Friday, October 31, 2008

NEAT provides students with free laptops

By SLOAN BREWSTER, Press staff
(reprinted with permission from the Middletown Press)

MIDDLETOWN — It may sound like a dream, but a delivery of free XO laptops for Macdonough School was actually quite real.

Now, children can delightfully study, learn and play on the dust-, wind- and water-proof computers with rubber keyboards. They even get to bring them home.

Wednesday afternoon, students in an after-school computer club took advantage of the laptops, which they came by via the One Laptop Per Child program and the kind heart of North End Action Team Executive Director Izzi Greenberg.

Most folks who know Greenberg speak of how she can’t avoid doing whatever it takes to improve the North End and, specifically, its school — Macdonough. That’s why when she came upon the opportunity to get laptops for the school, she jumped on it.

The story of how the idea was born was a bit convoluted and involved a woman whom Greenberg said has "disappeared." Ultimately, the woman helped Greenberg get connected with One Laptop Per Child and After some footwork, the mail just started coming.

"We just started getting donations," Greenberg said. "We just started getting computers sent to us … people just started sending us computers."

In truth, the computers Greenberg and NEAT supplied to the school are gently used.

XOs are not available for individual sale. They must be purchased in pairs — one for the buyer and one for a child in a third world country — but people who no longer need the XOs can sell them on eBay or donate them to children in need.

Between donations, which allowed NEAT to buy laptops on eBay, and donated computers that have arrived through the mail, the elementary school has been given 15. Greenberg wants more, however.

"The goal ultimately is to have one of these for every kid in the school," she said.

At this time, 24 children are divided into two groups and alternate weeks they use the laptops in their after-school program. Once a week, a child may take one home.

"The sense I’ve gotten is these things are such a good learning tool," Greenberg said.

Children can go online or chat computer to computer. They can create their own programs, read books, make videos and enjoy a variety of uses for the computers.

Fourth-grader Kimberly Chambers likes the program TamTam, which allows children to write music. "You can make music on there," she said happily. "That’s my favorite."

"If you had 10 kids with their computers you could have each one of them program their unique sound," Greenberg said. "And they’d be an orchestra."

Since the XOs are available mostly for children in third world countries, they have not been used in many communities in the United States. In fact, Middletown is one of two cities in the country to get them, Greenberg said. Birmingham, Ala., is purchasing the laptops for all children in its school district.

"So the cool thing is we are one of the first communities to get these," Greenberg said.

While that makes for good news, it also means there is no model to follow, and Greenberg and the school are basically winging it and learning as they go.

Fourth-grade teacher Sarah Claffey and third-grade teacher Teresa Morallo run the computer club and help students figure out how to use the laptops.

"We’re still learning," Claffey said.

Children write stories in a journal on the laptop, learn vocabulary through a Web site called and have access to multiple books they can read on the small computer screen, Claffey said.

"I think that the fact that it’s a computer and it’s technology … its motivation," she said. "It gets them motivated to read. I have kids that tell me they don’t have books at home … This changes that."

Morello taught a group of students during a meeting of the computer club.

"Now you need to find a circle," she advised students following her lead. "There is a green circle and you’re going to click on it … "

After some guidance, students wandered off to sit alone or in groups to work. There was laughter and seeming creativity going around the classroom where students talked of making videos and teased one another on their performances.

Greenberg hopes the rest of the city will want to follow Macdonough’s lead.

Students from the "generally under-served" neighborhoods of the North End are now bringing home computers and therefore can teach their parents about technology.

"The kid comes home and says, look I learned how to make a program,," Greenberg said.

"And you’ve changed that whole dynamic from insecurity to empowerment."

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