Freeport teacher uses laptops to teach deeper

Maine Learning Technology Initiative allows algebra teacher to develop curriculum without textbooks.

FREEPORT — Alex Briasco-Brin has never taught using a textbook.

Article image: Freeport Middle School algebra teacher Alex Briasco-Brin works with a student.
Freeport Middle School algebra teacher Alex Briasco-Brin works with a student.

Instead, the Freeport Middle School algebra teacher has created a variety of applications for his students using the Apple MacBooks they all receive as part of the Maine Learning Technology Initiative.

“The best way to take the life out of math is to use textbooks,” Briasco-Brin said.

Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen visited Briasco-Brin’s classroom on April 25 as part of his statewide listening tour.

Briasco-Brin’s students that day had to calculate the area of a circle that didn’t exist. The circle was an optical illusion created when students spun an 8-by-5 index card with a diagonal line drawn on it, using a thumb tack as an axle.

The eighth graders got to work using a program their teacher had created using GeoGebra, a program that comes standard on student MacBooks. By the end of class, students had mapped out the circle on an x-y axis and calculated the area to the ten-thousandth decimal place.

Briasco-Brin has created MacBook applications for most of his lessons using a program known as Chipmunk Basic.

“I’m able to teach more math than I ever was before and teach deeper,” he said.

Briasco-Brin will take a one-year leave from the classroom next school year to work for the Maine Learning Technology Initiative, making his math curriculum accessible online to teachers across Maine and a part of the set of applications that come standard on the student MacBook.

In the process, he’ll align the curriculum with the eighth-grade math standards outlined in the Common Core, a set of academic standards Maine has adopted along with more than 40 other states.

Freeport eighth grader Dan Sinclair appreciates the group-oriented, hands-on environment in Briasco-Brin’s classroom.

“We use all of these programs that he creates, so it’s a little more hands-on,” Sinclair said.

Just like math formulas, laptops are a useful tool in cracking complicated problems. But students still need to understand the math behind what they’re doing, Sinclair said.

“This is worthless if you don’t know how to use it.”

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Freeport Middle School students are using technology in a number of other ways:

    • Seventh-grade students in technology teacher John Nicholson’s class are at work fashioning solar-powered cars from soda cans and plastic bags. They plan to race the vehicles next month and, perhaps, enter into them regional competitions.

Before starting construction, students learned the parts of the car and the scientific concepts at play in powering them. They couldn’t start construction until they mastered those concepts.

    • Eighth graders are combining lessons in social studies, English and science into a project known as the “Dirty Thirties.” They’re working in groups to create documentaries focused on that age in American history when citizens were focused on searching for economic opportunity in the wake of the Great Depression and the agricultural damage that dominated much of the American landscape, contributing to major dust storms.

Each member of Dan Sinclair’s group is responsible for researching a separate facet of 1930s history to be represented in the documentary. The project has offered lessons in working as a group, Sinclair said.

“We’re choosing them not by friends, but by what we can produce,” he said.

Sinclair and his group members have used NoteShare — a software application found on the Maine Learning Technology Initiative laptops — to communicate their progress and exchange ideas. They’re using iMovie — another standard feature on their laptops — to produce their documentary.

Seventh grader Lucy Zachau says interdisciplinary group work is common at Freeport Middle School.

“Most of the stuff we do is inter-connected most of the time,” she said. “You’ll talk about a word in social studies, and then it shows up in science.”

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