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Vol 2, No. 3 (March 1985)

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Baltimore City Schools Use Microcomputers To Teach Writing

Charles R. Hancock

Many school systems in the U.S. are attempting to use limited resources effectively. In a large urban school system, the problem is compounded by a large number of students and a steadily declining budget. Despite this reality, school systems are continuing to find creative ways to use computers and other technological advances to raise the achievement level of their students. Several innovative programs in the Baltimore City Public Schools are described in this article. A joint project with a local college, a federally funded project for disadvantaged pupils, a partnership with a national organization, and a joint venture with the Maryland State Department of Education, all involving the use of computers, are described. These projects suggest that there is a distinct advantage in using computers to teach students to write better. In the case of the severe problem writer, word processing may be the preferable way to help them in a school setting.


KEYWORDS: Public Schools, Baltimore, writing cooperative projects.

If you remember your English classes in high school, you might recall some of the typical activities—readings, discussions, tests, skits, and probably writing. With the current nationwide demand for students to leave their schooling with better WRITING skills, many schools are searching for effective ways to achieve this goal. In the Baltimore City Public Schools, several promising approaches are currently in progress. Highlights are described in this article.


One exciting project sponsored by the National Urban League is known in Baltimore as the Xerox Project. Following a needs assessment in our school system which serves approximately 113,000 students, it was determined that a focus on using a microcomputer to combat severe deficiencies in the basic skills of literacy for some of our students was indeed an appropriate use of computers for instruction.

The main purpose in conducting this project in several of our high schools is to seek answers to some perplexing problems in the area of teaching students to write better. Since the professional literature does not provide clear-cut answers on significant issues about the most effective use of microcomputers in the teaching of writing, we set out to seek some answers ourselves. Here are a few examples of questions needing answers. Should microcomputers be used in a laboratory setting housing 25 or more computers versus placing them in smaller numbers in classrooms for independent work by students? How much and what type of orientation should we give to students who have severe deficiencies in basic literacy skills prior to making a computer terminal available to them? What is the result of training in keyboarding skills prior to actual use of the computer? What reactions would high school students have to revising their writing on computer versus on paper? Would use of the computer for revision be more effective than use of paper and pencil? If so, how much more effective? We are also interested in examining the impact of using computers in areas such as student attendance and completion of school assignments.

Two senior high schools (Southwestern and Douglass) are involved in this project. Both are comprehensive high schools with more than 1000 students. The schools were selected for participation based on academic and economic measures. We examined the following data in the


process of selection: analysis of the percentage of tenth graders passing a local writing proficiency test, Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) verbal scores, California Achievement Test (CAT) reading subtest, percentage of students receiving free lunch, and percentage of parents with low income. Although the schools are integrated, the percentage of minority students in one of the schools is 99.7 and 82.0 percent in the other.

Twenty-five Xerox 820-II microcomputers were placed in each school. Our goal was and is to use this technology to cope with a major problem. We knew from analysis of student writing samples in our locally administered writing proficiency tests and from feedback to our school system from the Maryland State Department of Education on the Maryland Functional Writing Test that most students failed for one of two reasons. They either failed to respond to the exact demands of the assignment or they neglected to revise and edit their work. Thus, we designed a program to:

* improve students' ability to analyze a writing prompt (suggested writing task) in order to identify the necessary components for a successful response.

* improve students' ability to compose in response to a writing prompt.

* improve students' ability to revise their writing.

* improve students' ability to proofread their writing and to eliminate errors in the conventions of spelling, capitalization, punctuation, and the use of standard English.

Teachers, the head of the English Department and the theme reader assigned to each participating school was trained in the use of the computer and the writing curriculum package. Commercial word-processing software is available for the staff to use in this project. The training was begun in September 1984 under the auspices of the Office of English, Baltimore City Public Schools, headed by Dr. Marie Francis, Supervisor of English in the Baltimore City Public Schools.

Using the curriculum package, teachers provide daily instruction in writing, revising and proofreading. Because we believe that students must be given many opportunities to write, we require them to complete a piece of writing once a week, often a prompt similar to the one which is used in the Maryland Functional Writing Test. Since this test will become a graduation requirement for all students in the state in 1987, we are attempting to proceed in a deliberative manner to seek the most effective approaches for teaching students to write better.


Another major thrust in the use of computers in teaching language in the Baltimore City schools is that known as Chapter I. This project is federally funded and serves both elementary and secondary school pupils in many of our schools. Nineteen of our junior and middle schools have computer laboratories. Reading, Writing, and Math are the three areas of focus in this project. The current phase of this project is designed to integrate learning strategies and programs related to new technology into the program evolving from and around a Chapter I Computer Center.

These Computer Centers are arranged to foster hands on activities for the students. An emphasis is placed on the development of keyboarding skills as an asset prior to use of the computers. While most of the programs used in these Centers are of the drill and practice type, we provide a wide variety of software for use. Students learn to develop editing skills as well as to organize their thoughts in a logical and coherent manner.

Activities in the computer center focus on the development of computer awareness concepts and reinforce basic skills in language arts and math. Computer-assisted instruction courseware is utilized in the following ways:

tutorial, drill and practice, instructional games, applications, simulations, and problem solving.

