St. Eugene School has always incorporated technology into learning, according to principal Rebecca Jones.
This school year, the Fox Point school became the first K-8 school in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee to provide iPads for students on a one-to-one basis. Last fall, every student grades six to eight received one. A semester later, the reviews could not be more rave.
“They are the future,” said math teacher Suzanne Riesen. “The programs, FlexBooks, and apps (applications) being developed for the tablets are transforming the one-dimensional classroom into a dynamic, fluid and exciting learning environment.”
“Our students adapted so quickly that the iPads have truly only made teaching easier,” said math teacher, Sharon Webster, also the school’s technology coordinator.
“Planning (individualized lessons) is more challenging,” she added. “But it is worth it when you see how excited and engaged students are. As teachers, we will only get better at how we use them.”
Science teacher Jim Roche admitted that preparing a lesson is considerably more time-consuming, but he said the reward is also greater.
“Children show an enthusiasm for learning that they simply don’t with a traditional textbook. It’s as if the next screen is a complete mystery until the teacher instructs them to access it. I know it sounds very cliché, but it really is that way,” he said.
Students and parents are similarly impressed by the iPads’ potential.
“When I heard, I was excited about the possibilities,” said Lynne Wolfe, a mother of St. Eugene students. “The iPad has definitely been a great learning tool. My children have been very responsible with it and have easily adapted to it.”
Devices motivate students
Jones said the iPads are being used across the curriculum.
“The science, math and literature books are on it. It definitely has lightened the load in their backpacks,” she said. “We don’t have to schedule time for the computer lab anymore – they can just do research in the classroom. They’re pretty neat.”
Students “use them in so many ways,” she added, explaining they use them both at school and at home for note taking, research and presentations.
“They even email homework to teachers,” she said. “And we’ve seen a difference. Students are more motivated to get homework completed and in on time.”
Riesen appreciates the fact that the iPad is “different things to different students.”
“It meets students at their ability level. There are apps for struggling students, and students who need a challenge. For more right brained students, iPads are a creative outlet: to produce skits, pictures or tutorials. Students have issues with organization. The iPad is an electronic organizer. There is no limit as to how it reaches the individual child,” she said.
Power of the iPad evident
In Riesen’s math class, students created “a book of numbers” on their iPads.
She envisioned the math “book” as a reference stored on their iPads that they could add to throughout middle school. A similar project, created on paper, would not have had the same appeal, she said.
“I saw the power of the iPad when one particular student, who didn’t normally put all her effort into math, produced the most thoughtful, well-organized, and accurately detailed math reference book. She was very proud of what she produced,” said Riesen. “It allowed math into her life in a non-threatening and creative way, and she has flourished ever since. As her teacher, I could see her thought processes and assess that she had an excellent understanding of the material that I might not have seen without this project.”
Lessons can be personalized
According to Roche, science instruction is all about connecting students to the world in which they live in. He said when he teaches the Periodic Table of Elements, he uses an app that brings the elements alive with facts, sortable characteristics, and video clips.
“Each student conducts a research project about their favorite element,” he said. They personalize the lesson in a way no other technique can match.”
And since “every teacher uses iPads in different ways,” Webster noted, “the students get a variety of experiences throughout their day.”
Devices eliminate heavy books
Two students described how the iPad fits into their education.
“It’s my science book and my math book, so I don’t need to worry about forgetting my books at school,” said eighth-grader Erin Drehobl. “You can use so many other books on it, too, plus there are dictionaries and other writing tools. I write stories for English with it. I also check my homework and grades and read on the Kindle app.”
Her fellow eighth-grader, Scott Palmersheim uses his to “read books, do my lessons, and use the Internet. I have so many apps that make learning convenient – such as the HMH Fuse app, where you can watch extra tutorial videos and do digital step-by-step breakdowns of math problems.”
Students learn responsibility
Wolfe said her kids have put it to use in all of their classes – from literature and math to music. Her daughter uses apps to strengthen her math skills, she said, noting she has seen great improvement in her confidence and grades.
“My children are very responsible with them,” she said. “They use them for homework, and it is their responsibility to charge them overnight, so they are ready for school the next day. Our family has our own personal iPad, so the student iPads are not used for anything other than school work. We have really stressed with our children that theirs are for educational use only and that is how St. Eugene School has programmed the iPads.”
Cost was not prohibitive
Despite the fact that iPads run $499 each, and St. Eugene has 53 students in grades six to eight, cost was not prohibitive.
“We were looking at laptops, e-readers and tablets, and we had virtually no pushback,” Jones said. “The school board originally proposed it. The committee we formed – of teachers, parents, board members and myself – was excited to do it. The parents really embraced it.”
“We do have a $100 tech fee, which students pay anyway,” she said. “We included part of the purchase cost in our budget, we got a three-year lease, and we had donors who helped cover cost.”
She said the school had to upgrade its technology, including adding wireless to support the bandwidth of the additional iPads.
“We’re still working on the printers. You can’t print directly from the iPad.
You have to email and print elsewhere. Social studies isn’t on it – we still have that textbook. But each year we’ll add more. So, we’re ironing all that out. Nothing major,” she said.
Teachers must monitor usage
She said the teachers have to be vigilant in monitoring usage of the iPads.
“We do have to monitor – even with the controls we already have in place – that emails are appropriate. In the Internet age, all our teachers are hypersensitive to plagiarism,” she said.
Thus far, no iPads have been lost or stolen, although one was damaged. In that instance, the family replaced it, she said, adding that families have the option of buying insurance.”
Technology opens new avenues
Webster is confident the iPads will remain useful, even as they become commonplace.
“The novelty will no doubt wear off,” she said. “But the benefits will only continue to expand as we develop better and more effective ways to use this exciting tool.”
Ultimately, they’re just another educational tool, said Jones, adding that in the hands of high quality teachers, possibilities expand.
“Technology just opens new avenues,” Roche agreed. “It’s the same with Smartboards. Initially, they create work as we modify lesson plans and activities to take full advantage of the device. But then technology actually makes teaching easier.”
The reality, Roche said, “is that technology is now part of our children’s lives. Why not maximize its potential? The cost will continue to drop, the availability will improve, and the impact will only increase. The possibilities for individual student learning through truly differentiated instruction will blossom in the coming years because of tablet technology.”
“I believe that tablets will eventually be as routine as pens and notebooks,” Webster said. “Our students can proudly tell their children that they were the pioneers.”
Students, iPads bond
Using iPads in the classroom has exceeded their expectations, said Jones, explaining that more are being made available to teachers in lower grades.
Meanwhile, the students’ relationship with the iPads continues to develop.
“Over break we collected them, to take care of upgrades,” Webster said. “Our reluctant students hugged their iPads and protested that they could not live without them. Their reunion with their iPads after break was even more dramatic.”
Drehobl and Palmersheim admitted they can learn without the technology, however.
“While we didn’t have our iPads over break, I kept finding things I could use it for,” Drehobl said. “I really wanted my iPad. Learning is easier with an iPad. So I think I will want it at times for college and future schooling. But I can still do without it.”