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  • Medford School District buys 1,800 Chromebooks for new English curriculum

    Students will use laptops in class and can access lessons outside of class
  • Medford teachers hooted and high-fived outside the school district boardroom Monday after the school board adopted a new English language arts curriculum that some are calling a "game-changer."
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  • Medford teachers hooted and high-fived outside the school district boardroom Monday after the school board adopted a new English language arts curriculum that some are calling a "game-changer."
    "I can't even explain how exciting this is," said Jessica Hamlin, a North Medford High School English teacher.
    Next week, Debbie Connolly, the district's supervisor of curriculum and assessment, will place an order for 1,800 Dell Google Chromebooks — 40 for every high school English classroom and 35 for every middle school English classroom — and for 55 charging carts, making the district's total investment about $1.09 million.
    The hardware will be used to power the 2015 Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Collections, a "blended learning" program that combines traditional group instruction with digital assignments and individualized instruction. Students will be able to access the curriculum on the new Chromebooks in class and from other devices outside of class.
    The Chromebooks, Connolly said, are "very durable" and cost $305 each, which includes insurance.
    This fall, in addition to an English textbook, two workbooks and three novels, all secondary students taking regular — not Advanced Placement — English will be assigned a personal online "dashboard" that they and their teachers can access.
    "We'll be doing all the things we're doing in a traditional classroom, but this way students can take notes with the Chromebook," said Justin McKenzie, a Hedrick Middle School English teacher. "Students also will be able to organize their assignments, and there will be more research at their disposal."
    As it is now, classes have limited access to the school computer lab, and this time must be planned in advance, Connolly said. But on their dashboards, students will have access to a variety of resources, including newspaper and journal articles, biographies and videos, which are updated regularly to complement the units they are covering in class.
    The last time the district adopted a new English language arts curriculum was in 2002, "but no one really liked it, and for the most part it was not utilized fully," Connolly said.
    For the last 12 years, teachers have created their lesson plans from scratch, relying on supplemental materials to fill in the holes. This process is very time-consuming and had to be modified, starting in 2010, when Oregon adopted Common Core State Standards, Connolly said.
    The new set of math and language arts standards define what students should know at every grade level and require more critical thinking and more collaboration among teachers.
    "The Common Core Standards can be overwhelming and scary to teachers, because the stakes are high and the standards are high," Hamlin said. "But I think this curriculum will support us by providing the tools necessary for instruction and practice and helping our students meet these standards."
    The curriculum is not only aligned to Common Core, it also prepares students for the challenging "performance tasks" — multistep problems — they'll face in the Smarter Balanced Assessment next spring.
    Hamlin and McKenzie were part of a team assembled in November to evaluate the list of state-endorsed curricula. The team, which included representatives from every grade level at all five of Medford's secondary schools, evaluated these options using a Common Core rubric, as well as feedback they received from their colleagues.
    "This (HMH Collections) was absolutely a standout," Connolly said. "The print part was comparable to the other curriculum, and all of them had some kind of online component, but nothing as comprehensive as this."
    The Eagle Point and Phoenix-Talent school districts also have formally adopted the new ELA curriculum, while the Rogue River and Grants Pass school districts plan to adopt it later this month.
    "This lets me know that we made the right decision, because everyone else recognized that this is a good program," Connolly said.
    Medford's 43 secondary English teachers will attend a training June 17 to learn how to use the new program.
    Hamlin said teachers will most likely present a new concept or skill at the beginning of the class, before directing students to online practice tests and writing assignments they can complete on their Chromebooks. The online program automatically adjusts the text or task to meet a student at his or her level, McKenzie said.
    "Students operating above grade level will now be able to be authentically learning and not just doing busy work," he added.
    After a student submits a writing assignment, the program will instantly flag errors related to writing conventions, leaving teachers more time to focus on content and organization.
    "At home, I can grade papers with my iPad rather than having to lug home stacks and stack of papers," Hamlin said.
    With the new technology, Hamlin also will be able to give her students either written or vocal feedback and open up the assignment for peer review.
    Teachers will be able to bring their personal Chromebooks to professional learning communities, analyze class trends to determine where they need to focus instruction, and review all of a student's seventh- through 12th-grade work, Hamlin explained.
    At the meeting Monday, board member Tricia Prendergast said the curriculum was the "most comprehensive" she had seen in her 13 years on the board. Board member Sally Killen also praised its features.
    However, board chairman Jeff Thomas raised concerns about not having enough Network-Telecommunication Services staff to support the new technology and recommended the district begin budgeting for Chromebook replacements and repairs.
    "I think the board will be vigilant about putting resources in the budget to support the curriculum adoption," he said Friday.
    Board member Ron Anderson said he was initially worried the technology would reduce the interaction between teachers and students, but the reaction of the teachers at the board meeting assured him that wouldn't be the case.
    "To me one of the most exciting things about this is that there is going to be more reading and more writing and more collaboration and more feedback and all the things we know improve academic achievement," Hamlin told the board, which voted 4 to 1 in favor of the curriculum.
    Board members Larry Nicholson and Marlene Yesquen were not present at the meeting, and Kim Wallan voted "no."
    "We don't know anything about the costs involved, how long the Chromebooks are going to last, and how much tech support we're going to need," Wallan said.
    At the board's bidding, Todd Bloomquist, director of secondary education, will research these budgetary concerns and present a recommendation to the board at the next meeting, June 30.
    Reach education reporter Teresa Thomas at 541-776-4497 or tthomas@mailtribune.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/teresathomas_mt.
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