Laptops for Kids in Small Towns May Not Be Panacea

One Laptop per Child may have been thinking of the developing world, but cities such as Immokalee, Fla., feel its kids would benefit, too. But it's unclear how much the laptops can bridge the achievement gap for the kids of migrant workers.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

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And I'm Michele Norris. The One Laptop Per Child project was designed to help kids in developing countries. But some educators believed it can also help kids here in the US. Forty-six students in Immokalee, Florida are spending their summer learning how to use little XO computers. NPR's Larry Abramson has a second of two reports on migrant education.

LARRY ABRAMSON: Tim Falconer belongs to a coterie of computer acolytes, convinced that free laptops can change the world. But…

Mr. TIM FALCONER (Computer Programmer; Founder, Waveplace): If you hand out pianos, it's much more effective if you hand out piano lessons, too.

ABRAMSON: And that belief - tools mean little without training - has brought Falconer to the back room of the Bethel Assembly of God Church in Immokalee.

Mr. FALCONER: All right. Well, let's see. Let's start over. Let's review from the beginning…

ABRAMSON: Falconer is a computer programmer and founder of a company called Waveplace. Waveplace is teaching teachers and students how to use those XO's in places across the Caribbean. And now he's paired up with local officials, who have given 46 laptops to kids here. Falconer has come down from Pennsylvania to teach them how to tell stories on their laptops.

Mr. FALCONER: Once upon a time, there was a python named Pippy. He lived in a house, and he had never gone outside.

ABRAMSON: But first, Falconer has to teach the half dozen teachers gathered here how to draw an alligator and get that animal to follow commands. It's not going to be easy.

Mr. FALCONER: You know what? Try going into - flip left, right. Go down to graphics.

ABRAMSON: Teacher Krista Crein(ph) of Vineyards Elementary is struggling, and I mean struggling, to get control of the alligator she's drawn. He keeps flipping over.

Mr. FALCONER: Maybe it's an alligator from Australia.

Ms. KRISTA CREIN (Teacher, Vineyards Elementary): Maybe he's dying. He keeps flipping upside down (unintelligible).

ABRAMSON: This training session is focused on a piece of software called Etoys. It allows kids to tell stories with animated drawings. But for the teachers, the program seems clumsy. Still, teachers like Krista Crein say it may still work for some kids who need a push.

Ms. CREIN: Different children are motivated by different things, and actually, a computer is an extremely valuable motivational tool. And what children can do with this, it's almost like you're writing a story, but you're making a game, too.

ABRAMSON: This training session is focused on a piece of software called Etoys. It allows the kids to tell stories with animated drawings. But for the teachers, the program seems clumsy. Still, many teachers like Krista Crein say it may work for some kids who need a push.

Unidentified Group: Ho.

Mr. FALCONER: Hey.

Unidentified Group: Ho.

Mr. FALCONER: All right.

ABRAMSON: Teachers use a little chant to get kids' focus. Don't ask me why, but the name XO comes from the symbols for hugs and kisses. All of a sudden, what was hard for the adults becomes play for these fifth graders.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

(Soundbite of frog croaking)

ABRAMSON: They draw snakes and mice, and they learn how to move them around the screen. Tim Falconer tries to give them a basic framework.

Mr. FALCONER: Computers are really dumb. You have to tell them everything. And if you tell them the wrong thing, they're going to walk into the walls.

ABRAMSON: And it's these principals of programming, Falconer believes, that will give these kids wings. Yes, these machines can connect to the Internet. They can be used for word processing, but Falconer doesn't want the XO's just to be used for the PowerPoint presentations that have become a staple of so many classrooms.

Mr. FALCONER: One of our kids at St. John moved a pirate over a pirate chest. And when the pirate touched pirate chest, the chest opened. Learning how to make that happen is - it's a much more fun way of doing word problems, if you know what I mean.

ABRAMSON: So the computer isn't just a way to make learning more palatable. Computer programming is the lesson. And it is inspiring to see how quickly this technology becomes like a second skin for these kids. But after the kids had left, I asked teachers why did they support devoting $200 per laptop and all this time when many of these kids come from homes without books?

And I'm sure some people would walk into this room and say, great. It took them all day, and they told a story that a kid could draw with crayons and a piece of paper in 30 minutes.

Ms. SUSAN JORDAN (Assistant Principal, Poinciana Elementary): I think I can take that one. And have to go back to…

ABRAMSON: That's when Susan Jordan, an assistant principal at Poinciana Elementary jumped in.

Ms. JORDAN: If you think of the Trojan Horse, that's not what led to victory. What led to victory was the army inside the horse. This XO is like a Trojan Horse. It leads to motivation. The army inside is what is going to lead to victory, and that is the programming component of it.

ABRAMSON: It'll cost Collier County a little over $300 per child to equip and train these kids on the XO's. That might be a lot of money in the third world, but American schools spend thousands a year per student. Kids from migrant families at risk of dropping out can cost a lot more. So, for now, it seems like a good deal.

Larry Abramson, NPR News.

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Laptops Help Keep Migrant Workers' Kids in School

Juan Medina and Ifrain Ramas with a One Laptop Per Child computer i i

hide captionJuan Medina of the Florida Department of Education meets with new laptop owner Ifrain Ramas and Ifrain's brother and mother. Ifrain and 45 other students from Immokalee, Fla., have received their own laptops through the One Laptop Per Child program.

Larry Abramson/NPR
Juan Medina and Ifrain Ramas with a One Laptop Per Child computer

Juan Medina of the Florida Department of Education meets with new laptop owner Ifrain Ramas and Ifrain's brother and mother. Ifrain and 45 other students from Immokalee, Fla., have received their own laptops through the One Laptop Per Child program.

Larry Abramson/NPR

Immokalee, Fla., is the largest center for migrant farmworkers on the East Coast. Juan Medina, a former agricultural worker, worked the fields with his family, planting onions in west Texas and picking tomatoes in Homestead, Fla.

Medina now works for the Florida Department of Education, trying to help the children of migrant workers deal with the challenges of migrant life.

He is part of a town effort to help the children in school. His new tool is free laptops.

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