The Computer Centers operate on a full schedule five teaching periods per day. During each of these periods, the teachers, the Chapter I educational assistant, and the Chapter I students are in the center for instructional purposes. Some students work at the computer with hands-on activities, while others work with print and non-print materials. Each computer center has the following designated areas: Assessment, Computer Activities, Skill Development, and Motivational Activities.

Peggy Jackson-Jobe, Chapter I staff member, presented a paper on this program at the CALICO Symposium. She indicated that the program, which has been in existence for about one year now, is an excellent way to motivate students who traditionally do not seem to do well in the area of


language arts. Sheila Holley, Jeanette Evans, and Rita Brooks, all staff members in the Office of English, corroborate this view. In their presentations at the Symposium, they praised the use of computers for working with language arts and in particular as a tool for motivating students who may not be achieving school system goals in the areas of reading and writing. In their view, the time spent by the pupils at a computer terminal in the Chapter I project was time well spent.


The Goucher College-Baltimore City Public Schools Project is also designed to improve students' writing through the use of computers. This joint effort between a college and a school system began in January 1984.

Irby Miller, an instructor of English at Lake Clifton Senior High School, works closely with his students on their writing and is an integral part of this project. At the CALICO 1984 Symposium, he conducted a session on this project, describing a sample in a series of lessons and prompts which he uses. One lesson is described below:

Using the Word Processor in the English Class (Assignment 5)

Directions for setting up your paper: After submitting assignment #4, use the At Key and letter D to delete Assign-ment #4 from your program. In the upper left hand corner of the monitor, type your last name, first name. (Hit ENTER one time.) Now type in your Class. (Hit ENTER one time.) Type in Assignment #5. (Hit ENTER three times.)

English skill: Developing a letter from a writing prompt.

Objectives: At the end of this lesson, each student will be able to do the following:

1. Be able to develop a letter from a writing prompt;

2. Be able to use the correct letter format;

3. Be able to include all necessary information in the body of the letter, and

4. Be able to utilize capital-ization, punctuation, spelling and grammar correctly in the body of the letter.

Directions: Read the following prompt. Follow the instruc-tions carefully. Make up any information that will be needed for your letter. Make certain to use the correct letter format.

Writing Prompt:

You ordered a video cas-sette recorder from a major appliance store's mail order catalogue. You paid $895.96 for the VCR. You waited approximately six weeks for delivery of your VCR. When you received the VCR, you noticed that knobs were missing, the front selection buttons were damaged, and the VCR appeared to have been dropped.

You are dissatisfied with your purchase. You have decided to write a letter and ask the company for your money back.

Write a letter to the com-pany in Dallas, Texas. Before you write, think about all the necessary information that must be included in your letter. Write your letter. Good luck.


During his presentation at the CALICO Symposium, Mr. Miller indicated that he and his students were excited about the use of the computer for word processing. He is convinced that this project will be of tremendous help as we find alternative ways of teaching students to write better. While at the school recently, we perceived a similar reaction from his students.

Although this project is still in its early stages, we are encouraged by the extremely positive reactions of teachers, students, and administrators. According to Dr. Charles Allen, writer of the original proposal and former Coordinator of English in BCPS, the positive types of reactions received, point to the probability that this project will provide valuable insights to the questions mentioned at the beginning of this article.


The Baltimore City Public Schools, like most large urban school systems, continues to search for ways to offer quality instructional programs with a diminishing set of financial resources. It is not surprising then that there was a favorable response when we were recently asked to become part of an upcoming project known as the Maryland Utility Computer Project. Six school systems in the state have been asked to pilot a bold new usage of the capabilities of certain types of computers which receive input from a centralized main station and feed computer programs into multiple sites in various regions of the state.

This project is an attempt to provide major commercial software through a network to various school buildings. Schools would then be able to schedule computer programming in a manner similar to what is currently done with educational television. For example, if several schools wish to have access to a program from the Minnesota Educational Computing Corporation (MECC), it would be possible for them to use that software simultaneously, provided that their systems were included in the Maryland Utility Project. It would be a tremendous saving for a school system not to need multiple copies of a piece of software as is currently the case. During this pilot effort, other and more innovative uses of the computer for interactive purposes will be explored.


In Baltimore City itself, we have opted to establish a computer laboratory in one of our comprehensive senior high schools and are currently accepting applications from the schools in the area. Shortly, we will select the school and install the hardware with a view towards some experimentation with the system during late Spring 1984 and full implementation during Fall 1985. The applications received so far show many creative possibilities for use of this laboratory, with a preponderant focus on word processing in both English and in other languages.


The Baltimore City Public Schools are experimenting with innovative means of using computers as an instructional tool. We are convinced that there is a need for the selective use of this tool as an integral part of our instructional program. The projects described in this article reflect some of the ways in which we are creatively solving the dilemma of moving ahead in using technology to improve the achievement of our students even in the face of very limited resources.

Author's Address

Associate Superintendent

Secondary, Vocational, Adult and Community Education

Baltimore City Public Schools

Baltimore, Maryland 21229