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Old idea incorporated into innovative program to learn typing skills

| Thursday, Nov. 19, 2009, 12:00 p.m.

Abby Bosack, a second-grader at Jeffery Primary School, is corresponding with some very unusual online pals this year -- and learning how to type at the same time.

Her pals are actually puppets that teach proper hand placement and keyboarding skills through video software called Keyboard Town PALS.

Pittsburgh-area residents Rita Herman, a reading specialist, and Donna Katz, a former school administrator and nonprofit consultant, developed the software and released it for sale in January.

Jeffery Primary is the first school in the nation to integrate the software into its computer classes, Katz said.

"She is very excited about it," said Judy Bosack, Abby's mother and a teacher in the North Allegheny School District. "She often sits down now and types words without looking and makes attempts at stories."

The software is unique because of the age group it targets -- children 7 to 12 -- and association and memory techniques incorporated into the software.

Replacing traditional drills and time tests, Keyboard Town PALS deactivates the "backspace" and "delete" buttons so that children are able to follow the storyline and the puppets in a stress-free learning environment. There is no need for corrections because no mistakes are counted.

"The most impressive part was the child-friendly, user-friendly format," said Principal Kara Eckert. "Prior to this program, our school used technology in a variety of ways, but typically students do not learn keyboarding skills until the upper grades."

Eckert said she was introduced to Keyboard Town PALS by a student-teacher at the school. Eckert thought it would work well with the technology already available in the school's classrooms and invited Katz to demonstrate the software to a team of teachers.

Several years ago, second-grade teacher Lisa Fogle and colleagues Sandy Vita and Ellen Helfrich applied for and received a technology grant from the Shaler Area Schools District that paid for 30 laptops, a Promethean SmartBoard and a media cart with a projector.

The school's Parent Teacher Organization paid for the cost of 30 Keyboard Town PALS CDs at $29.95 apiece.

"As technologies in the classrooms become more readily available to us, it will only be natural to raise the bar for our students' abilities in using the equipment," Eckert said.

Fogle teaches Keyboard Town PALS to 58 second-graders for 30 minutes, two days out of every six school days. She began the program Oct. 26 and is impressed with her students' progress.

"My homeroom students are already typing words without looking at the keys," Fogle said. "It's neat to watch."

Origin of the program

Donna Katz helped develop the Keyboard Town PALS software from a curriculum created by a woman she could recall only as "Mrs. Gallagher."

An elementary school teacher in the Penn Hills School District who retired in 1954, Gallagher designed the puppet-based curriculum using purposeful association techniques for special-needs children in her classroom because they lacked the motor skills to write legibly and the attention span to follow traditional typing programs.

Upon her retirement, she gave the curriculum to Keyboard's co-founder Rita Herman, a teacher who packed it away in her basement for 50 years. Three years after the death of her husband, Herman found the curriculum while cleaning out the basement. She was thrilled to have something new to focus on and took the curriculum to several schools in the area, which then hired her to work with special-needs children.

Herman eventually shared the program with Katz, a former private-school administrator, and together they enlisted the help of several animators to create the software-instruction program that Jeffery Primary School in Shaler now uses. Although the program is designed for children of all abilities, true to Gallagher's desire to help special-needs students, Keyboard Town PALS has several features to make typing enjoyable and attainable for students with learning disabilities.

Katz recently demonstrated Keyboard Town PALS products at the Three Rivers Technology Conference in Cranberry. Twenty schools or school districts asked to review the program, including Bethel Park, Mt. Lebanon and Moon Area.

On the Web: www.keyboardtownpals.com

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