Columbia elementary school teachers integrate iPads into their classrooms

Wednesday, October 23, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:08 a.m. CDT, Thursday, October 24, 2013
Students at Grant Elementary School learned to use iPads as part of their classwork.

COLUMBIA — Select classrooms in Columbia elementary schools have jumped on the iPad bandwagon to help enhance the learning experience in their classrooms.

A pilot project involving Grant, Shepard Boulevard, Russell Boulevard and Midway Heights elementary schools is meant to help students develop creativity, communication and collaboration, information fluency and critical thinking through use of the iPad.

No elementary school in Columbia Public Schools has iPads for all of its students. This project is making them available one per student or putting several in a classroom. The devices don't go home with students.

The pilot project is funded through the district's Instructional Technology budget, but there are other ways schools are able to provide iPads, including Title I money, grants, coordinators and parent teacher associations.

Matt Villasana, a specialist in instructional technology for Columbia Public Schools, said the introduction of iPads for elementary school students is a new idea for the district, and he and the rest of the IT team are eager to see how it plays out.

All teachers in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade have their own iPad mini, while all high school teachers have their own iPad 2.

"Elementary schools don't get a lot of the newest, latest and greatest, it seems," Villasana said. "We've had check-out packs teachers could use for a couple weeks at a time, but that's not really an authentic use of technology. We wanted to explore the use of these technologies in a yearlong process instead of two weeks here and there."

Villasana taught at Shepard Boulevard for nine years before joining the IT team. He wanted to continue his strong role in the classroom so he approached his former colleagues, Susan Heath and Leanna Guillory, and later Maggie Eastman, a third-grade teacher at Grant Elementary School, about working closely with them to integrate more technology in their classrooms.

As a result, Guillory, Heath and Eastman have invited Villasana into their classrooms to learn more about integrating iPads into their curriculum.

"The devices offer easy access to information," Villasana said. "Students can now focus on applying and sharing their learning in more authentic ways, instead of memorizing facts for tests."

Through the use of iPads, students are strengthening their critical thinking skills and learning how to gather information and present it in a variety of different ways, he said. The iPad exposes them to different tools and a universe of apps that contribute to their overall learning experience.

Right now, one class at Grant has a one-to-one iPad-to-student ratio; a third-grade class and a fifth-grade class at Russell Boulevard have one-to-one; a fourth-grade class at Midway has one-to-one; and two third-grade classes at Shepard Boulevard have 10 iPads each.

Julie Nichols, manager of Instructional Technology, is working with Allison Chostner's class at Midway Heights, while Kerry Townsend, instructional technology specialist, is working with Jenifer Smith's and Cindy Hobbs' classes at Russell Boulevard.

Genius Hour

In addition to challenging the students, Guillory said the new technology has challenged her to think outside the box.

"I have to look at my lessons and objectives differently and decide how technology will work with them," she said.

Guillory and Heath are working on a project with their students called Genius Hour. Students are being challenged to work on their research process skills by coming up with their own questions and answering them by performing in-depth research over the course of the school year.

"I want them to learn that although a project might present challenges, they shouldn't give up, and that it is OK to take risks," Guillory said. "I like that Genius Hour encourages self-directed learning where each student can work at their own pace."

The 7- and 8-year-olds took this project as an opportunity to learn about something that interests them. Among the students' questions: What causes metal to turn to rust? Why can birds fly if we have gravity? How do animals get their colors? How does the mind work?

When the research is completed, students will be able to unleash their creativity by presenting their research to others using whatever tools they want.

"It gives them an opportunity to work on their speaking and listening skills and to be an expert on something," Guillory said.

Using apps with iPads

Students in Eastman's class each have their own iPad, while Guillory and Heath's classrooms have 10 iPads each. Guillory and Heath hope to launch a BYOD project —  bring your own device — by the end of November with the goal of each student having his or her own device.

Eastman is excited about the one-to-one ratio in her classroom and the opportunity for students to take ownership of their learning. The students are excited to use the iPads every day, which makes it easier to get a finished project.

"When kids are excited to learn, they learn more," she said.

So far, Eastman's favorite app to use has been 30hands. The innovative storytelling app allows students to create a story or presentation using photos and their own voices to narrate.

Eastman and her classroom are exploring a new app each day and becoming more familiar with all the tools accessible to them. Some of the other apps they have used include Keynote, Evernote, iMovie, ShowMe Interactive Whiteboard and QuickVoice Recorder.

"I like Keynote because you get to make your own story," Bria Allen, a student in Eastman's class, said. "It's really fun because you get to use words and pictures and describe stuff."

Tweeting in the classroom 

The teachers have been encouraged to incorporate Twitter in their classrooms and start their own blog to share the students' work. Guillory has a designated student who tweets for the class, and Eastman likes to use TweetDeck. TweetDeck allows you to write your tweets for the day in advance and schedule when they will be posted throughout the school day.

The use of Twitter and blogs have been part of an attempt to help parents know what is going on in their child's classroom, Villasana said. Most parents want more information than just a weekly or biweekly newsletter, he said.

Twitter allows for quick updates, while blogs are used to share examples of the students' work and inform parents of important upcoming dates and class happenings. Parents have gained more access to their children's classrooms through the use of this technology.

"Our iPad time today is learning and exploring with a new app called #ShowMe. Students will 'show me' how to subtract two-digit numbers!" Eastman tweeted on Oct. 2.

Villasana is writing about the iPad project on his blog, "Our Transformational Year."

"It's a wave you can't really stop," Villasana said. "Technology is not going to slow down, but we have to figure out how we can embrace it and help our teachers use it in a productive way because the students want to use it."

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.

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