Clarkston Jr. High's Digital Blackboard

There are likely very few people who can say they took any positive inspiration from Charlie Sheen's public breakdown in 2011, after his firing from Two and a Half Men. But for one teacher at Clarkston Junior High School, the Sheen fiasco was a "Eureka!" moment for classroom innovation.
 
"I couldn't figure out, how can this guy afford all of this airtime?" says Jeff Peariso, who teaches algebra and statistics at Clarkston. "And I found out he was doing it on Ustream, and it was free."
 
The video-streaming website turned out to be the final piece of the puzzle as Peariso planned out a cutting-edge high-tech experience for his students. In the fall of 2011, Peariso's students were given mini laptops for in-class use and homework assignments. Peariso's lessons and notes were recorded using a high-tech pen, and the whole thing was broadcast to Ustream and then saved for students to refer back to.
 
"I kind of glued everything together to come up with it," Peariso says. "I just took a piece from here, and here, and here. But the key was watching Charlie Sheen."
 
Clarkston principal Adam Kern says these technological enhancements are a "sign of the times." The school introduced the laptops as a way of testing the waters on a "one-to-one" initiative, where every student would have a hand-held electronic device of some sort for classwork. "One-to-one" was set to go before Clarkston School District voters as part of a $20-million bond proposal in May 2012.
 
"We were looking for ways to get students a little more engaged in what they're doing in school," Kern says. "Being a younger principal, I thought, 'Let's test some machines to see what we want for our school if this bond passed.' I talked to Jeff and he just kind of ran with it."
 
Peariso secured grant funding to purchase the laptops, and built the rest of his classroom experience around them. Kern says that despite financially troubled times, the high-tech program has had little effect on the school's overall budget.
 
"Other than a few repairs here and there on the laptops, we haven't had to spend a dime on it," he says.
 
For the 2011-2012 school year, mini laptops were issued to 30 students who used the machines in three classes (math, science, and history) and were also allowed to take the computers home at night to do homework. This school year, the laptops were restricted to school-only use by about 30 students in Peariso's algebra and stats class. The kids use an online textbook, do assignments and take tests on the computer, and occasionally Skype with guest speakers. Peariso says the change to single-class use was made to cut down on damage to the laptops, which he says are "not built for wear and tear," and to prevent isolation of the computer-using students.
 
"When we had to do it for all the classes, those kids had to stay in that group," he says. "And we found that the kids don't like that, where they're with the same kids all day."
 
The students also reap the benefits of Peariso's Echo Smartpen, which records a visual of any notes taken with it, as well as audio of anything spoken while the notes are being made. The result is a virtual recreation, or "pencast," of any lesson (like this one), so Peariso can save it for future reference and stream it live to students. He's held class from home on snow days, and while he was laid up with pneumonia. And when the kids head home, instead of doing traditional pen-and-paper homework, they can review pencast videos as they contribute assignments to a class blog. 
 
Peariso says the combination of technological advancements makes it easier for students to excel. He can tell from the kids' blogs if they're grasping concepts well, and what they need help with. And if they happen to miss a class, or need a review, they can refer to his pencasts. The results are concrete: Peariso says grades are up eight to ten percent since the technology was introduced.
 
"I don't see people falling behind," he says. "That's the biggest plus that I see."
 
The technology also draws glowing reviews from students. Nathan Knotts is a ninth-grader in Peariso's class.
 
"I think it's much easier and a lot more usable for our generation," Knotts says. "We're a big technology generation and the minis really help because we've each got our own laptop to work on. I like it a lot better than the traditional method with paper and pencils."
 
Eighth-grader Ryan Knight, another of Peariso's students, says the technology makes things "quicker and easier," and that more classes should adopt it.
 
"You wouldn't have to take all these books and notepads home every night," Knight says. "Instead you could just go on your computer and do it on there."
 
However, Knight might have some trouble convincing Clarkston voters of that idea. Voters shot down the school's bond proposal by a 2-1 margin last May. Kern says voters were "rightfully concerned" about the financial expense of the measure, and "uncertain" about the technology itself.
 
"A lot of people still aren't on board yet with one-to-one technology and what it's capable of doing," he says.
 
Funding issues aside, Peariso is plugging ahead with his own projects. He says he plans to use the laptops in class again next fall. And in the meantime, he's working on developing an online history textbook for the district with his son, a social studies major.
 
"The thing about technology is you pick up kids that weren't interested before," he says. "You give them something to touch, something that they feel comfortable with that's not a book."
 
Kern says that while voters may have turned down one-to-one electronic devices for the time being, they're still "the wave of the future."
 
"I think we have some infrastructure needs we need to take care of first," he says. "But it's not dead by any means, and we're going to keep plugging along and finding other ways to do this stuff."
 
And students like Ryan Knight will be waiting patiently to see how that turns out.
 
"I hope we see it in the future, but I don't know if it's going to happen with the funding," Knight says. "But if it does, it'll definitely make an easier experience for all students."

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Metromode and Concentrate.

All Photos by David Lewinski Photography
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