Paying Attention to Technology
by Diane S. Kendall
Ten years ago, a single incident inspired me to become interested in and eventually co-author a book on how parents and kids could use their home computers to great advantage when it came to homework. My daughter, who was then in fourth grade, was standing in line to turn in her map of Australia as part of her research project on the country. She had found a blank map of the country in a piece of kid's software called KidPix Studio (inexpensive and still useful and available from Broderbund) and filled in information about where the major cities were and their relative sizes by typing in the names and using little pictures of buildings that she had found in tools section of the software called "rubber stamps" to represent population. She had been told that she couldn't color the map in on the computer, so she printed it out on thicker paper and used watercolor pencils to lightly color the continent and the water surrounding it.
As she was standing in line, the age old of ritual of comparing projects began The consensus? Hers looked "too good" and some of the kids even told she shouldn't turn it in.
Embarassed but proud, but she did turn in it. The funny thing was that many of the kids in that line had the same exact software on their home computer and the school had it on the computers in the lab, too. Yet no one else thought to use it for this purpose even though it was so simple to do and made a great presentation.
I tell you this story because this week I had a very similar experience with my son. He's in seventh grade and had to do a set of display boards on the country of Botswana. He did a map of Botswana much like the one my daughter did ten years ago of Australia and cut and paste sections of his research paper to use as interesting fact-oids for his display boards. (Did you know that the currency of Botswana, a country that is 84% desert, is called pula, the same word as rain in the Setswana language?) He used the computer to find pictures, arrange a chart and make a timeline (you can get free demo software to do that http://www.tomsynderproductions.com).
But most of all, with a little direction, he used our computer to make his poster look very neat, organized, and clear. He used larger versions of fonts for titles, printed titles and other text in landscape rather than portrait mode (i.e. horizontally rather than vertically) so that he could get more and bigger type on the paper, and put arrows on maps to point out where Botswana is on maps of the world and Africa. He also enlarged pictures of animals living in the Okanvango Delta and made them clearer and sharper using simple and free online tools like those on the Ofoto site at http://www.ofoto.com.
Again these are all the same tools available to his classmates, but when he took his display boards to school he got the same reaction my daughter did ten years ago. His classmates told him that they looked "too good" even though all the tools he used the same ones available on his classmate's computers and the computers at school as well!
There's no great magic to helping your kids produce outstanding homework projects like these on the computer. Like most everything in life, it's all in the details. In this case, just paying attention to how technology can help.
Here are some family "trade secrets" for getting your kids to use your computer for homework:
- When an assignment comes home talk and brainstorm with your kids about how the computer might be helpful to the process. For example, no matter what the research topic is, talk about what keywords would be good to use for researching it or where to find some keywords integral to the topic (encyclopedias, print and online, still work the best for this). This can be helpful with current events assignments, too.
- Talk about what the end product of the project has to be like. Does everyone's have to be the same or done in a traditional format? Or could a report be done like a newspaper or magazine or something with a multimedia component? (For some sample formats see http://www.childsoftpress.com/ididit/CODE/book_report_050.html. ) Also discuss how the computer could help with any version and make sure you have the right tools for the job including software tools, clip art, printer cartridges, and the right paper if it is going to be printed out.
- The number one cardinal rule is that any and all writing - from brainstorming to notes from sources to rough and final drafts - are all done on the computer. That makes all projects easy to keep track of, add to or subtract from, and produce the final version on time.
- What to try something new for a project? For everything from inserting digital pictures into a Word document to producing a short movie, make sure your child sets enough time aside to learn any new software, gadget, or Internet component. One thing about adding technology that you and your kids should be aware of -- it sometimes means that you have to plan ahead. Putting a project together with a technology component the night before it is due is just asking for trouble. Make sure to add time to learn any new software application and if possible, find yourself a mentor or coach who knows the software and can answer questions as you go along.
- Keep it simple. The computer offers lots of possibilities to kids - different fonts, lots of sources, loads of pictures and more. Remember to keep it simple. No more than two fonts on a paper or a poster. Using just a few Internet sites well - reading and digesting what is there - rather than using 20 and just skimming the surface, is the preferable way to go. One picture still can still say a 1000 words even it 50 are available. Help kids learn to make choices amid the vast number of possibilities.