The power of technology as a tool to inspire creativity and better engage students was a hot topic in Austin, Texas, Feb. 5-9 as some 8,500 educators, technology coordinators, and other stakeholders gathered for the annual Texas Computer Education Association (TCEA) Conference.

With more than 350 sessions aimed at helping educators improve their use of technology in the classroom and an exhibit hall showcasing the solutions of more than 700 school technology vendors, this year’s TCEA gave educators from every state and at least three countries an opportunity to try their hand at the latest classroom innovations, while furthering an ongoing dialogue about how best to inspire students–and teachers–to find success.

The event kicked off with an emotional and moving keynote address from former Long Beach, Calif., teacher Erin Gruwell.

Gruwell, a former English teacher at Woodrow Wilson High School, achieved fame with the release of Freedom Writers, a major motion picture that chronicled her relationship with a group of 150 at-risk students in the aftermath of the Rodney King race riots.

Speaking before a packed convention hall of some 3,500 educators, Gruwell recounted the story of how, as a 24-year-old rookie teacher, she walked into one of Los Angeles County’s toughest urban high schools committed to helping her students–many of whom were the products of broken homes and gang violence–build a brighter future.

After exhausting nearly every method she could think of, Gruwell says, she stumbled almost accidentally upon a solution–one that would change her life and the lives of her students forever.

Realizing she stood little chance of engaging her students through the standard curriculum, Gruwell began searching for books written by authors to whom she felt her students could relate.

She introduced them to stories such as The Diary of Anne Frank and Elie Wiesel’s Night, two horrific accounts of high-school-age children in Nazi Germany.

It wasn’t long before her students were reading the books and talking about the characters in class, she said. Having grown up in neighborhoods where survival was something they took seriously, her students empathized with the stories recounted by Wiesel, Frank, and others, Gruwell soon realized.

As an extension of the initial reading program, Gruwell had her students begin writing their own personal stories and essays. She founded a writing workshop at Wilson where students shared their stories anonymously. Growing up in some of the toughest neighborhoods in Long Beach, many of them wrote of violence; others of pain and abuse, or poverty. Whatever the topic, Gruwell said, her students wrote descriptively and with passion, tapping into a creative vein most of them never knew existed.

The initial success of the program gave Gruwell an idea. Through sharing their personal hardships and frustrations, Gruwell wanted to give her students an opportunity to confront their problems–to vent–without feeling intimidated or ashamed. For many of these kids, she said, it was a chance “to wipe the slate clean.”

The students eventually compiled their stories into a book. Having recently hit No. 1 on the New York Times Best-Seller List, The Freedom Writers Diary is now the subject of a movie starring Academy Award-winning actress Hilary Swank. Gruwell said the proceeds from the movie and book deals will go toward helping all 150 Freedom Writers earn their college degrees.

To further the adoption of what she calls the “Freedom Writers Method,” Gruwell retired from Wilson to start the Freedom Writers Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to expanding educational opportunities for underserved youth through scholarships and other educational programs.

Now she’s traveling the country challenging other educators, many of whom are confronted with situations similar to her own, to do the same.

In an interview with eSchool News during the TCEA Conference, Gruwell talked about the importance of innovation in the classroom. Understanding that no two schools are the same and that every student has his or her own story to tell, Gruwell said, it’s important for educators, no matter where they are in the world, to find ways of engaging their students, both individually and as a class.

She encouraged educators to think about their surroundings and to use new and emerging technologies as a way of “leveling the playing field” and relating to students in many of the same ways students relate to one another.

Her message was driven home throughout the event, as educators from Texas and across the nation attended sessions and took to the exhibit hall in hopes of finding creative solutions for connecting with students back home.

Software ‘with a blank screen’

In an afternoon keynote address on Feb. 8, award-winning children’s book author and artist Peter H. Reynolds spoke about the importance of innovation in the classroom and the role technology can play in helping unlock students’ creative potential.

At a time when high-stakes tests and new standards of accountability have forced many educators to shy away from innovation for fear of losing federal funds, Reynolds called on schools and teachers to be “brave.”

A longtime advocate for art and creativity in education, Reynolds is the founder and chief executive officer of Fablevision, a Boston-based arts and animation studio that focuses on technology-based solutions for inspiring students to think creatively.

