HUDSON — Chrissy Baumaister silently pretended to pull the safety restraint over her shoulders and waved her arms over her head on an imaginary roller coaster ride.
Second grader Connor McCathron caught all the charades on a blue video-capable iPod nano — his first time using the tiny technology.
"Mrs. Baumaister, you were great!" Connor exclaimed to the Northwest Elementary School technology specialist after guessing what she was doing. "Oh my God! I'm recording you!"
His enthusiasm was contagious in the school's new Collaboration Cafe, which Baumaister organized to teach students and teachers ways to incorporate technology, art, music and other hands-on activities into their literacy lessons. At other centers in the room, children figured out animal riddles on a Smart board, took measurements of pumpkins and used a website to create posters of words they used to describe pumpkins.
Doyle Surrittee declared the session a good time.
"You get to do different stuff," he said, smiling. "That's how you learn things."
His teacher, Clarice Saparito, agreed this approach gets everybody involved.
"This is more fun to them," Saparito said. "They think they're playing, and they're really learning."
For too long, assistant principal Holly Oakes said, the emphasis in schools has been on compliance with rules and standards. Teachers felt the pressure, which in turn trickled down to students.
At Northwest, where four in five students qualifies for free or reduced-price meals, the faculty wanted to change that direction and focus on inspiring children to learn.
"The big thing that came out over and over again was student engagement," Oakes said.
That meant making the lessons more active, creative and fun. Teachers had to be free to try new things, infusing a variety of disciplines and styles into their classrooms.
"If we come in the room and see kids wrist-deep in finger paint, we're good with that. If they're skipping around the room, we're good with that," Oakes said, adding that the administrators have started giving teachers special pins and flair for using innovative teaching techniques.
One of the potential pitfalls, though, was some teachers' lack of training.
And Baumaister found that offering 30 minutes of support before school begins didn't cut it. So she proposed, then created, the Collaboration Cafe, a classroom with all the "toys" that kids love to use and that teachers can make part of their lessons.
She put it in what had been a computer lab, placing all the computers into classrooms "where they should be."
The school chose a literacy theme — predictions for October, visualization for November — and then Baumaister crafted lesson plans using the different forms of technology for teachers to learn to adapt for their classes. As classes move through the cafe monthly, the teachers learn how to incorporate iPods, Smart boards and the like in a hands-on environment with extra support and students on-hand to see in real time what works.
So far the reaction has been almost completely positive.
"I am having too much fun," teacher Tammy Hickey said as she learned about Smart boards with a small group of second graders. "It's nice to be able to apply it, take it back to the classroom and apply it again."
Children have written letters thanking Baumaister for letting them use iPods to make movies, too.
"I want them to be happy that they're coming in here," she said. "They're so excited. That's what we want."
Over time, the plan calls for teachers and students to build upon the skills they're learning in the Collaboration Cafe as they create their curriculum lesson plans. Simple videotaping will lead to making movies on the computer. Basic Smart board operation can give way to interactive reports.
That's all great to second grader Giulia Desiderio, who said she likes variety in the classroom as she worked with Hickey and some classmates to create a poster.
"If you do the same thing over and over again," she said, "it gets boring."
Which is exactly what Northwest Elementary is aiming to avoid.
"We're trying to make it so their brains are getting the stimulation they need to open up and stretch," Oakes said.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.