National Writing Project

Maine’s Laptop Initiative Improves Student Writing

By: Anne Miller
Date: February 2008

Summary: The Maine Department of Education is providing a laptop to every middle school student and teacher. And, through programs offered by Maine Writing Project teacher-consultants, teachers learn to use the laptops effectively to improve student writing skills.


Eight years ago when the State of Maine announced plans to put a laptop into the hands of every Maine middle school student, more than a few Mainers—including many teachers—questioned the logic.

Do middle school kids need a distraction in the classroom? Would the laptops really help students learn better and prepare them for the future—or would they be a waste of money? Would teachers be able to integrate technology into their curriculum?

Angus King, Maine’s governor at the time, was convinced that the laptop program would boost student achievement because of the research done by MIT’s Seymour Papert, an expert in using technology to help children learn and enhance their creativity. King believed that if rural Maine hoped to grow and compete economically with other states, then Maine needed to become the premier state for using technology in K–12 education.

As a result, the Maine Learning Technology Initiative emerged from the Maine Department of Education in March 2000. All 239 of Maine’s middle schools opted into the program, and this first-in-the-nation program provided Apple iBook computers to more than 30,000 middle school students and teachers. Among them were a group of tech-savvy teacher-consultants from the Maine Writing Project.

The reach of the program begs the question of how to prepare teachers to integrate the laptops effectively into their classrooms.

Teachers Teaching Teachers About Technology—the Maine Writing Project’s Literacy Through Technology Team

Since the program’s genesis, thousands more Maine middle school students and their teachers have been learning in one-to-one ubiquitous laptop environments. Now, Maine is planning to extend its groundbreaking one-to-one laptop program into the state’s high schools.

However, the reach of the program begs the question of how to prepare teachers to integrate the laptops effectively into their classrooms.

The Maine Writing Project (MWP) is providing answers. MWP established the Literacy Through Technology team, a group of teacher-consultants charged with building professional development based on their firsthand experience in the classroom. The team has created pathways for teachers to learn about composing, publishing, and teaching with these new digital tools—whether it’s creating blogs and podcasts, exploring wikis and digital stories, or experimenting with software applications such as Comic Life and NoteShare.

Supported by a grant through the NWP Technology Initiative, Maine teacher-consultants have developed practices that take laptop use to new levels and disseminated them through a series of statewide workshops.

In 2004 two members of the team, Debra Butterfield and Terri Kane, attended a workshop at Berkeley, California’s Digital Storytelling Center and returned to instruct their technology team colleagues to use laptops in creating digital stories. These productions may include memoirs or information writing, and combine words, images, music, and other effects to artfully present a message.

A teacher at Gardiner Area Middle School, Butterfield finds that her students’ motivation to write “increases immensely” with laptops.

“Everyone has a story to tell,” added Kane, a Warsaw Middle School social studies teacher, noting that the digital story is a format that serves a wide variety of learners with a host of interests.

Of special note, digital storytelling produces authentic, engaged writing, according to Butterfield and Kane.

Maine’s Digital Literacy Fair

An example of the Literacy Through Technology Team’s work is a Digital Literacy Fair the team held for the faculty and staff of Erskine Academy in South China, Maine. The all-day event included a range of 90-minute workshops on how different technologies might be used to support key writing skills. For example, how can students use Keynote to learn persuasive writing? How can Garage Band help students express themselves in a digital story?

According to Cindy Dean, Erskine’s literacy coach, the workshop moved the school’s administration to cancel the next faculty meeting and ask departments to meet instead “to brainstorm what resources and programs we need to continue moving our school into the twenty-first century.”

Maureen Montgomery, the Maine Writing Project’s professional development director, says, “Through things like iMovie, Garage Band, digital storytelling, and Moodle, we see the possibilities for technology bringing twenty-first-century writing, thinking, and communicating to our students and our school colleagues throughout Maine.”

Few question the laptop program after the report of a recent study.

The Results

Few question the laptop program after the report of a recent study by the Maine Education Policy Research Institute at the University of Southern Maine, titled “Maine’s Middle School Laptop Program: Creating Better Writers.” The report quantifiably shows that the Maine Learning Technology Initiative has had a clear and significant positive impact on student writing achievement.

Researchers David Silvernail and Aaron Gritter found that eighth grade student writing, as measured by the Maine Educational Assessment (MEA), the state’s standardized assessment, improved significantly after laptop implementation in middle schools.

MEA writing scores from the year 2000, two years prior to laptop implementation, were compared with the 2005 scores, three years after implementation. The difference in scaled scores on the tests reveals that “an average student in 2005 scored better than approximately two-thirds of all students in 2000.”

Put another way: in 2000, 29.1 percent of eighth-graders met the writing proficiency standard on the MEA; in 2005, 41.4 percent met the standard.

Researchers learned that 2005 test-takers who reported using their laptops in all phases of the writing process received the highest test scores, while students who reported not using laptops in writing had the lowest scores.

The test scores are backed up by participants’ experience. Surveys conducted in 2007 show that over 70 percent of middle school teachers and students believe that using laptops improves student learning.

Literacy coach Anita Wright of Warsaw Middle School, who is a Maine Writing Project teacher-consultant, agrees: “Laptops have enabled students to use databases and delve into research that wouldn't have otherwise been possible.”

And for the Maine Writing Project, it’s on to the next Digital Literacy Fair.

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