Eight-year-old Diane Chi cautiously punches letters on a keyboard with her little fingers as she listens intently to a computer program.
“I usually type the wrong letters. I’m not really used to typing yet so I'm still learning,” Chi says with a grin.
Chi attends school at Ponderosa Elementary located in the Santa Clara Unified School District. She and her classmates are learning how to manipulate that string of letters in the center of a keyboard known as the “home row."
Third grade teacher Lynn Hayes makes her way around the room whispering advice into her students’ ears, helping them reposition their tiny hands.
“These are standard-sized keyboards. They’re not miniaturized keyboards, so with little fingers its hard,” Hayes said.
Keyboard classes are a staple in this district. Instruction begins in kindergarten with students learning the basics of the keyboard.
State educators say Ponderosa students will be ahead of the game once California switches to a new set of academic standards next year called the Common Core.
The standards require students to use keyboarding skills in every grade. Third-graders have to write three short pieces. Fourth-graders will be expected to type out a full page in one sitting.
All students will have to use a keyboard to take California’s new computerized standardized state test.
Jacqui Murray, a veteran technology teacher and blogger, says kids who have technology at home already will have a big advantage over those who don't. She has seen it first-hand with students using their thumbs to type letters on the keyboard.
Murray believes the digital divide will become apparent once testing shows many children have poor typing skills.
“(Students) use what seems to work and then it becomes a habit unless someone intervenes and tells them the right way. Much like (teaching) piano, you’d never tell a child, ‘Sit down and learn piano on (your) own.’”
Many parents are now worried about how their children will satisfy the new standards if they have never received keyboard instruction.
Nettie Atkisson has an 11-year-old daughter in the San Francisco Unified School District who can take two hours plunking out a school report. Atkisson says schools should stop teaching cursive and start teaching keyboard instruction as soon as possible.
“Starting early and giving them time … cramming is where the tears come from and the frustration comes from,” she says.
San Francisco Unified, like most large urban school districts in California, is just beginning to develop a plan to introduce more keyboard classes to the early grades.
Marshall Elementary is one San Francisco public school that voluntarily teaches keyboarding.
Marshall tech teacher Marco Bianchi chooses to use a computer program called BBC Dance Mat developed in the UK because the animated characters have “funny voices and do silly things” to reward children during keyboard drills.
Bianchi says finding these fun, free online programs is “the easy part.” Bianchi says the challenge for all districts will be creating space for new computers and keyboards, as well as maintaining all the hardware.
“On any given day I’ve got one or two computers that are in disrepair,” Bianchi says. “I’ve had to sit children down on the floor because we didn’t have enough seats that worked for all the students.”
Districts have to act fast. The state wants to try out the new computerized state tests this Spring. Test scores won't count against students or their schools.
Educators say that is a good thing because they expect the lack of keyboarding skills to be a big hurdle.