On a 60-inch, flat-screen television hanging at the front of her classroom, teacher Mary Stenbeck has posted a website address for a student chat room.
There, her seventh-grade language arts students, having accessed the site with their iPads, are discussing the novel “Tangerine,” with prompts by Stenbeck that include, “What do the boys feel about each other?”
Some students might be too shy to raise their hands and discuss such a question in class, Stenbeck said. But in the virtual world that has become increasingly real, students
have ongoing threads with each other, discussing Edward Bloor’s novel like grown-ups in a book club.
“The world’s so different for them now,” Stenbeck said, standing not far from a collection of old VHS tapes in the back of her Santa Lucia Middle School classroom.
Computer tablets such as the iPad haven’t fully replaced textbooks and blackboards yet. But if schools follow the path of Cambria’s public schools, tablets will become a staple of student backpacks, furthering the technological gap between them and parents, who grew up when VCRs and CDs were cutting edge.
“Most of these kids live in that environment already, and schools are catching up to them,” said Ashley Lightfoot, director of information and technology for the Paso Robles Joint Unified School District, which is now considering a pilot program to introduce iPads at Kermit King Elementary School.
The iPad, unveiled by Apple in 2010, is a touch-screen tablet computer that allows users to shoot video and photos, play music, browse the Internet and send emails. With the rapid growth of social media, schools have recognized the benefits of having iPads and other tablets in the classroom.
“We used to go to the computer lab,” said Ivone DeJesus, a seventh-grader at Santa Lucia. “Now, we just use our iPad in the classroom.”
Introducing tablets into schools has not been without glitches.
The Los Angeles Unified School District had to slow down its $1 billion project to equip all its student with iPads, citing unexpected problems. There, roughly 300 students found ways around the district’s security filters, and iPads wound up missing — public embarrassments that caused a backlash.
But at Cambria — which officials from L.A. Unified once visited to observe the effectiveness of the iPad program — administrators say the iPad addition has been mostly positive, aside from some early connectivity issues.
“It does seem to be going really well,” said Kyle Martin, principal at Santa Lucia. “It’s really integrated into every class, from PE to language arts.”
The program in Cambria began with a single sixth-grade class two years ago. Now, every student in middle and high school has one, as do those in select elementary classes.
“They’re used quite often in all the classes,” said Wade Lawrence, principal of Coast Union High School.
The iPads, paid for by the district, include an Internet filter, closed-loop email so students can communicate only with other students and teachers, and educational apps selected by school staff. In many cases, students can upload their textbooks onto the iPad, allowing them to write notes in the book without getting sent to the principal’s office for vandalism.
While the iPad program concerned some teachers early on, Martin said, they were quickly onboard.
“We had a couple of teachers that were super innovative early on, and it was just contagious,” he said.
Because of the success of the program at the middle school, Martin said, administrators from across the country and as far away as Australia visited the school last year to see how tablets can be used in the classroom.
In the classroom
Students in Colleen Poynter’s sixth-grade social studies class at Santa Lucia are looking at a book, “Ancient Civilizations,” which is available on their iPads in PDF form. Poynter has emailed students a template of questions about the book, including, “What was cuneiform used for first?”
As Poynter walks around the room, one student highlights a line from his book — “It first represented an object” — then pastes it into the template, which will be emailed back to his teacher.
“It’s the main way the students are receiving and turning in their assignments,” Martin said of the iPad.
The iPads do more than facilitate communication, said Henry Danielson, director of technology at Cambria’s Coast Unified School District. Students in PE might use them to watch videos on how to hit a volleyball or check their heart rates. Band teachers have students record their practices at home on video and send them for review. In January, students in one of Stenbeck’s classes will have a live video chat with a woman living in the Middle East as they study Middle Eastern culture.
The iPads have encouraged group projects and presentations in front of class while raising student interest, Danielson said.
“Because the kids are into what they’re doing, they’re actually engaged more,” he said.
While students still visit the library, the iPads provide instant access to the Internet. If a teacher is talking about the Leaning Tower of Pisa, Martin said, students can look up more information about it during the discussion.
“Whatever the topic is, they want to know more and more about it, and it’s just right there,” he said.
The school filters won’t allow some sites, including YouTube and Facebook.
“Basically, anything that could make the student be off-task in class,” said David May, another seventh-grade student at Santa Lucia.
So far, those filters have worked without fault, Danielson said. Still, administrators in Paso Robles — a much bigger district — are taking things cautiously, having read about problems in Los Angeles.
“We are going to see similar issues,” Lightfoot said. “So it’s important that we start small and learn from our mistakes.”
In Paso Robles, where the proposal was just recently introduced to receptive board members, parents might have to actually pay for the iPads — at $45 per month for 18 months, according to one plan — which might beg the question: Why do we need these?
That was even the reaction in Cambria, a district of just 735 students where parents didn’t have to pay anything.
“When we first got them, they had no idea,” DeJesus said of her parents. “They were like, ‘Why do you need the iPad?’ And we were just like, ‘It’s just way easier. Instead of carrying books around, books are there. You can check your grades on it. And you can be way more organized.’ ”
Gary Stephenson, whose son, Will, is an eighth-grader at Santa Lucia, said there were a few skeptical parents initially.
“I think any time there’s an advancement in technology, there are going to be people who embrace it, and there are going to be people who push back,” he said.
Yet, Stephenson, who has produced kids’ shows such as “The Troop” and “Kids Incorporated,” embraced the program.
“I think it’s the next logical step in bringing these kids up to speed technologically,” he said. “It’s ground-breaking.”
Stephenson said the iPads have made learning more interactive and expansive, and they have encouraged his son to participate in schooling more.
“I think it keeps him more engaged,” he said. “He’s not just flipping through a dry textbook.”