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 Article of Interest - Education

Technology helps boost writing skills
Computer programs increase test scores, student interest
by Janet Sugameli / Detroit News / 9-23-02
For more articles on disabilities and special ed visit

WARREN -- A pilot program to improve students' writing and organizational skills is making a positive impact on general education students as well.

The Macomb Intermediate School District's "Begin with Me" program is a hardware and software tool kit for teachers to use with struggling students in their regular classrooms.

With computer programs, talking word processors and electronic spell-checkers, initially it was aimed at special needs and at-risk students.

"The idea was to get it into the classroom, where they need to use it," said Assistive Technology Consultant Susan Hardin. "This way, the kids that are struggling can use it right there."

District consultants found the program was helpful to all students -- not just those for whom it was intended. Hardin said it improved students' writing. They also wrote more often, and longer.

Educators believe the program contributed to improved scores on last year's fifth-grade state writing test.
Students can use the tool in several ways. The software gives them help with brainstorming by mapping. Kids type in their ideas on a subject, and the Kidspiration program builds a map or web of their thoughts.
The program also utilizes electronic spell checkers.

The technology helps at-risk and special education students who need the extra computerized help. Many students who are not struggling find the use of technology a novelty, encouraging them to write, too.
Last year, Aaron Nitz's fifth graders' natural writing ability was polished by the specialized technology.

"'The Begin with Me' program stresses personal skills from the planning stage," said Nitz, a teacher at Warren Woods Briarwood Elementary. "It helps bring their ideas from their brain to the paper, all the way to final editing."

"It helped me think of ideas on writing and it helped me format everything. It just made it easier," explained 11-year-old Steven St. Louis, who participated in the program last year.

"Before, when I would write, I didn't web (my thoughts). But now I use it and it helps me. Even without the computer it still helps."

Nitz said the program was particularly helpful for the students "who don't fit the special education bill, but they do have some weaknesses like organizing their thoughts."

Twenty-one teachers in the county are trained to use the program this year, its second. That number is expected to expand.

Last year, five districts used the program; this year, it's up to nine.

It is expected that within six years, the program will be available in every Macomb County district.

Two fifth-grade classrooms in Fraser participated in the program last year, according to elementary school computer coordinator Angela George; this year, five are using it.

Taking control of the program this year allowed Fraser to "tailor the program to our curriculum, so it was not extra work for the teachers," she said.

District officials decided to expand the program because they were impressed with its results, and how it worked for special education and general education.

"From the data they collected, our teachers saw a definite improvement in students' writing," George said.
"Students have a lot of ideas that they want to write about, and the technology helps to support the presentation of those ideas."

Next year, the district may expand the program to all fifth grade classrooms.

Last week, Briarwood fourth-grader James Little watched the demonstration of the program for the first time. James said he didn't like to write, but he's been trying to improve.

"This might help me to get better topics," he said. "I think there's going to be a big difference in my writing."
Nitz said students love to incorporate technology into their everyday lessons.

"Their natural skills came to the surface because of their writing and use of the technology," he said. "They were more apt to get the ideas from their brain and put them on paper."

Principal Mary Tewksbury observed that "by showing kids how to deal with problems, such as spelling through the use of the AlphaSmart (software), it took away one of their road blocks."

Through the intermediate school districts, students can take virtual field trips and connect with other distance learning technology as part of the 'Begin With Me' program.

"Sometimes, kids are reluctant writers because they don't have anything to write about," Tewksbury said. "Distance learning makes it real for the students and it gives them some fodder for their writing."

"If you have the tools without a reason to write, the toolbox stays closed," said Frank Miracola, interactive learning consultant for Macomb schools.

Sixth grader Katie Spanos said the program "gave me better images of what I was reading. When I could go write, I knew more about what I was writing about."

Ashley Krolicki, 11, agreed.

"It gave me hints on what words to use and it made my writing better," she said. "It still helps because I remember what we did."

Janet Sugameli is a Metro Detroit free-lance writer.

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