Parent Lessons in Technology: Discovery, Learning & Safety

Gail Aldridge shows a lawn mower two of her students built with a LEGO kit

If you’ve ever wondered what your seventh- and eighth-graders are doing in school, they’re building robots, lawn mowers and pitching machines.

The pieces used to make the miniature machines are from special Lego kits, but building these contraptions could introduce a student to the basics of engineering, and that could lead to a future career, said math teacher Gail Aldridge of her Mind Stormers class for seventh- and eighth-grade math at Thornapple Middle School Middle School. The class is so popular it has a waiting list.

“The kids love it,” Aldridge said. “If I walked out they wouldn’t even know I was gone.”

Building robots and lawn mowers gives students more than engineering knowledge. “It also teaches problem solving, teamwork and perseverance. Some students that don’t get it on paper, really get it in class,” Aldridge said.

Explaining what students do in the Mind Stormers class was just one of the 14 sessions at a recent Technology Night for parents at Thornapple Kellogg Middle School. Topics included how assessment tests are changing, ways technology is used in every grade, the start of the 1:1 computer program at the school and Internet safety.

“It amazes me how kids truly have the world at their fingertips when they have access to technology,” said Anne Hamming, a mother and Thornapple Kellogg School Board member who attended the event..

A Lot to Learn

Trooper Brian Roderick from the Michigan State Police post in Wayland talked to parents about Internet safety. Putting something on Facebook seems fun, he said, but it isn’t the private place young people think it is, and what goes on there can be looked at by many. Twitter and Tinder were two sites students need to be careful with, and he has strong warnings about the Kik instant messaging app.

“If your kid has this app, get rid of it immediately,” said Roderick, who told parents how it was used to lure a 13-year-old West Michigan girl to the home of a sex offender in December.♥

He also talked about cyberbullying issues, like when students post hateful messages or pictures and videos meant to be private. What’s shared between a boyfriend and girlfriend while they are dating can be embarrassing if they break up, and it shows up online, Roderick said. Cyberbullying is one of the largest causes of suicides for younger people, he said.

Parent and school board president David Smith, attended a session led by middle school principal Brian Balding, who discussed the new online testing. ” I saw some examples of the test questions and how they’ll be changing,” Smith said. He also went to a session showing how Chromebooks and i-Pads are being used in the classroom. What he saw impressed him. “These uses of technology seem like they are really enhancing the learning process and are bound to help with retention,” he said. “Having fun while learning is a huge plus, too. I was … intrigued to see some functionality of the technology that I didn’t even know existed. It was very cool to see how the students are using it.”

Teaching Time

Three third-grade Lee Elementary teachers — Brian Hammer, Krissta Hannapel and Marc Lester — showed how Google education apps are used in the lower elementary classroom. The free apps save them time and let teachers work more closely with students. For example, Hammer can assign work to students based on what level they are at in learning a topic. “You don’t have to assign the same thing to all 55 students,” he said.

Hammer joked that he never has to hear “the dog ate my homework” since he can view his students’ work from his computer. A tally of students who have completed their assignment updates instantly on his computer when a student turns in their work. In turn, he can look at the assignment and get it back to the student very quickly if he has questions or suggestions on the work. The method has eliminated mounds of paper. “It’s a more efficient way of managing classroom assignments,” he said. “I don’t have a single file cabinet in my room.”

The three teachers were early adapters of Google education apps and have presented programs on how they use it at various conferences. “It’s free,” Hammer said. “It’s silly not to embrace technology.”

Angie Ruger, co-director of the technology department, helped organize Technology Night. This is the second year for the event, and it attracted about 60 people. Ruger thinks it’s important for parents to see how technology is affecting their child’s learning, especially since it’s been integrated into every class. “I don’t feel parents are aware of how much students use it,” she said.

Hamming also thinks it’s important for parents to know what’s happening. “Through technology on all levels, we can know exactly what our kids are learning — and what they aren’t learning.” —

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Linda Odette
Linda Odette is a freelance writer and editor with more than 30 years of experience in journalism. She’s worked primarily as an editor in feature departments at newspapers in West Michigan, including the Grand Rapids Press, the Muskegon Chronicle and the Holland Sentinel. She lives in East Grand Rapids near the Eastown edge, has a teenage son and a daughter in college. Read Linda's full bio

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