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Using iPads With Mixed-Ability Students, Teachers Must 'Give Up Some Control'

The power in today's classroom, according to Amanda Allen and David Lopez, who introduced iPads to their Los Angeles school, is no longer in the teacher's hands.

In 2010, when Allen and Lopez helped to pioneer the implementation of 1-to-1 iPads at St. Genevieve Elementary, they found that students outperformed instructors when it came to using the device, and that this role reversal required the two of them, and their colleagues, to change the way they orchestrated lessons and viewed their students.

"Technology is too powerful not to use," said Allen, a primary school teacher at the time. "[Using iPads] revolutionizes the way you think about things. The learning is on them."

St. Genevieve has the unique situation of being what Lopez, then a seventh and eighth grade literature teacher, calls a "double school," meaning it has two classrooms of each grade. For the iPad pilot, they divided the classrooms into what Lopez deemed an "experiment" and a "control group," with one class using iPads and the other receiving traditional teaching. At the end of the year, they noticed some big results, including gains in test scores for the iPad group.

A Control Issue
Allen and Lopez both note that the iPads allowed teachers to cater to mixed ability students, or students of multiple learning levels, with varying learning styles, at the same time.

"The biggest challenge was giving up some of the control and being OK with the fact that it might not go perfect the first time, but knowing that we were going to figure it out," Allen said. "I was still the teacher, I knew what I wanted the outcomes to be … and the iPad was just another tool to reach students of different modalities and [skill levels]."

To achieve these outcomes, both Allen and Lopez gave their students great freedom in the way the tablets were used.

"The most important way to use the iPad in the classroom is choice," said Allen."I didn't necessarily care which app the students were using. I would tell the students the skill we were practicing, they knew they had better be practicing that skill."

Lopez employed similar tactics with his literature students.

"I told my students to read whatever you want--read about sports, read about TV shows, just read," he said. "I think it was the combination of this philosophy and the fact that they could read if they were bored and had a free moment and they had it literally at the tip of their fingers [that improved their reading skills]."

Allowing students to choose which apps they used also helped Lopez and Allen target those who need extra attention without taking away from the rest of the classroom. Allen would sometimes divide her class into halves or thirds of students using iPads, filling out worksheets, or being taught lessons. Lopez allowed students who had finished an assignment, such as a poem, to make a Prezi of their work on their iPads while he assisted those who had trouble with the writing.

"Giving kids a little bit of freedom and choice results in increased engagement and achievement," Allen said.

But all that freedom puts increased pressure on the teacher to monitor content, and Lopez believes the increased need for monitoring actually forces teachers to improve their teaching methods.

"Nobody is saying you have to be a clown or a performer but walk around. That's the point about this generation, these digital natives. Their attention span is short but that's a great opportunity for us," he said.

After the first year of the pilot program, they noticed an eleven percent increase in test scores (using the Iowa Test of Basic Skills) from the students with iPads in the classroom. Because of this success, in 2011 the school expanded the program to include kindergarten, first, and fifth graders.

"We started with the older kids … then, with my competitive nature I thought, we can do this with little kids," Allen said. "We began using it as a learning tool in ways that astounded most people--as a graphic organizer, a mind mapper, as well as for practicing addition and subtraction."

The realization they came to was that content apps--those for, say, algebra or grammar--have limited uses, but those apps for organization and research, what Lopez calls "toolbox apps," have broader applications.

The best example, Lopez said, is an app called Popplet, a simple graphic organizing tool.

"When we started there was a lot of frustration from the teacher side of things that stemmed from the idea that, 'I'm teaching a class on the Great Pyramid, but there's no app for that.' We had to go in and say there's not going to be an app for specific content but you can use Popplet to enhance what you're doing," Lopez said.

Both Allen and Lopez emphasize that while the iPads enhanced their lessons in the classroom, the devices did not replace traditional teaching methods.

"With technology, you want to supplement what you do, not supplant it," Lopez explained. "I am not a technology teacher, I am an English teacher who happens to use an iPad. But if the iPad doesn't work I can still proceed with my lesson."

And while the initial transition might be intimidating, Lopez and Allen insist it's worth giving up that control.

"When you see the students spinning the brain around in 3-D and pinching it and looking at the hippocampus it's like--woah--that's learning," Allen said.


Top 9 Resources for an iPad Initiative 

Amanda Allen and David Lopez, who introduced a 1-to-1 iPad program at St. Genevieve Elementary in Los Angeles, suggest the apps, Web sites, and programs they found most useful.

1. Popplet--Simple, graphic organizing tool. All grade levels.
2. iCardSort--A virtual set of Post-It notes. Middle School and up.
3. Flashcards+--Allows students and teachers to easily create paperless flashcards. Syncs to a website called Quizlet that lets one download flashcards others have uploaded. “It’s kind of like crowdsourcing for studying,” Lopez said.
4. GoodReader--A digital PDF reader that allows students to highlight passages and take notes in the margins. Middle School and up.
5. Apple’s Volume Purchase Program for Schools--Sells apps at a discount for schools when they are purchased in quantities of 20 or more. All grade levels.
6. Edmodo--One of “the best things teachers will use,” said Lopez. “In a nutshell it’s Facebook for the classroom. It looks and works like Facebook and it does everything: calendars, lists, document hosting, quiz assignments. It worked really well with the iPad program with our school. Everyone had a device and a place to communicate.” All grade levels.
7. TeenTribune.com--A website that provides current events for students. Middle School and up.
8. Good Notes--A note-taking app that records audio with the notes. Middle school and up.
9. Mathaliens--A basic mathematics app in which an alien pops up when students answer correctly. Kindergarten-fourth grade.

About the Author

Kim Fortson is a San Francisco-based freelance writer. Find her on Twitter @kimfortson.

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