The tools used by sixth-graders in Carolyn Conners’ English/world studies classroom at Alki Middle School are a study in contrasts.
On each desk is a hardcover novel sitting next to an Apple iPad. Students are reading the book, but writing about and discussing the story using applications on their iPads.
The 256 sixth-graders at Alki are on the leading edge of technology not only for Vancouver Public Schools, but also among school districts nationwide. Although some Vancouver students already are using iPads in the classroom, these sixth-graders are the district’s first students to be assigned personal iPads used in school all day and then taken home each night to complete homework assignments.
The day after students received their iPads, Curtis Smith, Alki principal, visited classrooms to observe students working.
“The gee-whiz factor is very short,” he said. “The room was silent. Students got right to work.
They already were using their iPads to add vocabulary words to their notes,” Smith said.
This pilot program is on the cusp of the district’s plan to put the personal electronic devices in the hands of students and teachers throughout the district. Voters approved a six-year technology levy in February to make this plan a reality. The district has drawn up an implementation timeline for distributing electronic learning devices to students and teachers.
These students, who have grown up in the computer age, seem to have easily adapted to the high-tech tools. On the big screen at the front of the classroom, an app displays the students’ online book discussion — homework done the previous night using their iPads. Although it was an optional assignment, a large number of students participated by posting their observations of the novel. This kind of online literary analysis seems closer to work assigned to a high school or college class than sixth-graders. Yet this is the direction classrooms — and workplaces — are heading.
“The goal is that students learn 21st century skills,” said Mark Ray, the district’s manager of instructional technology and library services. “Students will be using the same tools they’ll be using in college and in their careers.”
Students are writing journal notes about the book on their iPads using the GoodNotes app. In their electronic notebook, they are learning to use vocabulary from the novel. Students use the graphic organizer app to compare and contrast similarities and differences in the story. They use Airplay software to share their work with their teacher and other students by displaying it on the screen at the front of the classroom.
“They’re excited, enthusiastic, creative,” Conners said. “They’re so fast. They end up teaching me things.”
Students’ hands are busy taking notes about the book with their iPads, but they stop long enough to offer how the electronic devices have enhanced learning.
“It helps me to stay organized with my work,” Liz Canton, 12, said. “I can check my grades, take notes — and I can read my writing. It’s easier to take work home.”
“I use it for my journals, so it saved me lots of room in my backpack,” Sydney Betterton, 11, said. “I use it for my planner, too. It helps me contact my teacher and to share homework assignments.”
The ability for teachers to receive students’ work via email eliminates trying to read illegible handwriting or determining which students didn’t write their names on their papers. It also eliminates students forgetting to turn in homework, and leaving finished work crumpled in the bottom of a backpack, becoming encrusted with orange Cheetos dust.
Before receiving their iPads, students completed e-reader boot camp lessons, including learning about digital citizenship.
“That means students learned about being aware of their digital footprint, being safe and appropriate online, agreeing to not participate in cyberbullying and to respect intellectual property,” said Laura Day, an instructional technology facilitator with the district.
The iPads are uploaded only with the apps and access students need. Websites students shouldn’t access, including social media platforms, are blocked.
“You can’t go to certain websites. If you try to jailbreak it, the iPad will automatically stop working,” Cole Ruddy, 12, said.
At that point, the student would have to take the iPad to a teacher to be reactivated, and the teacher would know the student had tried to access blocked material.
Both parents and students sign an acceptable use policy form for the iPads, Smith said. Students agree to take care of the devices and charge them nightly so they’ll be ready for school the next morning.
An iPad costs about $500 with the apps installed. If a student loses an iPad, parents will have to pay to replace it. Parents can opt into an insurance plan, ranging from $10 to $35, that covers damage, such as a cracked case, and defrays the parent’s cost in replacing a lost device.
“Students really take care of them,” Smith said, who added that no damage or loss has occurred so far. “Already, they’ve become such an important tool.”
For now, books at Alki are still the old-fashioned, printed-on-paper variety. Eventually, the district plans to purchase e-books to upload to iPads, but much fiction for kids isn’t yet available as a library edition for schools, Day said. Meanwhile, the district is sorting out the best solution.
“The pricing is about the same,” Ray said of the e-books versus traditional printed books. “But in the long term, there’s no lost or damaged books with e-books.”
Alki parents seem as enthusiastic as their children about the pilot program immersing their children in electronic learning tools.
“We have a fair amount of technology at home, but we don’t have an iPad,” said Dave Hoffman, father of Alki sixth-grader Lana Hoffman, 12. “She was lucky enough to be at one of the schools where they’re doing the pilot.”
“It’s a great opportunity for him,” parent Cari Jones said of her son Jacob, 12. “It’s definitely taking learning to a different level. He’s excited about being able to do his research all in one place. He takes care of it. Plugs it in at night, makes sure it’s charged for the next day. For a sixth-grade boy, that’s a pretty big deal.”
Day told the story of an Alki sixth-grader who had been working on an assignment for about 20 minutes with an iPad. He told his teacher: “I’ve never been this focused in my entire life. It’s amazing me.”