An Interview With Mary Newman, fifth-grade teacher, St. Francis of Assisi Elementary School in Sacramento

Computer Explorers helps students set eyes on Mars

St. Francis of Asissi Elementary School

St. Francis of Assisi Elementary School

Computer Explorers has been a revelation for fifth-grade teacher Mary Newman since she joined the staff at St. Francis of Assisi Elementary School. The 18-year veteran of Sacramento schools started working with Computer Explorers when she joined the St. Francis faculty two years ago. Since then she has developed an easy, informal collaboration with Computer Explorers teacher Stefan Wenk, who works across the hall. She spoke with us about her experience.

Computer Explorers: How long have you been working with Computer Explorers? How did you come to work with them?
Mary Newman: It’s my second year working with them. Computer Explorers was already a presence here at St. Francis when I started working here two years ago.

CE: What is your educational and professional background?
N: This is my 18th year teaching. I graduated from UC Davis, where I studied psychology before getting my teaching credentials.

CE: What do you like best about these programs?
N: It’s dealing with a lot of the same skills that I’m trying to develop in my class: listening, following directions, team building. They learn the skills they need in order to do a research paper.

CE: What is it like to work with Stefan?
N: He’s wonderful. Fabulous computer guy. Very helpful. The kids love him, and he makes sure that what he’s teaching works well with my program. We coordinate very well. I’ll tell Stefan, “I’ve got a program coming up, can you support it?” and he always says yes and tailors computer lessons to help out.

CE: How do the kids react to him?
N: The kids love working on computers. He makes it fun, and the program itself is fun, and they’re learning. I have a project right now on explorers, and they can go to him for help with research and how to put their paper together, since we require cover and title pages and a bibliography. All of our students get a computer period during the day. He’s there after school, too, and they can go to him and say, “Mr. Wenk, am I doing this right?” It’s helped a lot. The kids really enjoy it. A lot of them go to the lab after school until 4, so you know they’re enjoying it.

CE: How does Computer Explorers complement what kids are learning in your classroom?
N: It kind of goes with a couple of other programs we do, and skills like learning how to work together as a team. They have to learn how to research, how to put together a report. We do research papers, we do team projects, all those things. I do a big project on the Mars mission where kids pretend to be an astronaut on the Space Shuttle while another kid pretends to be on the ground, using computers to provide guidance. Neither one has all the information that they need to accomplish their mission, so they have to work together. Stefan works with them as they take turns playing each role in order to accomplish their mission using the computer. It’s all about following directions and team building.

CE: What does Computer Explorers bring that might otherwise be missing?
N: Organization. We need the program to help build computer skills. It is very organized and the lessons build on one skill after the other.

CE: How do Computer Explorers programs foster collaborative learning?
N: A lot of the skills that Stefan works on with the kids involve using the computer to collaborate. His stuff goes perfectly with my program. The kids work together great, and they’re accomplishing a task. Stefan also has everything organized, and has directions ready to go as soon as kids walk into the room, so they know what they need to do and there’s no downtime.

CE: Have you noticed kids gaining confidence in the classroom?
N: Absolutely. For one thing they like the class, but now that they have these projects to do, they also have the skills they need so it’s not overwhelming.

CE: Are there any instances that are especially memorable?
N: I’ve seen students help one another on the reports. They’re learning the skills well enough to teach the other kids. And that’s important, because research reports are something that they’ll be doing a lot more of in high school. My own kids are in high school and college — they have to know what they’re doing. They have to know how to do research on computers. My kids did not have this program, and I think that my students are a lot more ready for research than my kids were. (Recently) they were learning from Stefan how to put a newsletter together and how to add and take away things from the paper and move them around. They are really practical things to learn, but they are also learning to work as a team. There were a lot of skills going on in a very short time.

CE: How important is it that youngsters get this type of training early?
N: These kids need this. They have to be proficient by the time they get to high school, because you have to submit work on a computer, turning things in through turnitin.com. You have to know how to do presentations in PowerPoint, all that stuff.

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