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In US classrooms, 'tech sherpas' assist teachers with computers

In a role reversal, students provide the tech support, creating a 'culture of respect' between teachers and teens.

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Doran Smestad walks through the empty gym to the office in the back corner. The high school sophomore's mission: to recover an important file that physical education teacher Jim DiFrederico can't seem to open on his new Macintosh laptop. Doran's long fingers cover the keyboard as he taps at it with cool concentration.

It's a typical call for students known around the halls of Nokomis Regional High School as "tech sherpas." Whether they fell in love with computers when they were 2, as Doran did, or when the state of Maine issued them a laptop in seventh grade, the digital world is so familiar to these teens that they can guide their teachers up some steep learning curves.

Within a few minutes, Doran has a file open on screen and asks, "Is this what you need?" With a relieved smile, Mr. DiFrederico gives him a pat on the shoulder. "Something that would take me a couple hours, they can do it in five minutes," he says.

The timesaving for teachers is a big plus, but it's not the main point of this informal program in rural Maine. For students who are keen to keep up with technology, helping adults is a way to broaden their own experience and practice communication.

"They're learning that it takes a lot of patience, a lot of diplomacy," says Christina Gee, technology director for MSAD#48, a school district of about 2,100 students in Newport and nearby towns. "It's certainly helping some of their social skills to be able to work with adults and find out that ... you might have to go back two or three times.... They're understanding what we [as teachers] have been doing."

As American schools look to incorporate 21st-century technologies into everyday lessons, some teachers are intimidated by technical glitches or the prospect of being left behind in a generational divide. Teachers have even become targets of cyberbullying, with students taking secret videos of an angry or embarrassing moment in class and posting them on popular websites such as YouTube.

But this district and many others are trying to foster more collaboration – staving off problems by putting students' enthusiasm to constructive use.

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