Where boosting student performance should be a goal of every educator, with or without mandates leveled and measured by marks on standardized exams, art and creativity are essential to helping students discover who they are, Reynolds said–and, perhaps more importantly, who they aspire to be.

Reynolds, who has written an entire series of books dedicated to the importance of empowering children as artists, says the ability to create and to appreciate art is not solely for the aspiring painter or sculptor, but something that exists, at some level, in each and every one of us.

Thanks to the evolution of technology and simple design programs from the likes of Adobe Systems and other software manufacturers, it’s easier than ever for teachers to work lessons on art and creativity into the classroom, Reynolds says.

“My favorite piece of software is the kind that comes with a blank screen, because a blank screen needs something–and where is that something going to come from?” Reynolds asked his audience. “It’s going to come from you.”

Whether it’s teaching simple lessons on animation, directing students through interactive art projects, or helping kids write, draw, and produce their own books on computers, there are countless opportunities for teachers to incorporate art and story-telling into core subjects such as English, history, science, and even mathematics, Reynolds says.

“When you think about it, [mathematical] operations are really plot devices,” said Reynolds, whose first animated short was designed around a math concept.

Apart from writing and illustrating his own line of children’s books, Reynolds also works through Fablevision to help build creative software applications for inspiring students to read and write.

His company recently joined with educational software provider Knowledge Adventure to create a program called Books by You. The interactive learning tool, moderated by award-winning actor John Lithgow, guides students through the process of designing and writing their own storybooks. The books then can be published online at Lulu.com, a self-publishing outlet for aspiring writers.

“Technology represents an ongoing way for kids to express themselves–to tell us who they really are,” explained Reynolds.

Whatever the topic–whether it’s math or literature, art or science–Reynolds says the key to thinking creatively is in students’–and teachers’–ability to look at life from another perspective.

Like Gruwell, Reynolds believes each and every student has his or her own story to tell. But, before educators can expect students to open up, he said, teachers first must find a way to empower them.

His advice to attendees during TCEA: “Dare kids to make their mark.”

News from the exhibit hall

Educators resolved to do just that as they headed to the conference exhibit hall in search of ideas. Here’s a review of news from conference exhibitors.

Audio Enhancement, a maker of audio and presentation solutions for classroom use, demonstrated its latest line of infrared classroom audio tools. Powered by a remote wireless microphone and speaker setup, the products are intended to enhance their delivery of lectures and learning content in the classroom. Company executives claim teachers can better engage students, reinforce important topics, and help ensure that information is sinking in by using these tools. What’s more, they say, unlike expensive investments in laptop computers and other high-end devices, classroom audio systems, once installed, are almost never obsolete.

http://www.audioenhancement.com/

Corel Corp. , maker of the Draw X3 product line and other art and design applications for schools, recently unveiled its latest application: Painter X. The product, used by art teachers, computer graphics designers, and others, reportedly gives students access to a wide range of professional painting and design tools used to “blur the line” between traditional art instruction and art in the digital era. In conjunction with its recent release of Painter X, the company at TCEA unveiled a free digital curriculum designed to help educators make more effective use of the software in their classrooms. Accessible at www.corel.com/paintercourseware, the curriculum is divided into three units, each covering five 45-minute classes. Subject areas include an introduction to the tools, paints, and brushes in Corel Painter X; exploring composition with the new “Divine Proportion” tool; transforming photographs into paintings; and techniques for creating digital characters and painting line drawings.

http://www.corel.com/

Dell Inc. , the Round Rock, Texas-based computer manufacturer, said it is aggressively pursuing a number of environmental initiatives. As a recent recipient of the National Recycling Coalition’s ninth annual Recycling Works Award, the company prides itself not only on selling computers and other hardware devices for schools, but on providing its customers with safe and responsible disposal options, too. The company’s most recent efforts include a free global consumer recycling initiative, several different equipment refurbishing and repurposing efforts, and a Computer Donation program through which companies can donate hardware to nonprofit organizations and schools.

http://www.dell.com

eChalk Inc. demonstrated enhancements to its flagship eChalk service and Lesson Planner tool, a product that facilitates curriculum distribution, lesson planning, submission, and review. eChalk provides administrators, teachers, students, and parents with online access to school schedules, homework assignments, academic resources, student discussion boards, curriculum materials, student-safe eMail, and teacher contact information, among other resources–24 hours a day, seven days a week. Enhancements include new web site personalization options that allow schools to build out their web sites within a consistent and professional-looking design. The latest version of eChalk also includes new organizational and planning tools built to save teachers additional time and help them to engage students and parents more effectively, according to the company.

