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Going 'native' with iPads in classrooms

HURRICANE, W.Va. -- When Sue Pate's third-grade class received their pen-pal replies from fellow students at a Florida elementary school this year, she knew a standard reply wasn't going to cut it.

Fortunately for Pate, a teacher at West Teays Elementary School in Hurricane, she had the tools to allow her students to step up their game -- a school-provided iPad the kids used to film and take still photographs to make a "thank you" video to email to their far-away friends.

"I've done pen pals for years, but something was different about this," Pate said. "Because it was a video, it was easily emailed. [The application] gives them the individuality to choose whatever backgrounds and music they want, and they make it -- with my supervision, of course."

West Teays is one of several schools across West Virginia to participate in iPad Basic Training, a service provided through the West Virginia Center for Professional Development's Infusing Technology campaign. The center, an agency geared toward advancing the quality of teaching in West Virginia schools, began training teachers to use iPads three years ago so that digital "immigrants" -- educators -- could effectively teach their students, the digital "natives," according to Michelle Tharp, WVCPD's coordinator of technology integration.

"It gives them a great tool for creativity; they can put this technology in a child's hand that will allow them to create these wonderful projects through collaboration, communication and creativity," Tharp said. "One of the things I always stress is that the highest level of learning is teaching, so when you have a device that a child has used to learn a concept and they can go to another student and share that peer-to-peer learning -- that's an amazing tool."

The WVCPD launched its training in four schools: Big Otter Elementary School in Clay County, Shepherdstown Elementary in Jefferson County, Weir Middle in Hancock County; and Tucker County High School. The center acquired a grant to distribute 30 iPads between the four schools, and provided training and support over two years.

"It's so hard to design a program that is K-12, because what a kindergarten teacher needs is not what a 12th-grade teacher needs," Tharp said. "I think a big part of our success at the center is that we offers sessions that are relevant to teachers, but they get to choose what they learn about; it's not a demand."

More than 160 educators attended training sessions with the WVCPD this summer. While the center cannot provide devices or funding to all the schools it trains, Tharp said the intensive program allows teachers who are unfamiliar with iPads or similar technology to become comfortable using the device in the classroom and in ways they hadn't considered before.

"You have to give a teacher confidence to be able to say, 'OK, my 6-year-old is going to show me something new,'" she said. "I'm the director of technology, and I'm not a digital native."

West Teays has 40 iPads of its own, something Valerie Fowler, the school's principal, attributes to high levels of parent involvement at the school, as well as extra money earned through its after-school program. Each classroom also has an Apple TV, and nearly every teacher in the school has attended more than one day of the training at their own cost.

"The students' lives outside of school are very quickly paced because they're watching videos or playing video games or using an iPad with that 'instant' factor," Fowler said. "We can no longer teach in the 'read, do the questions at the end, take the test' way. We can't teach that way. Our students don't learn that way."

Fowler's point of view is one that has taken hold at the county level. Beginning in January, Putnam County Schools will begin to implement a "bring your own device" policy in select classrooms in every school. The three fifth-grade classrooms at West Teays will be part of the initiative, and while other schools might struggle to supplement students who do not have a device, Fowler said West Teays has two mobile labs with 30 laptops in each that she hopes will ensure no student goes without.

Fowler said every classroom has at least one iPad that teachers are allowed to carry with them -- something she believes will ultimately help them become more comfortable with the device.

"I wanted to make sure every teacher had one, and I wanted to make sure every teacher took it home," she said. "If they wanted to do their banking on it, do it, because that makes them more comfortable with using the machine. Write emails on it, bank on it, do your shopping on it -- but you also have to use it in the classroom."

According to Tharp, West Virginia schools are ahead of the curve in at least one respect: Legislation has mandated that every school in the state have Internet connectivity. The center also holds seminars on affording and creating a sustainable model for devices, and while Tharp acknowledges the initial cost for devices is expensive, she said understanding their upkeep and capability can allow schools to have tools that are far more engaging than textbooks.

"We've had administrators who have been very creative in thinking, 'OK, my textbook fund is going to cost me thousands of dollars, and they're already out of date by the time they get delivered and we have to use them for 10 years,'" Tharp said. "Instead, we can invest $400 in an iPad and have online, digital textbooks."

For Fowler, the inclusion of the iPads in her school's curriculum is just one way she hopes to diversify learning at West Teays. Beginning next semester, the school will introduce "No Worksheet Wednesday" to encourage teachers to think outside the box during instruction.

"We used an app today called "tetrominoes," and we're going to use it in tutoring, because some students are having trouble with turning and flipping and sliding shapes into the right spots; it helps them to get the concept of the difference between a turn and a flip," said Amy Julian, a fifth-grade teacher at the school. "What's been the biggest help for me is being able to bring home what I've been trying to teach them in the classroom and can't show them two-dimensionally."

The WVCPD plans to hold its next series of iPad Basic Training sessions in the spring. The center will hold training sessions on the following days, which are subject to change: Feb. 20 in Barboursville; March 5 and 6 in Martinsburg; March 13 in Bridgeport; March 20 in Charleston; April 1 in Morganton; and April 10 in Elkins. For more information or to register for an event, visit www.wvcpd.org.

Reach Lydia Nuzum at lydia.nuzum@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5189.


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