School Matters

Middle school puts cutting-edge educational tools to use

Special to The CambrianFebruary 20, 2014 

What do toilets have to do with education and iPads?

Last year Colleen Poynter gave her sixth-grade language arts students a fairly typical early middle school assignment: Prepare and present instructions for something you do frequently, that are logical, complete and in order.

Ethan Walters, one of her students at the time, chose “toilet cleaning 101” and produced a video to fulfill the assignment. He recruited a group of aspiring young actresses, including his younger sister, to perform the cleaning tasks while he kept his hands free to operate his iPad camera.

The video was an instant hit, going viral throughout Santa Lucia Middle School. That’s one assignment that came alive in an unexpected way. And there were indirect benefits.

Walters’ presentation raised the bar for subsequent student presentations, creating competition among students to innovate. He also became a peer “teacher,” sharing thoughts and techniques with others.

Recently, Kendra Brewer’s sixth-grade science class was learning about the desert biome. The students read the text aloud, going around the classroom, and then they were asked to open a template Brewer had emailed to them. Together, they filled out the template using understanding gained from the text.

Finally, she asked them to find two desert pictures to cut and paste onto the template. Within seconds, the class was on the Internet looking for appropriate pictures. Once the process was complete, they emailed the templates back to Brewer.

At a minimum, this exercise served three purposes: to complement the text, to teach how to take and organize notes, and to become a study aid for a subsequent test.

Santa Lucia Middle School has fully integrated iPads into its classrooms. From a teaching standpoint, Poynter noted, “I really believe the iPad is a great tool when one has great strategies in place. It takes teaching and learning to a new level.”

From a student’s standpoint, she observed that iPads help in many ways. They create a permanent record of assignments and work. The family dog cannot eat homework. They also help students organize work that might otherwise be lost in overstuffed binders, by permitting them to store it in logical groupings and to annotate documents so they can find material readily.

In the case of students who are easily distracted by the active screen, there is still paper and pencil. But once the work is completed, students photograph their pages and make full use of their electronic organizers.

Kyle Martin, Santa Lucia’s principal, observed, “Since going one-to-one with iPads, we saw an increase in the number of students earning GPAs of 3.5 or higher, an increase in overall attendance — which we believe is linked to higher student engagement, and a major jump in the number of resource students who jumped out of the basic and below basic levels on state tests.”

He continued, “We feel our students' familiarity with technology has greatly increased our ability to prepare them for career and college. The skills they are acquiring alongside of the academic material — research, presentation, publishing with technology — gives them an edge for their futures and is in line with our district motto of preparing tomorrow's leaders.”

All this — and the Walters family ended up with a sparkling toilet!

Ted Siegler’s “School Matters” column is special to The Cambrian. Email suggested topics to him at

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