http://www.echalk.com/

ELMO USA demonstrated its line of classroom visual presenters for schools, including the “Presenter’s Pet.” Also known as the EV-2000AF Visual Presenter, the Presenter’s Pet lets educators display just about any image or media they want on a large screen and works with a wide array of LCD projectors and monitors. The unit reportedly includes built-in and wireless remote controls and an RS-232C port for computer guidance.

http://www.elmousa.com/

Encyclopedia Britannica says it is working to engage educators in the conversation about how traditional, paper-based reference book sellers must change to embrace a growing and evolving online medium. The world of publishing is being transformed by the internet and other digital technologies, and publishers must think and act in new ways if they’re to succeed in today’s global marketplace, writes Encyclopaedia Britannica executive Michael Ross in a new book on the subject. According to Ross’s Publishing Without Boundaries: How to Think, Work, and Win in the Global Marketplace, publishers now have a vast array of new media and worldwide channels for distributing content, and these developments alter the nature of the business. The book, published by the Association of Educational Publishers, is both an analysis of the new business environment and a guidebook for publishers from an industry veteran who is helping to shape publishing’s future.

http://www.britannica.com/

Educational Testing Service, a producer of high-stakes standardized tests for schools, recently released a new report highlighting three “forces” that could have a negative impact on our nation and the success of its students. The report, “America’s Perfect Storm: Three Forces Changing Our Nation’s Future,” is a product of the company’s Policy Information Center and focuses on how three elements–inadequate literacy skills, the continuing evolution of the global economy, and an ongoing shift in the demographics of the United States–are creating a “perfect storm” that, if not addressed, could jeopardize America’s standing as a world economic power. “‘America’s Perfect Storm’ is a wake-up call with implications for education, business, policy makers, and every parent and child,” says ETS President and CEO Kurt Landgraf. “It describes forces at play in society that will affect all of us in the near future. The American dream is the idea that everyone has the opportunity to make a living, provide for a family, and raise children who will be better educated and better off. If we fail to act now on the warnings sounded in this report, the next generation of children will be worse off than their parents for the first time in our country’s history. The American dream could turn into an American tragedy for many.”

http://www.ets.org

eSped.com highlighted its suite of secure, online applications for creating and managing Individualized Education Plans for students with disabilities, as well as special transition reports and other administrative applications. eSped’s products, which can be accessed by educators anywhere they have an internet connection, reportedly are used in hundreds of school districts nationwide.

http://www.esped.com/

Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, a publisher of textbooks and web-based learning materials for students in grades 6-12, introduced a new series of online textbooks and corresponding interactive learning materials. With titles in language arts, science, social students, math, and world languages, the new online resources provide teachers with a means of monitoring student progress in specific learning areas and targeting instruction to meet the individual needs of their students. Apart from providing teachers with instant feedback and assessment tools, the online versions also incorporate graphics and other animation designed to make learning more engaging for kids.

http://www.hrw.com/

Honest Technology, a maker of digital video and software applications, announced its entrance into the education market by featuring three of its most popular products. The titles include VHS to DVD 3.0, a program for archiving old VHS tapes and other outdated media on DVDs, which also reportedly enables educators to play old VHS recordings on other devices, such as iPods and portable media players; Video Patrol 5.0, a security and surveillance program that works with up to three PC cameras and can be accessed remotely from a PDA or mobile phone; and MY IP-TV & CAM Anywhere, a program for accessing video and television programs and surveillance recordings from anywhere in the world with a broadband connection.

http://www.honestech.com

Learners Online, a Dallas-based developer of online learning solutions for K-12 schools, demonstrated its flagship WebLessons product. An eLearning solution originally developed for teaching American history and paid for by schools in select states using money from the federal Teaching American History grant program, the resource–which also includes content for teaching geography and science lessons–now is available to schools throughout the U.S., whether applying for grants or not, company executives say. In a demonstration for eSchool News editors, Learners Online CEO Mary Ashmore explained how the web-based product uses educator-reviewed internet content and rich multimedia, including video and audio clips, to guide students through a series of interactive lessons. Based on a four-pronged philosophy that encourages students to prepare, learn, practice, and apply, the program not only exposes learners to standards-based content, but encourages them through written and other excises to demonstrate their mastery of certain topics before moving on. The program comes with online tracking and assessment features for teachers, as well as training tutorials and other resources designed to help educators make the most of their investment, Ashmore said.

