Two girls from Steve Haberlin's seventh-grade language arts class went to the Fox Chapel Middle School front office on Feb. 4 to escort a special visitor to their classroom.
One of the girls entered the room first and gestured to the other students to quickly stand up to greet their guest.
School superintendent Wayne Alexander had been invited to the class so the students could try to persuade him to replace textbooks with laptop computers for each student.
They began with skits.
Two students alternated playing teachers on either side of the room. One had a class that used textbooks, paper and pencils. The other was high tech and each student had a laptop on his or her desk. They took turns illustrating the differences.
The textbook class had outdated or missing information, lost pencils and erasers, no paper. The laptop class had up-to-date sources. No pencils were needed. Mistakes were deleted. Work was researched and saved.
After their presentations, the students engaged in a discussion with their superintendent, trying to make the hard sell. They began with money. The students suggested that laptops could replace books by selling them and with fundraisers. They said laptops cost from $500 to $1,000.
For argument's sake, Alexander said, "Let's say $1,000." Then he multiplied that by the number of students in Hernando district schools: 23,000. The cost, then, would be $23 million.
"A lot of money," he said. With a $2 million budget, the laptops were cost prohibitive.
He asked them to think about the problems of putting laptops in each student's hands. The students suggested misuse and breakage, but one suggested parents sign a waiver to replace a broken or lost computer.
Alexander added another problem. "Kids come and go. People move," he said. Laptops could be lost.
They discussed the option of leaving the laptops at school, but then how could homework be done? One student suggested worksheets.
Alexander pressed on. "Does the Department of Education have any expectations about textbook adoption?" he asked. "Who makes all the rules about what we do and how we do it?"
The state has a textbook adoption process. Every six years new textbooks are adopted. There would have to be a way to control curricula if books were replaced.
Alexander steered the conversation toward what students can do to change state policies. Some suggested writing letters and calling newspapers. He pushed them to keep thinking. He told them that the influence of votes is enormous.
"What would happen if people got on buses and stormed Tallahassee?" he asked. "You are in a powerful, powerful place," he said. But he cautioned them they have to do their homework.
"You have to make sure you research every facet," he said.
"It's obvious that you are a bunch of leaders," he said. "When you are a leader you are committed to what you believe. Have the strength and courage to do what you think is right. I really think that you can create the momentum. You can make that happen."
Alexander told the students he was 100 percent convinced they should have laptops, but added that just his agreement wasn't good enough. When they want something, they need to keep pushing until they pin down elected officials.
After the superintendent left, Haberlin had a few minutes left to talk to his students. He said he realized they were very anxious, but that they had done fine.
"I think it went pretty well," said Kelly Senker, 13. "I learned that to be able to talk to someone in that position, you have to do research and have your facts straight."
Paulette Lash Ritchie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.