It was completely quiet in Cathy Pons’ science class at St. James Middle School last week as 30 students worked on their iPads, learning the phases of the moon.
Some were using the iMovie app to make movies about the moon, while others were at a lab station, using cookies to illustrate the different phases, which they photographed and incorporated into their assignment. Everything was done via their iPads, allowing each student to be creative in their own way and send their work to Pons for immediate feedback.
“It’s more interactive and a lot more fun,” said Jacob English, 14, as he worked in the lab, and Pons agreed.
“The iPads really get them engaged,” she said. “I’ve been teaching 30-something years, and it’s changed everything I do. This is the greatest thing we’ve ever done for our children.”
Middle school students and teachers across Horry County Schools are discovering new ways of learning now that each has their own iPad, new digital content and a host of helpful apps. The devices make it easier for students to work at their own pace, work with a partner and share with the class, which gives teachers more options for instruction and classroom management.
The district distributed 9,600 iPads to its middle schools in January as the first phase of its personalized digital learning initiative. The Horry County school board put $2.2 million toward the initiative, which goes hand-in-hand with the district’s technology plan that is being paid for with capital funds. The rollout of digital devices will continue in the fall for grades nine through 12 and in fall 2015 for grades three through five.
Lauren Macheski, an eighth-grade math teacher at St. James, said having the devices has made things easier for her students, who had to use desktop computers in the school’s computer lab before iPads allowed them to be grouped in one room.
“I had one student who shouted out, ‘I love this learning in small groups,’ ” Macheski said. “They’re all starting to come alive.”
Middle school students aren’t strangers to technology, having grown up with the rise of smartphones and tablets. Even students without devices at home have a knack for learning how to use them quickly.
“It was actually easy to catch on,” said Annabel Hutchens, a sixth-grader at Forestbrook Middle School. She said her family doesn’t own an iPad, but she had already used her device at school to create a detailed movie about the hierarchy in Japan for her social studies class.
Classmate Derek Herrera-Diaz also explained assignments he had done on his iPad, including a grammar assignment in the ShowMe app that allows answers to be handwritten on the iPad screen.
“I love technology,” Herrera-Diaz said, “and I enjoy experiencing school another way.”
Digital content is a key component of the initiative, and students are working with Discovery Education Techbook for science, ALEKS for math and Achieve 3000 for English language arts, said Edi Cox, HCS director of online learning/instructional technology. Teams of teachers also are developing digital content for middle school social studies courses, which will be available in iTunes University, and “there are hundreds of free apps for all content areas that teachers are using with students to make learning more engaging and fun,” she said.
Teachers – from those who had never owned a tablet to advanced iPad users – are receiving support from three digital integration specialists, who were hired by the district at the beginning of the school year. Each specialist is assigned to certain schools to troubleshoot and work with teachers on how to use their devices and integrate apps and content into their instructional plans.
The three specialists already have started working with the high schools to prepare for their digital launch in the fall, and the district is hiring three additional specialists to continue the work as more schools are added in the initiative.
Danny Wysong is the digital integration specialist for Forestbrook and St. James, two of the six schools he visits each week to work with teachers such as Pons, who said she had purchased an iPad three years ago with a grant but didn’t really know how to use it until now. Wysong, a former Forestbrook teacher, said the frequency of his visits has been vital to helping teachers get familiar with the new technology.
“I told them, ‘I want you to think of me as part of your staff,’ ” Wysong said. “We’ve been talking things through, helping them get that control and to be comfortable and not afraid to say, ‘I don’t know.’ ”
Forestbrook Principal April Scott said they had a plan going into the initiative, and every teacher has had 30 hours of additional staff development. She said having someone to support the staff each week has been one of the best components.
“They want to talk with someone who’s savvy – whether it’s something basic or more accelerated – but he can help you where you are,” Scott said.
St. James students have had their iPads a little more than a month, and it’s been full steam ahead for both students and teachers, said Principal Dwight Boykin.
“With 1,175 kids, there are always challenges, but we said, ‘We’re going to whelm them,’ not overwhelm them,’ ” Boykin said, “and the parents love it.”
Boykin said they had to plan backwards for things such as iPad charging stations and for where the devices would be kept during lunch. They’ve made it all work, especially for the 375 sixth-graders, who have received “iBags” from the school, which they can wear as backpacks with their devices inside.
Linda Shade, St. James curriculum specialist, said teachers in electives – even in physical education - are finding ways to use the iPads for instruction, and that sixth-graders are more used to the devices because they already were using them in elementary school. The iPads have features that can help all children, she said, whether they’re a struggling reader, an accelerated student or special needs student.
“It’s a great socializer and a great equalizer,” Shade said.
Scott and Boykin said they can monitor what students download, and, so far, the only unauthorized apps they’ve seen have been various games, such as Angry Birds. Wysong said teachers and students have embraced the initiative and are running with it.
“There’s tons of research that equates engagement with achievement,” Wysong said, “and they’re working toward higher levels of thinking, which is where the student is going to learn the most. The kids are already creating products, and they are proud of what they’re doing.”
Contact VICKI GROOMS at 443-2401 or follow her at Twitter.com/TSN_VickiGrooms.