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The Web of History: Wilder Students Use Technology to Add Extra Element to Biography Fair

  • Fifth-graders, from left, Ethan Kolak as Shaquille O’Neal, Gage Levakis as Elvis, and Mykel Fungi as Ben Franklin talk about Kolak’s basketball after student presenters were allowed to wander and visit each other’s booths at the biography fair at Dothan Brook School in Wilder last week. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    Fifth-graders, from left, Ethan Kolak as Shaquille O’Neal, Gage Levakis as Elvis, and Mykel Fungi as Ben Franklin talk about Kolak’s basketball after student presenters were allowed to wander and visit each other’s booths at the biography fair at Dothan Brook School in Wilder last week. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Andrew Lucke, 10, answers questions while portraying Sir Edmund Hillary from Dothan Brooks’ Principal, Rick Dustin-Eichler, during a biography fair at Dothan Brook School in Wilder. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    Andrew Lucke, 10, answers questions while portraying Sir Edmund Hillary from Dothan Brooks’ Principal, Rick Dustin-Eichler, during a biography fair at Dothan Brook School in Wilder. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Christal Spencer of Wilder gives her son, Logan Spencer, 10, playing Abraham Lincoln, a kiss while visiting him at the biography fair at the Dothan Brook School in Wilder. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    Christal Spencer of Wilder gives her son, Logan Spencer, 10, playing Abraham Lincoln, a kiss while visiting him at the biography fair at the Dothan Brook School in Wilder. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Fifth-graders, from left, Ethan Kolak as Shaquille O’Neal, Gage Levakis as Elvis, and Mykel Fungi as Ben Franklin talk about Kolak’s basketball after student presenters were allowed to wander and visit each other’s booths at the biography fair at Dothan Brook School in Wilder last week. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
  • Andrew Lucke, 10, answers questions while portraying Sir Edmund Hillary from Dothan Brooks’ Principal, Rick Dustin-Eichler, during a biography fair at Dothan Brook School in Wilder. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
  • Christal Spencer of Wilder gives her son, Logan Spencer, 10, playing Abraham Lincoln, a kiss while visiting him at the biography fair at the Dothan Brook School in Wilder. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

At first glance, the inaugural fifth-grade biography fair at Dothan Brook School in Wilder looked like a classic. Children dressed as historical figures ranging from Attila the Hun to Kobe Bryant stood in rows before presentation boards bearing pictures of the people they were portraying.

But when parents filed in, they had an opportunity to pick up an iPad to carry with them, and attached to those presentation boards were small, square QR codes. A parent could scan the code with the iPad or a smartphone to hear his or her child reading a poem about their subject.

Adding technology to the biography fair’s history lessons yields a project that encompasses both old and new methods of rooting out and presenting information, said Franklin Burns, one of the three fifth-grade teachers at Dothan Brook and the organizer of the biography fair.

“Technology’s pretty much where we’re at,” Burns said. Pupils use iPads in the classroom, create assignments using Google Docs, a platform that allows them to access their work from anywhere, and save time gathering and sharing information.

“They’ve taken real ownership of it,” said Burns, a 1997 Hartford High School graduate who returned to his hometown last year after teaching in Tampa, Fla., and Atlanta. He’d held biography fairs at his previous schools, he said.

Technology’s not only the lingua franca of today’s students, many of whom look first to a digital device for information before reaching for a book. Digital literacy has become a requirement. Under new national curriculum standards, children from third grade and up have to exhibit mastery of technology, Burns said.

“Even more than technology, it’s accessing information,” said Rick Dustin-Eichler, principal at the K-5 Dothan Brook School. The new national curriculum, known as the Common Core, “talks about data tables and you have to be able to manipulate data,” Dustin-Eichler said. Video and photographs are included as sources of information students should be able to access and interpret.

“I think this project is a great example of that, of where it’s pushing us,” he said of the curriculum.

So in all ways, the biography fair was a mix of old and new.

For example, at 11, Michael Cimis is still pretty new, while his subject, Henry Ford (1863-1947) is decidedly old. Cimis’ grandfather and great-grandfather both worked in Ford plants in New Jersey, and Cimis wore his great-grandfather’s herringbone tweed hat.

Research for his project was probably half online and half in books, Cimis said, including his grandmother Sheila Cimis’ set of the Encyclopedia Britannica. The new technology isn’t a substitute for books but an adjunct, another layer.

“I learn from the technology,” Cimis said. “I can use it to make whatever I want.” Still, most of the information in his presentation came from books.

Parents and grandparents expressed a sort of reserved enthusiasm for using digital devices. Sheila Cimis scanned the QR (short for Quick Response) code with her iPhone, which she obtained only in the past month. She was delighted to play her grandson’s voice into her ear from the phone’s tiny speaker.

But, “it scares me a little the bad ways it can be used for kids,” she said, citing bullying, obsessive gaming and texting as potential ills. At the school, she said, “I think that they’re learning to use it in a really positive way.”

Michael Cimis, father of the fifth-grader, said it’s essential that students learn to use the tools they have at their disposal, with an essential caveat: “I also want to teach them that the Internet isn’t peer reviewed,” he said. Students should question what they find. “They’re learning a little faster than we did,” he said, now that the information is at their fingertips.

Technology is deeply interwoven with elementary education, said Susan Paterson, whose daughter, Jessica, portrayed Jane Goodall, the English researcher who studies chimpanzees, in a khaki shirt, olive pants and a ponytail.

“I think it’s just going right along with the times,” Susan Paterson said. Jessica loaded the QR code reading application onto her mother’s phone the morning of the biography fair. “The kids were the ones helping me out,” she said.

She, too, is skeptical of knowledge found on the Internet. “When you open an encyclopedia, you just felt this is the truth,” she said.

Even if the biography fair hadn’t included the QR codes, the visiting adults would have had their phones at the ready to take photographs of their children.

The biography fair is intended to teach a wide range of skills, Burns said, from researching and writing, to visual literacy and public speaking. Each fifth-grader wrote both a poem and a short essay about their subjects, pasted up photographs, delivered a short talk to classmates and used a free application on the school’s iPads to make the QR codes, all in preparation for the fair, where they were expected to remain in character.

Some students took this to an extraordinary extent. At the start of the fair, while many students stood shyly before their presentation boards, Andrew Lucke, 10, stepped forward to introduce himself to a reporter: “Hi, I’m Sir Edmund Hillary. How are you?”

Hillary was the first to summit Mount Everest and live to tell the tale, Lucke/Hillary said. That was in 1953. “Also, I married my wife in the same year,” he said.

Amanda Paquette, technology integrationist for Hartford’s K-8 students, stood near the door providing iPads to parents. Nearby, Walt Disney and Calvin Coolidge chatted with Dale Earnhardt. Paquette said that technology was a small part of the fair. “It just adds another component to it,” she said.

But it also adds another way to connect students, parents and teachers. Parents could scan QR codes on the wall to access their children’s essays. “We’re just trying to be as open and as transparent as possible,” Paquette said.

The biography fair, supported this year by a grant from the PTO, is going to be an annual event, Burns said. The technology will remain an essential element, in part because it engages the students, Burns said.

“It just makes them love it again,” he said.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3219.