http://www.weblessons.com/

Meru Networks, a provider of wireless network solutions for schools and businesses, says its Wireless LAN (WLAN) System has been implemented and is providing advanced wireless connectivity in more than 50 K-12 school districts across the United States. Compared with other wireless LANs, Meru’s system allows more users to be connected at one time and dramatically reduces the time it takes for students to log on to classroom applications simultaneously, according to the company, which says its goal is to enable schools to take advantage of multimedia-rich programs and other bandwidth-intensive applications without interruption or other hindrances that can result from overcrowded networks.

http://www.merunetworks.com/

NetSupport Inc. highlighted its suite of desktop management software applications for schools. As the use of computers and the internet in education grows, company executives say, so, too, does the need for managing the learning process in networked classrooms. The company’s NetSupport School product is designed to help educators better instruct, monitor, test, and support students in networked environments. The latest version includes a student auto login function, internet co-browsing, new group features and testing options, and several other enhancements intended to maximize productivity in the computer lab, the company says.

http://www.netsupport-inc.com/

Novell Inc. announced a recent deal with the 5,200-student Windsor Unified School District in California. Though a relatively small district, Windsor reportedly has been honored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as one of the Golden State’s best. Now, with help from Novell, the district looks to improve on its reputation even further by standardizing the entire district on a SUSE Linux-based Enterprise platform. District officials say the move from a mixed Windows- and Macintosh-based proprietary platform to an entirely open-source model will help them reduce costs and improve efficiencies across the network. The district reportedly will used Novell’s ZENWorks management suite to help IT staff manage the entire network from a single, centralized location. “We used to spend a lot of money on special software to get our platforms to talk to one another,” said Heather Carver, the district’s director of technology and information services. “Linux eliminates all platform connectivity issues and gives us the best of both the PC and Macintosh worlds. Our Novell solutions paid for themselves immediately with dramatic reductions in hardware, software licensing, and travel costs. We could not give our students and teachers the same access to technology using any other vendor.”

http://www.novell.com/

Oki Data America’s Inc. , a maker of printing solutions for schools and businesses, recently announced the release of its C6000 Series line of digital color printers. Featuring high-speed printing and “HD Color” technology for improved office productivity in small- to medium-sized workgroups, the C6000 Series is built to provide users with reliable, professional-quality color printing at an attractive price point, company executives said. Key features of the C6000 Series include the capability to print “heavy-weight media,” including brochures, banners, and signs; a 55,000-page duty cycle; and printing speeds of up to 20 pages per minute in color and 24 in black and white. Plus, a downloadable WebPrint utility reportedly helps save time and paper.

http://www.okidata.com/

Prasolus, a provider of professional development solutions for the digital educator, highlighted its EDDY online learning resource. Designed to help educators take advantage of the many resources at their disposal, EDDY employs a series of online tools for teachers to strengthen their own understanding of technology-based resources, while creating assessments and other digital metrics to gauge how well students grasp important topics.

http://www.prasolus.com/

Tangent announced plans to unveil a new line of space-saving “Mini PCs” and “All-in-One” VITA PCs running Microsoft’s Windows Vista operating system and featuring touch-screen technology. The new VITA line reportedly combines the CPU and a 17-, 19-, or 22-inch LCD monitor inside an all-in-one chassis built to save space in crowded classrooms. Tangent’s new Mini Pro line of computers includes the Mini Pro 915, which features the Intel Pentium M processor, and the Mini Pro 945, which runs the Intel Core Duo processor. Both products are power-optimized and have a “space-saving” form factor of 6.5 square inches, according to the company.

http://www.tangent.com/

TeacherWeb, an online service for increasing communication between school and home, provides a place on the web for teachers, parents, and administrators to share information about their schools. The service enables educators to design and build classroom web sites, create and find original webquests for promoting online learning, and organize teacher training activities, the company says. The service is based on a subscription model and comes with a 30-day free trial.

http://teacherweb.com/

Links:

TCEA

http://www.tcea.org/

eSchool News Conference Information Center

http://www.eschoolnews.com/cic