Next-Generation Learning

How Somerville’s schools – traditional public, charter and private – are redefining research and cultivation high-tech teaching tools

By Jason Rabin

“You’d be surprised what these kids are capable of,” says Andrea Zampitella, 25.
She is the Library Media Specialist at West Somerville Neighborhood School (WSNS, 177 Powderhouse Sq) and the Cummings School (42 Prescott St). “Kindergartners are on the computer and they know how to do things that sometimes I don’t know how to do.”
Zampitella, a.k.a. Ms. Z, starts her kindergartners off with Glogster. This is a computer program – what she describes as “a bunch of graphics and text tools” – that functions “like a more user-friendly Photoshop.” Her students use it to create interactive posters. They choose their own layouts, insert digital portraits of themselves and sometimes add their own voices. One Glogster gadget inserts a button that, when clicked, plays messages captured by digital voice recorders.
Zampitella’s older students – starting in third grade – learn how to use Movie Maker and PowerPoint. With these software programs, they create news reports on endangered animals. Starting in fourth grade, students get deep into the real Photoshop. They bring different levels of skill to the table. And they know how to have fun. “There’ll be someone who knows everything, like how to flip the desktop upside down and play tricks on you. And you’ll have other kids who don’t know how to use a mouse yet in the same class.”
There was a time when school librarians were non-teachers. They focused on the Dewey Decimal System. They were deft with ink stamps and skilled in the art of reading aloud. But that time is clearly over, at least in Somerville, where teachers like Zampitella are redefining what it means for students to go to the school library. These days, students are more likely to spend library time learning how to navigate the information superhighway – in a space with more computers than bookshelves. Increasingly, they’re also learning the tools of so-called Web 2.0: blogs, wikis, digital imaging, uploadable video, audio and video production, and social media.
Charles LaFauci, Somerville Public Schools’ (SPS) director of library services, says Zampitella’s efforts are “similar to what a lot of the other librarians are doing in Somerville. We’re using video in our classes, we’re doing podcasting, we’re doing PSAs and creating documentary projects and a lot of media-enhanced student projects.”
He cites a recent district-wide sixth-grade project in which students immersed in a unit on Ancient Egypt made short films on subjects like mummification and the Nile. They uploaded these films to class websites. “You want library to be fun,” LaFauci says. “You see kids once a week for 40 minutes. You want them to be able to show off what they learn. This is interdisciplinary. We tie this into math and social studies and science. It’s not like library is an isolated place. What happens in the library connects to what’s happening in every class during the day.”
Currently, Somerville’s seventh- and eighth-graders are working on documentaries about ways in which they can change the world. Zampitella’s students frequently meet guest speakers through Skype video conferencing. And they communicate about class projects with her and with each other through Edmoto, an education-specific social networking site.
None of this means, of course, that books and old-school resources are ancient history in Somerville schools. At the Prospect Hill Academy charter school (PHA, 15 Webster Avenue), the balance between books and electronic resources is a very live discussion. “I would love to have a library that would be all electronic,” says library and media specialist Mary Kelleher, 32. “But in order to do that, I would have to guarantee that every child in my school has access to the Internet at home or has a device where they can access it. And although that’s becoming much, much more prevalent and possible, it’s not something that I can guarantee, so it becomes important that I’m creating a print collection as well.”
But don’t get the impression that PHA is wholly bereft of hardware. In fact, PHA has a writing center equipped with 50 laptops, which reside on carts so they can also be wheeled into classes as needed. Next to the writing center is a common space in which students can work during free periods. The common space is equipped with flip cams, digital audio recorders, headsets and microphones.

In addition to the equipment, PHA has a technology integration specialist on its staff. His name is Michael Kadin. While Kelleher has been busy meeting with teachers to determine what resources they need, Kadin, 25, collaborates directly with teachers. In Spanish classes, for example, students are required to debate in Spanish as part of their final project. They use the video capabilities on the laptops to practice. “They can view their own fluency,” says Kelleher, “and then their teachers can view their progress.”
There is no library or computer class at PHA. Students learn skills in the context of classes and projects. They also use a technology resources website Kadin has created. Anyone can access the site at The site links to tutorials for many of the same web tools taught in the SPS library classes, including Glogster, PowerPoint, Edmoto and Skype. It also includes many tools – particularly for audio mixing – not catalogued by SPS.
In addition, Kadin’s site features a blog that “spotlights teachers who are doing incredible things with technology in their classroom.” In one recent post, a student in teacher Lisa Purcell’s class, which is called “War, Peace and Justice,” speaks via YouTube to a digital “penpal” in a classroom in Bosnia. You can find it at
While Web 2.0 projects like these have not yet found their way to the private school, St. Catherine of Genoa (179 Summer St), principal Marion Burns is proud of the school’s electronic resources. “We put our computer room beside the library, so if there was a need to do some research on the computer, [students] have access to 25 computers in that room,” she says. “They just have to open the door between them.” In addition, all of the school’s computers are brand new this year.
In terms of interactive media in the classroom, Burns touts the school’s five SMART Boards. The SMART boards are, essentially, computerized whiteboards with touch-screen technology. They allow teachers to write notes in digital ink and to play media clips. “By next year, we hope to have the whole school equipped with SMART boards,” says Burns. SPS also uses SMART boards as much as possible. There are approximately 75-100 of them in SPS classrooms, according to LaFauci.
St. Catherine’s offers traditional library classes once a week in which students are taught how to locate, check out and return books cataloged in a database called “Sagebrush.” There is also a school initiative referred to as D.E.A.R. – Drop Everything And Read. “Every day, for a half-hour, every child is reading,” says Burns.
A computer class is also taught once a week, but it’s not offered by a staff librarian, library media or technology integration specialist. Like the majority of Boston-area Catholic schools, St. Catherine’s hires the Boston-based business, R & R Consultants, to meet its technology needs. Consultant David Kelleher – no relation to PHA’s Mary – is the main man on the job. The curriculum includes keyboarding, Microsoft Office applications and database and Internet research skills. It’s not Skype, but it’s something. And it’s a long way from ink stamps.

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