Rotary’s Global Grant benefits local students

Students work with computers in Linda Vick's second grade class at Marengo High School in Dixons Mills. (Photo by Jan McDonald)

Students work with computers in Linda Vick’s second grade class at Marengo High School in Dixons Mills. (Photo by Jan McDonald)

By Jan McDonald

Organized chaos is about the only way to describe Linda Vick’s second grade classroom on the Marengo High School campus in Dixons Mills.

In one corner of the room children cluster in front of computer screens. In another a group debates how to display their work on a poster board. In still another place they huddle on a bench discussing what they have found searching the Internet on their tables.

They talk about photosynthesis, fertilizer and carbon dioxide and oxygen exchange, subjects not usually covered by seven-year-olds, as they conduct their own research, type out their findings and collaborate with each other to prepare a report for their class.

This is not a class of gifted students. Quite the contrary. These students live in a rural area with high poverty and few educational resources.

The activity is all part of a Global Grant sponsored by Rotary District 6880 covering south Alabama with financial support from 13 clubs in the district and from fellow districts in Korea and India.

In addition, the Rotary clubs of Demopolis and Linden will be providing volunteer “cloud grannies” to read to students by computer linkup.

The $34,505 grant provided the computers, large screen television and teacher training for Self Organized Learning Environments, also called SOLE.

Two sites benefit from the grant. In addition to the one at Marengo High, another is located at a site provided by the Hale (County) Empowerment and Revitalization Organization (HERO) in Greensboro.

The project, in the works for more than two years, draws on the studies by Indian educator Sugata Mitra. His research was the inspiration for the popular movie “Slumdog Millionaire.” Mitra placed a computer in a wall in one of the poorest sections of India and watched what would happen when children discovered it.

Within weeks the youngsters had taught themselves how to use the computer and look up all manner of topics.

Using the same philosophy, the SOLE grant is creating a vibrant learning environment where children teach themselves and empower others with the support and guidance of adult teachers and volunteers.

Greensboro and Dixons Mills were chosen because of the low levels of basic education and poverty rates at almost twice the national average.

Past District Governor Bob Callahan of Fairhope worked on the project for more than two years, coordinating the grant writing, getting Rotary global partners, lining up sites and organizing the training for teachers and volunteers.

All the hard work is evident in the excited voices of the children and the glowing reports of success from teachers.

Vick, who has taught for 38 years, is enthusiastic about the project. In just three weeks under her direction the children learned how to research topics on specific web sites. The children use the Alabama Virtual Library, Google Junior and Discovery Education.

Each group of four collaborated to write a group report. Then they designed and created a poster to display what they had learned.

“They listen more to each other than they do sometimes to me,” she laughed. “I don’t care where they get it.”

Admittedly a teacher of “the Old School,” Vick is used to having students sit quietly and listen as she instructed them. Using the new method has been a challenge, but she is sold on the results.

“We limit children by what we give them,” said Tricia Hudson, the Fairhope High School teacher who conducted the training for teachers and volunteers. “It’s hard for teachers to guide and facilitate when they have been so used to imparting knowledge,” she said. “It’s hard to undo the ways we’ve always taught.”

The teachers had to learn how to ask questions so that they led to more questions, said Hudson. They also learned how to use “value-free response” to children’s answers, encouraging them to determine for themselves whether they are right or wrong.

Vick chose to start using the new materials with a project already underway. The students tackled the topic of the interdependence of plants and people. What they are studying is all part of the Alabama curriculum for second graders.

In Greensboro the computer carrels and television are being used daily by 14 young people outside of a regular school setting, with more expected as the program grows, said Pam Dorr, HERO director. The project is intended to serve more than 200 students at each location, both in and out of school, in rotations.

“The students really enjoy working on it,” she said.

“’Big questions’ are provided by a teacher, and the students work in teams as they teach themselves,” Dorr explained. They have tackled such questions as: “How do our eyes know to cry when we are sad?” “Can anything be less than zero? “Why is it important to use a level in carpentry?” “What would happen to the world if no one had a high school diploma?”

The teachers who work with students at each location traveled to Fairhope for training under Hudson, a teacher of gifted and talented students.

While in college Hudson became interested in the Firefox project started by educator John Dewey. He advocated teaching based on learning through experience. Since then she has tried to incorporate Dewey’s ideas into her classrooms.

She met Mitra at a conference just after his “hole-in-the-wall” experiment. After Callahan spoke to her class about his trip to India, the two began sharing notes. “It was very serendipitous” that both of them were interested in using Mitra’s ideas in Alabama, she said.

“You can see from how excited the kids are and the quality of work” how effective the program is.”

So excited about learning are the children they when they didn’t know an answer they eagerly went to a computer or notebook to find out.

Marengo fourth-grade teacher Karen Jones had her class using Chrome Books at the start of school. After she went through the training with Hudson, however, she has expanded the use of the Internet to all subjects.

“It has been a tremendous addition to the classroom,” she said.

Jones calls self-directed learning “handing over the reins” to the students with effective results. Even the shy students get engaged in what they are learning.

“It makes a difference. Technology opens up the world,” she said.

Dorr and Marengo County Schools IT director William Martin determined locations for the equipment, coordinated site requirements, such as wiring and power, and supervised the preparation for the sites.

To help stretch the grant funding as far as possible Dorr had the youth involved with HERO construct the computer carrels and benches used at both sites. HERO and Marengo County Schools will be responsible for maintaining and operating the SOLE kiosks in their respective communities.

Martin said Vick’s fellow teachers are “clawing” to get the equipment in her room when she retires after this school year.

The enthusiasm about the project is reflected in one second-grader’s comment. “Nobody has to tell you the answer. You have to figure it out yourself.”