Learning with Laptops in Middle School

Laptops have impacted instructional planning and delivery and the ways in which my students are leaning more than I had imagined.  This is my second year of teaching in a one-to-one laptop program in a Grade 6 integrated Language Arts and Social Studies block class.  For the past two years we have used the Lenovo ThinkPads, and next year we will make the switch to Mac.  It’s been a journey filled with trail and error coupled with successes and failures.  As the journey continues, my students are finding and utilizing innovative ways to enhance their learning through the use of technology.  In reflecting back over the last two years, five categories emerge that deserve consideration when implementing a successful laptop program.

Classroom / Laptop Management – The physical arrangement of the classroom is important.  My classroom has small groups of desks arranged so that each one has a clear view of the projection screen.  Desks that can be moved and reconfigured easily for different types of cooperative activities work well.  It would be worthwhile to consider an arrangement that allows for a view of most laptop screens from any vantage point within the classroom.  Our students are required to charge their laptops at home during the evening, so that they come to school with fully charged batteries.  Sometimes students forget to charge their machines and sometimes they use the battery power before they arrive in class.  It’s important to have easy access to power outlets, and depending upon your own teaching space, perhaps several extension cords at the ready.  In the fall, we have a “laptop boot camp” in which students are instructed in the care and use of their computers as well as an introduction to digital citizenship which continues throughout the course of the year.  This full-on “tech seminar” sets the stage for our students and makes expectations clear from the start.

Digital Toolbox – Our students were born into the digital age and come to us quite tech savvy.  Nonetheless, skills vary and it is important not to assume that all students quickly grasp new digital tools and applications as they are presented to them.   In order to support students in garnering new technical skills, in addition to “mini-lessons” around the use of digital tools with demonstrations, our tech facilitator also created a blog which archives a multitude of short tech demos.  This serves as an important resource for our students.  As students add to their digital toolboxes, they are empowered with choices that allow freedom and variety in showcasing their learning.  Recently, our tech facilitator compiled a list of the digital tools and the ways in which they are being used by students.

Structured Class Period – My students are greeted with a projected agenda and warm-up each day.  The agenda serves as a prompt to help students transition from one segment of the class period to the next.  The warm-up consists of language activities that relate to grammar, punctuation, and vocabulary.  Following the warm-up, students move into the activities for the day.  The majority of each class period requires students to use their laptops, so they know that as soon as they come in, they are to get our their laptops and begin the warm-up without being instructed to do so.  When, during the course of the 90 minute period, instructions need to be given, students are directed to adjust their laptops to a “listening position”, which means closed at a 45 degree angle.  This type of structure has worked well for my students.  They realize that their laptop is an important educational tool and that is what it is to be used for during class time.  In most cases, students rise to meet this expectation.  In a few cases, students make poor decisions regarding the use of their laptops.  Our school has a disciplinary plan of action outlined in our Acceptable Use Agreement, that students and parents read and sign at the beginning of each school year.

Recently, there has been a lot of attention given to “tech breaks”.  A tech break allows students a few minutes of free time during an instructional period to check their text messages, or see who has posted on Facebook, or try to make it to the next level of an online game.  While this is a new idea for me, we tried it out in class this week.  I was surprised at how quickly students returned to the instructional task, which was peer editing a short story using Google Docs, at the end of the break.

Student Engagement – Providing learning activities that engage students and motivate them to take charge of their learning is the goal of good teachers everywhere.  Educational experiences that require high levels of thinking, collaboration, and problem solving while, at the same time giving students the freedom to make their own choices and decisions as it relates to their learning, are changing the traditional classroom.  Technology has a prominent place in these types of project-based and challenged-based learning classrooms.  The ownership that comes with collaborative, creative projects which are based upon students’ own ideas is a great motivator.  This year my students were charged with creating public service announcements which highlighted the skills associated with kindness and being constructive community members.  With an authentic audience, composed of the entire sixth grade of our middle school, the engagement was full-on from start to finish.

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UC Davis College of Engineering

Students as Teachers Docendo discimus, “through teaching we learn” and “students as teachers” is a concept that is gaining momentum.  Collectively, my students have a lot of technical experience.  I have embraced this in our one-to-one program and it has paid off.  Students are encouraged to share their knowledge and expertise with their classmates.  This not only helps those students who require the technical support, but also gives those “techies”, who assume the role of teacher, self-confidence.  It’s a fact.  When it comes to technology, many of my students know more than me.  Creating an environment where students can feel safe taking the lead is so important.  Gone are the days of teacher-centered classrooms.  Effective 21st century teachers have evolved into facilitators of learning and members of a dynamic collaborative team.

Laptops are educational tools and have the capacity to greatly enhance the learning opportunities of our students.  However, the key to the success of any academic program is the effectiveness of the learning activities that are offered.  Structuring learning opportunities that engage students in real-world situations that require problem solving, innovation, and collaboration in a setting that encourages student choice and risk taking should be the goal of all good teachers.  Educational environments are changing.  Technology is an added benefit.


About Jamie

I am currently a middle school Language Arts and Social Studies teacher at The American School in Japan.
This entry was posted in COETAIL. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Learning with Laptops in Middle School

  1. 81jpayne says:

    Hi Jamie

    Thank you for the great tips!

    Power boards and extension leads. Thanks for reminding me about them! We’re going 1:1 in the middle school at Saint Maur next year and tips like this are really going to help us out.

    And tech breaks. This idea is new to me too and is something I’m eager to try out. I really think the idea makes sense: students are naturally going to be more attentive in class if they’ve gotten that “reply” out the way.

    Have a great summer!

    Jamie Payne

  2. Jamie says:

    Thanks for reading, Jamie! Hope it was helpful. We’ve had a great 2 years and I’m excited about our new Macs next year! It’s been great working with you in CoETaIL. Yes, and to you as well…have a fantastic summer!! 🙂

  3. It sounds like you have had an absolutely fantastic year, Jamie! You are applying so many of things we’ve been talking about in COETAIL, and so effectively! Tons of great tips for teachers too! I especially like the idea of students being the teachers.

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