Innovator | Feature

Tech Projects That Support Big Ideas

Jennifer Anderson, iPad U teacher at Heritage E-STEM Magnet School, helps her students become content producers whose learning reaches beyond the classroom.

This article appears in THE Journal's February 2014 digital edition.

Jennifer Anderson is an iPad U teacher at Heritage E-STEM Magnet School in West Saint Paul, MN. In this interview, she shares how she uses tablets and social media to help her students translate their passions into lifelong learning.

Those Who Can, Teach

We are a middle school with an environmental focus on STEM, now in our fourth year as a 1-to-1 iPad school. I was the technology integration specialist when we got the grant that established the program, so I helped the teachers prepare for what it was going to look like to have a class full of students with iPads. After we did our six-week pilot, my principal asked if I would be interested in going into the classroom. I love teaching, so I jumped at the opportunity and was allowed to design what I felt would meet the needs of students who would have iPads with them all the time. I’m now in my third year as the iPad U teacher.

Students as Experts

If we were going to provide students with this tool, I wanted them to learn to go beyond the classroom walls and become connected learners. So in the first year, I connected my eighth graders with a school district in Brazil and, through Skype, my students were keynote speakers at a conference there, sharing with teachers who were looking at doing this kind of a program what it was like to have 24-hour access to the world as a student. Right now my fifth graders are using VoiceThread to do book talks encouraging younger students at some of the neighboring schools to read their picture books. They take so much pride in it because they see themselves as the experts. It’s different from doing something that a teacher is going to grade. When they’re doing something to help others, it’s more special to them.

Every Picture Tells a Story

My other big focus has been in making sure that students become producers, not just consumers, of technology. It can’t just be about using an app or staring at the screen; it’s what can they create, and whom are they going to share it with? Our big thing this year is a project in which the students are putting together a photo journal that tells the story of who we are as a community. We created a classroom Flickr account so we could share the photos, and after taking pictures in our school, we started going on trips to different locations in the community in which our school is involved. We’ve invited parents and community members to work with us.

The World in Their Hands

It’s so different now. Before, even when students could go to a computer lab, it was for a limited amount of time, so they couldn’t do such big projects. Now that we’ve put these iPads in their hands, they’re so much more engaged. As teams of teachers we create iBooks, where we send students out to learn things and provide them with links. We use iBooks Author to engage students in text. We create iTunes U courses. And because we are an E-STEM school, students are always going out into the field, so for them to have an iPad with them to take pictures and record data … with minimal equipment, they have everything they need.

Starting Early

iCafe, our student-run coffee shop (although we serve cocoa instead of coffee), provides an opportunity for students to come in before school, use our network and have a coffee shop-style experience. It’s helpful for students who may not have Internet access at home, and it’s also a way that students can gain life skills — seeing what it looks like to run a small business.

Living the Dream

Every time we come close to finishing a project I’ll ask the students, “What are we going to design next? What’s your passion?” For example, I knew I was going to introduce photography but I didn’t know where the students would want to go with it. We allow them to dream about what they want to do and then design the projects around that. And the kids get so excited about the projects. They can bring in their personal devices if it’s going to help with their learning, and they are always the teachers in my class. They help design the lessons. We circle up, talk about ideas, and I just feed off of their energy. To watch them discover different ways they’re going to use the technology is a lot of fun.

About the Author

Dan Gordon is a freelance writer based in Agoura Hills, CA.

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