Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Elementary school goes high-tech

Kindergartners use iPads, thanks to district grant

Express Staff Writer

Hailey Elementary School kindergartners Brandon Geissler, Vanessa Laureano and Natalie Zaragoza share iPads during reading time. The iPads allow the students to read books on screen or have the books read to them as the words light up on the screen. Photo by Willy Cook

At first glance, Jennifer Boatwright's kindergarten class at Hailey Elementary School appears to be having an ordinary reading time, with all 21 students clustered at tables and reading works such as "The Cat in the Hat" and a book called "Go Away, Big Green Monster."

But at a closer look, the students aren't reading from books but from iPads, tablet computers that contain programs that allow children to read books electronically.

Boatwright's classroom is the first in the district to begin using this new technology, which is made possible through a grant sponsored by the School District.

District Superintendent Lonnie Barber said the grant, called an "Innovative Technology Grant," is meant to encourage teachers to come up with new and exciting ways to use technology in the classroom.

"It's the pull method," he said. "Teachers are fighting to bring these things into the classroom rather than the district trying to push it on them."

This grant is funded by a plant facilities levy passed in 2009, which collects $5.9 million per year in property tax assessments for 10 years.

Barber said that over the next 10 years, the district will set aside $10 million of the levy's total $60 million to bring items such as iPads, laptops and computerized blackboards known as "SMART Boards" into district classrooms.

Teachers apply for funding by filling out a two-page grant application that asks them how they would use technology in a new way.

Boatwright applied last summer for 15 iPads for her classroom, saying the tablets would enable her to more easily customize her lesson plans based on the skill levels and abilities of her students. She received not only the iPads but also a cart that allows her to synchronize all of the iPads to her Macbook.

What does she use them for? Mostly reading and vocabulary building, Boatwright said. The iPads' applications include several electronic books that are read out loud as words light up, which Boatwright said allows students to "track" the sentences more easily.

More advanced readers can turn off the audio on the electronic books and simply read the story. Students who need a little more help can read to the iPad, which can check how closely the words they are saying match the words of the story.

Boatwright said her class began using the iPads in September when school started, and she believes it's one of the most useful tools in her teaching arsenal.

"I'm still teaching reading and writing, but this allows them to go many more places than they can otherwise," she said.

Boatwright said she doesn't just use the iPads for reading and writing, though. One of the more popular apps helps teach kids colors, shapes and numbers as they add items to a "lunchbox," and another app allows children to finger-paint on screen.

"We still finger-paint in kindergarten, we just use the iPad," Boatwright said.

As for how easily the students pick up the technology, Boatwright calls her children "digital natives" who barely need instruction.

Tom Bailey, principal at Hailey Elementary, said the greatest advantage he's seen in the classrooms that use iPads or laptops is how much more engaged the children are.

"You don't have that kid in the back staring into space anymore," he said, adding that some classrooms use a clicker system that enables every student to answer every question.

Fifth-grade teacher Mark Sauvageau said he's seen his students become much more engaged since introducing laptops into his classroom. While he admits there is the occasional bout of "non-academic surfing," his students use the laptops for research and to produce posters and projects.

Sauvageau provides hard copies of research books and has his students hand in hard-copy notes as well, but he says very few students will use the books for research projects.

"At a click, they can get so much information [online]," he said, adding that his students are learning how to sort good information from bad.

Barber said more technology is likely to appear in classrooms over the next few years, as state Superintendent Tom Luna's technology-promoting educational reforms come into effect.

Though Barber said he agrees with the technology aspect of Luna's reforms, he does not agree with funding them through reducing teacher salaries or the number of teachers in a classroom.

"No kids are going to be able to go into a classroom and do what they need to do without supervision," he said.

It appears he's right. Kindergartners use iPads for only 30 minutes each day, and even then Boatwright needs to make sure her students stay on task.

Overall, she said, the iPads have been a success, and she plans on applying for several more this year so she will have a full classroom set.

"They're all totally engaged all the time," she said. "The kids really love it."

Katherine Wutz:

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