Laptops and Learning: Making a Difference in One Girl’s English Education

Samsung's N150 netbook. Very useful for a high school student learning online research.

I previously worked as an English tutor for a company funded by No Child Left Behind. I held the job on the side and only worked with one student, a girl in San Bernardino County. For the purpose of this post, let’s call her Rebecca, a 10th grade girl who lived in a low-income community. During the walk from my car to Rebecca’s apartment, I witnessed smiles, children playing amidst water sprinklers on warm autumn days, boys racing around on bicycles and groups of men gathered around smoking barbecues. Despite all this, the neighborhood was nevertheless the kind of community that earned the poor reputation typical of San Bernardino County; a place one could quickly—yet not quite accurately—associate with crime and violence.

After only a week of tutoring, I had developed a kind of reputation in the neighborhood. Several adults who had spoken with Rebecca’s mother approached me to ask if I could tutor their children as well. I had to inform them that I was tutoring Rebecca under the direction of the company for which I worked and was explicitly not allowed to take on additional clients. Due to my day job’s schedule, arranging private sessions on my own was sadly not possible either.

Rebecca was falling behind in her English class. Before we got started on the curriculum the company provided, I gave her a test to determine her reading and writing level. As I thought, she was below where a 10th grader was expected to be. I would have loved to spend extra time helping her develop stronger skills, but my time with her was limited. We instead focused on a writing assignment she had, which was to analyze an author of her choice and make observations about the writer’s style.

The company’s English and Language Arts division provided me with a laptop for my sessions with Rebecca. Right away I knew this introduction of technology in my sessions with Rebecca would have a positive effect. She brightened up when I first withdrew the little Samsung netbook from my bag, and we spent some time playing with it.

“It’s so cute!” she said, fiddling with the 11.5 inch-wide device. The system featured a clean installation of Windows 7 and no third-party software. And because it was a netbook, it generated its own connection, which proved useful for her learning purposes.

Rebecca chose Erik Larson, scribe of Devil in the White City as her author to study for her high school English course—an ambitious choice! She seemed interested in Larson’s broad range of writing, from nonfiction books and memoirs to societal commentary pieces that appeared in publications like Harper’s and The New Yorker. Using the laptop, we looked up local library catalogs and found certain titles. I happened to have a subscription to Harper’s, so we used my account to download PDFs of old Larson articles from the ‘80s. Even before Rebecca had read a single word of Larson’s writing, she was experiencing an effective way of conducting research by way of the internet. She explained to me that she had done online research before, but it was refreshing to be shown a number of new tricks. Rebecca used scholarly resources designed specifically for finding publications, Google Books search results, and Inter-library web services to find what things for her project.

We finally got to writing using Google docs. “But my teacher said we were supposed to use Word,” Rebecca cautioned. I showed her that you could use Google docs to create, open, and save Microsoft Word .doc and .docx files, Powerpoint files, Excel files, etc … and that you could do it for free. It was her first experience with web-based storage services.

She also seemed to appreciate writing on the laptop more so than freehand penmanship. This particular laptop featured a nice, punchy keyboard that offered great tactile feedback, especially for a person with small hands like hers.

Using a word processor to teach writing is arguably more effective than examining writing within a book. You can use the program to your advantage. We’d copy and paste paragraphs from websites and PDFs into a Google document and I’d ask Rebecca to “bold the main idea of the paragraph” or “italicize the opinion the author is expressing here.” She learned basic keyboard shortcuts like Ctrl+B and Ctrl+I. She started filling up the taskbar with Google Chrome windows and soon she learned Win+D zoomed us back to the desktop.

Soon Rebecca was drafting paragraphs about the books she’d acquired through the local library and the articles we’d downloaded. She learned about expressing opinion through facts and statistics and deriving meaning from symbols and metaphors. She brought what she learned about basic essay structure to the conversation, and I encouraged her not to be restricted by the traditional “hamburger” style of writing so popular in public schools. Each paragraph she wrote didn’t need to follow the common format of introduction / topic sentence / fact / comment / fact / comment / conclusion. She seemed liberated by the freedom to express herself, be creative, and “break the rules.”

We neared the end of our time together and she again took the reading and writing test she took during our first session. Her final scores were higher than when she started, and later in her semester, she emailed me that her report on Erik Larson received top marks.

At the conclusion of our sessions, in accordance with the program’s guidelines, the laptop officially belonged to Rebecca. I’ve maintained contact with her through email and it always makes me smile to know that she’s sending messages on that little netbook, perfectly suited for her small hands. I experienced a unique and innovative way of reaching a student on an instructional level using a simple piece of technology, but never was the laptop a substitute for actual teacher/student interaction. Laptop computers and other kinds of glitzy devices may have a place in today’s classrooms, but they should always serve as complements, not replacements to our educators.

The laptop was Rebecca’s bonus, a fascinating augmentation to learning about an author and a tool used in addition to flipping the pages of an actual book. I like to think that right now, Rebecca is using her netbook to look up other school-related things and not just catching up on her Facebook feed. But then again, she’s still a teenage girl.