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Wadena-Deer Creek kids get hands-on with computers early

Wadena-Deer Creek first grader Dominic Anderson listens to a computer voice through headphones as he works on a reading program under the supervision of teacher Cheryl Kellen.1 / 3
Madyson Moats works the mouse as she helps fellow first-grader Austin Smith during a computer lab session.2 / 3
Alex Lundberg tries to solve a desktop problem in the Wadena Elementary Computer Lab.3 / 3

What do kids really know about computers and when do they know it?

Kids growing up in the Information Age have access to answers almost instantly if they choose to use resources like the Internet. Encyclopedias and textbooks also provide these answers but computers make information gathering more convenient.

Cheryl Kellen teaches first grade at Wadena-Deer Creek Elementary and she has a pretty good handle on kids and their computer savvy. Kellen was a media director at WDC for a number of years and worked closely with kids and computers. Like other teachers, she now brings her class into the Media Center's Computer Lab once a week where they sit down and learn from an electronic teacher -- one that all the red apples in the world is not going work on.

"That is one of the highlights of their week," Kellen said, readily admitting that it is also one of the highlights for her. "I do enjoy all aspects of it because they are engaged when they do that. It's easy to motivate them. It's something they want to do."

Kellen's students, like the rest of the K-6 student body, use Education City computer lessons to reinforce their class work. Kellen and other WDC Elementary teachers walk their students through their lessons in the classroom first. A slightly different version of the information may be presented by Education City but the one-on-one provides kids with the visual reinforcement that they are on the right track.

"We have become a very visual world," Kellen said. "It is a very individualized thing. When you are sitting in a classroom it is sometimes more of a passive thing. You are teaching a group of 20 kids and you hope they are paying attention. On a computer, they are all engaged."

The rewards that kids are supposed to seek are good grades -- but many of them want more. They want that "pat on the back" that computers give them as soon as they punch in the right answer.

Kellen likes computers doing some of the teaching, but no all of it.

"We don't want them all sitting in front of a machine," Kellen said. "There is a point when you have to have the human interaction and be able to listen and respond to others but I think you have to have a balance."

Elementary students begin learning to use a computer mouse when they walk in the door. The youngest may not know their alphabet but they play games on the computer and in doing so build up their computer skills. Keyboard training does not begin until the third grade. By the time WDC students hit high school they are using computers to do research and prepare reports. There are several computer labs around the high school.

Kids who have a computer at home generally have a leg up on those who do not.

"When I was a media person and I would introduce the kindergartners to some basic computer skills you could usually tell the kids that had access to computers at home," Kellen said. "They would already know how to hold the mouse, how to click and drag. Those are the basic skills you start on in kindergarten. That is where school is a great equalizer, we are giving this to all the kids in school. Not all the kids have computers at home."

Kellen, who began her teaching career almost 30 years ago teaching first graders, has noticed a couple of differences between her 2010 students and her 1980 first graders.

"I think their attention spans probably are shorter. They are used to having visuals and colors and a lot of activity," Kellen said. "I think we work with that as teachers all the time, we try to keep them engaged.

I can tell you also that their reading skills are more advanced than they were 30 years ago. Kindergarten used to be just play, nap, play. Now they are teaching letters and reading. They are learning to read words in kindergarten so by the time they come to first grade they are reading. That never used to be years ago"

So are kids smarter today?

"I don't think they are smarter, they have just been exposed to more earlier and more kids are going to pre-school," Kellen said.

Kids today have been held to a greater accountability.

"They have to know more, they have to produce, they have to show that they know this," Kellen said.

Even first graders.