to react to emerging technology like MySpace by restricting student use with a heavy hand...(But) to improve education, we must put real digital-age tools in student hands," said Dennis Harper, founder of GenYes.

Hicks said that 98 percent of students at Jonas Salk don't have access to computers at home. This year, seventh-graders were able for the first time to participate in a program called Technology Literacy Project, or TechYes, which was funded by a grant from Verizon.

The program, which Hicks oversees for Jonas Salk, rewards students for proficiency with computers and issues credit for teaching other students skills with various technology. For example, 10 students in Hicks' Avid software class have been teaching Spanish-speaking students in an English Language Literacy class how to use a computer for the first time. Next up, the TechYes students will work with science students on projects in Avid.

"They're just eating it alive," said Hicks, who added that he often lets the kids run class because they're are so proactive with the technology.

History of GenYes

TechYes and GenYes, which stands for Generation of Youth and Educators Succeeding, was Harper's brainchild more than 10 years ago. At the time, Harper was a technology director for the Olympia, Wash., school district and he realized that technology wouldn't be integrated in the curriculum until kids, natural champions of technology, were involved. So Harper wrote a government grant proposal for a technology program that could be expanded if successful in one school. The grant was approved in 1996 to carry through to 2001, but Harper has continued the program through his own business GenYes, which licenses the curriculum to schools.

That program, which is still going strong in Olympia, includes lesson plans for students to use technology in every K-12 classroom. GenYes has spread to hundreds of schools throughout the country in recent years, including a high school in Phoenix that will pilot the program next year.

Greg Partch, director of educational technology at the Hudson Falls School District, said his district was the first in New York state to implement GenYes in 1998. Since that time, more than 150 districts have adopted the program, "directly from our input and success," he said.

"It's changed the culture of our schools," Partch said. As an example, he said, two high school students are now offering a professional development workshop for adults to learn how to use Windows Movie Maker.

Inspired by his work with GenYes, Partch is spinning off his own nonprofit called Smart Ed, for students mentoring adults. Through the program, Partch plans to partner with the State University of New York at Albany to create a three-credit online course for high-school juniors and seniors, in which they would learn how to teach teachers about cybersecurity, among other course curriculum. In turn, the teachers could instruct students on how to be safe online.

Harper's for-profit company, GenYes, has also sprouted other initiatives such as Generation Tech, which teaches students to perform tech support at their school. GenYes also has a nonprofit side responsible for the curriculum behind the TechYes program in Sacramento.

"Students are the digital generation, yet schools are not coming to terms with the technology revolution. By including students in the planning and implementation of improvement efforts, their passion and optimism about the future is put to good use," Harper said in an e-mail.

But for Megan, technology and GenYes comes down to fun.

"It's really interactive," she said, "and you don't have to listen to teachers blob on."

Send insights or tips on this topic to stefanie.olsen@cnet.com.

When digital kids rule the classroom - Wednesday, April 26, 2006 -

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