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Keyed in

Although the typical American household is as likely to have a computer as a television, many youngsters view the computer mainly as a source of entertainment: to send e-mail, surf the Internet and play video games.

All of that is fine, except that many kids lack an appreciation of how vital computers are in terms of their education. At least that's what John Alaimo, a Fox Chapel Middle School teacher, thinks. His specialty is helping students to unlock the potential found on a keyboard.

"These days, knowing how to use a computer as a learning tool is about as important as knowing how to use a pencil," said Alaimo, whose Computer Applications course is one of the most popular electives for sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders.

A former business technology teacher at Springstead High School, Alaimo found that teens lacked many of the basic skills that would help them make the most of their time on a computer.

"Many of them weren't very proficient at typing, and unless they had learned it on their own, they weren't all that familiar with business-related software," Alaimo said. "Though most had exposure to computers since kindergarten, a lot of them never learned the fundamentals."

Alaimo's classroom focuses on teaching those fundamentals. Beginners start by learning basic keyboard functions and the proper place for their fingers on the keys. Successive units address more advanced subjects, such as spreadsheet composition, Internet research and page layout and design. Alaimo said that after taking his courses, students will be able to master just about any software program they encounter.

"It will help open a lot of doors for them once they leave here," Alaimo said. "If they're going into a business track in high school or college, they'll have all the essentials needed to be successful at it."

Much of the classwork tends to be business-oriented. Students learn by working exclusively with Microsoft business software such as Excel, Word, Publisher and PowerPoint, considered the standard in the business community.

Bobby Cantone, 12, signed up for the class mainly so he could learn to type faster. Though he has been using a computer in school since kindergarten, he never felt he learned its value as an educational tool.

"You had about 30 minutes in the computer lab to work on math, science and vocabulary words," said the sixth-grader. "I always felt like I was being rushed to get everything done."

Eighth-grader Dawn Kelley said she had a similar experience in elementary school. Much of what she learned about computers came by way of an older sister.

"Once you get to middle school, you're kind of expected to do a lot more schoolwork on the computer. A lot of kids never got a chance to find out how they work," she said. "Mr. Alaimo is really good about giving confidence, no matter how much you know about computers."

Alaimo understands that some students don't have access to a home computer. He spends much of his class time giving individual instruction to struggling students, while allowing the more experienced to work at their own pace.

"I want every student to know that this is something they will succeed at if they give themselves a chance," Alaimo said. "I guess the most important thing they can learn in my class is that what they get out of it is something they will value their entire adult lives."

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