Horry County primary teachers get new technology for classes

vgrooms@thesunnews.comSeptember 5, 2012 

Horry County Schools primary teachers are making the most of new iPads they were given at the beginning of the school year, and the new technology makes life easier for them, fun for students and even has an added benefit for parents.

Each teacher in kindergarten through second grade was issued one iPad2 to replace their outdated iPAQ devices – similar to Palm Pilots -- which had been used for years to score Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills, or DIBELS, assessments. The Windows mobile device could only be used for the reading assessments, and those are administered just three times a year to test each child’s progress.

The iPad, however, already has proven to be a game-changer in the classroom.

“It does everything,” said Allison Gafford, a kindergarten teacher at Burgess Elementary School, after finishing a reading assessment using the new tool. “It uploads everything, and it is very, very quick. … I am getting done in a day and a half what used to take me a week.”

Gafford said the older devices were very slow, taking 3 or 4 minutes to do what the iPad does in just 1. There also were problems with syncing the iPAQs, and errors would sometimes occur, said kindergarten teacher Tara Valcourt.

“We tried to be really diligent to sync after each test,” Valcourt said. “Sometimes it would lose answers, and then we’d have to go back and redo it all.”

Principal Donna Hooks said the iPads put more tools at teachers’ fingertips, such as the Burst remediation program, which has repetitive lessons for children who need more help with reading. Hooks said the program features 5-minute lessons that students use in 30-minute blocks, and actually can form groups of students for the teacher. The children are reassessed every 10 days, which reinforces the need for a speedier process.

Charles Hucks, the school district’s executive director for technology, said the additional functionality was the key reason the decision was made last spring to buy the iPads. He said about 525 were issued at a cost of around $208,500 for the devices and for childproof cases, as the district wants them not only aiding teachers, but also in the hands of students.

Hooks said teachers are taking advantage of the many apps that can be downloaded and used for instruction in the classroom, as well as at home. Most of the apps are free and can be found for any aspect of the curriculum, such as handwriting or math, but she said all of them must be approved by the district.

Burgess Elementary is fortunate in having two carts for iPads that they received last year through a grant for use by fifth-graders, Hooks said. This year, the carts can be used by any class, and Gafford’s students were making use of their iPads with an app that was teaching them how to form letters of the alphabet. Gafford said the devices replace flashcards, move very fast, and the children are comfortable sliding through the exercises. She’s also finding the devices helpful in explaining classroom procedures, as she made a video with the iMovie app featuring teaching assistants who demonstrated correct and incorrect playground behavior.

“They’re digital natives,” Hooks said. “You can tell they have been around Apple products, and they’re using this for everything under the sun. We’re also teaching them about technology – this is the world they live in.”

First-grade teacher Sarah Elliott was teaching in Virginia until this year and said she had an iPad in her former school, so she was already comfortable using it in the classroom. She said her favorite use for the device was with interactive books, and five of her students were gathered around her iPad playing a game where they matched characters from the book they just read.

Elliott said before the iPad, students would listen on headphones and hold a book to follow the story, but the iPad offers features such as highlighting areas of text that are being read or actually having the page do what the text is saying.

“They couldn’t interact with a book, and kids are more comfortable with a screen,” Elliott said. “If it’s on a screen, they’ll pay attention to it.”

For second-graders, teacher Mary Savage said she and her students like Reading Rainbow, which allows one book to be downloaded at a time for a small fee, and the books are read by actor LeVar Burton. She said they also have been using games to reinforce math lessons and are looking for more fun ways to use the device.

As a teacher, though, Savage said the iPad has made a huge difference for her just in housekeeping activities, such as taking attendance and being a home for curriculum information that would otherwise come in a cumbersome teachers’ manual. Savage said she never had to use the older devices, as this will be the first year that second-graders have the reading assessments.

While teachers and students continue to explore what is possible with their new technology, the iPad cameras also are enabling parents to keep up with what is happening in their child’s classroom. Hooks said all of the Burgess teachers have a Facebook page to which they can immediately post photos and videos, which helps keep lines of communication open.

Valcourt took a photo of Brody Anderson beside a chain of letters that he had correctly strung together, which she was going to post on Facebook to celebrate his feat.

“It doesn’t take me any time to do it, and his mother is very active and will see what he’s done,” Valcourt said. “I have 29 students but double that number in [Facebook] ‘likes.’ It’s not just the parents; it’s grandparents, friends, everyone.”

Contact VICKI GROOMS at 443-2401 or follow her at Twitter.com/TSN_VickiGrooms.

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