St. Mary School issues iPads to all students in grades 5-8

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Frank Schultz
Wednesday, March 13, 2013

— Jan Bier burst into James Martin's algebra class last week.

"I just wanted you to know we're using our iPads," Bier said excitedly.

Bier, who is close to retirement, has been learning from the younger teacher about the tablet technology.

"We're learning as we go, and it seems like the younger they are, the quicker they catch on to it," Bier said later.

Students at St. Mary Catholic School seem to be embracing it wholeheartedly. The devices are not new, but St. Mary is the first school in Janesville to issue an iPad to every student in grades 5-8.

The change is not without its hiccups, but it has solved some age-old problems.

Consider the frustrations of homework lost because it was stuffed into a forgotten backpack pocket.

Students now complete their work and send it to their teachers electronically. Teachers can reply with grades and corrections, also electronically.

"So there's no paper copies being sent back and forth or papers getting lost in the backpacks. It's there," Principal Julie Garvin said.

Garvin knows about papers getting lost. Her daughter is a St. Mary eighth-grader.

"I lose things a lot," Madi Garvin admitted. "So this helps me keep track of them because they're always in there. They're always on my iPad."

That's right, iPads have created a situation in which a mother and her middle-school daughter can agree.

Garvin also knows about how students treat textbooks. She's seen them drop the heavy things on the floor in front of their lockers. They don't do that to the iPads, she said.

"My math book's somewhere in my locker. I haven't touched it since we got our iPads," Madi said.

Garvin said iPads also are helping kids who have trouble organizing their work.

There are few if any classes or activities that an iPad can't enhance, it appears. Students have loaded the rehearsal recording for their upcoming musical, "Seussical Jr.," onto their iPads, said eighth-grader Gabe Hanna.

Students observed in classes seem to be handling the tablets with few problems.

"Our kids are so in tune with it that for us not to gravitate towards that, I think, would be a huge disservice to the kids," Garvin said of the technology.

Principal Judi Dillon at nearby St. John Vianney Catholic School is more cautious. Her school has 30 iPads that teachers share—enthusiastically.

"They're a step ahead of us, that's for sure," Dillon said of St. Mary.

But Dillon wonders if it might be beneficial to wait and see what the next digital hardware innovation might bring.

Half the money for the iPads came from not buying new textbooks this year, Garvin said. The rest came from the parents group, the Home & School Association.

When you consider the cost of textbooks and the fact that they're outdated the day you put them in students' hands, updatable, digital textbooks are the way to go, Garvin said.

The school isn't completely paperless, but St. Mary has laid the groundwork for eliminating paper.

Math is nearly all on the iPad now, Garvin said. Science and language arts are next.

Kids, while enthusiastic about the technology, have a few gripes. They say their keyboards are quite sensitive, so they have to adjust how hard they punch the keys. And taking notes with a finger or a stylus on a screen isn't as fast as with a pencil or pen, Madi said.

"But once you get used to it, it balances out," Gabe said.

And one part of the file-sharing software needs a fix. Martin said a feature that allows the teacher to embed notes in an assignment works just fine on the teachers' laptops, but the notes don't show up when students access the assignment on their iPads. Martin was confident a solution would be found.

Gabe and Madi said their biggest concern is next year when they attend public high school.

Students who have gotten used to taking notes and writing papers on iPads will be back to paper and pencil, they said.

The Janesville School District would allow them to bring an iPad or a laptop to school, but Gabe and Madi said they'd worry about theft and damage in a big high school.

"We all have names on it, and everybody's looking out for each other," Madi said.

St. Mary students also have an economic incentive to protect their tablets. A student must cough up $10 if he loses his iPad and someone finds it. An extended care plan the school bought means a cost of $50 the first two times the iPad is damaged. The third time, it's $699.

Students take notes on their iPads. They do homework on their iPads. They write research papers on their iPads, which come with small keyboards and plastic covers.

The iPad also serves as a graphic calculator, a must-have in some math classes, and a dictionary, Gabe noted.

Apps abound. Garvin told of a microscopic dissection of a flower that went awry because the plants had dried out. The teacher switched students to an app that allowed virtual dissection.

In class, students can go straight to the Internet for answers. Madi told of playing the game "Oregon Trail" in social studies. The game posed the question of what to do when bitten by a rattlesnake. A quick jaunt on the Internet provided an answer.

"It's a lot faster because it's right on your iPad," Gabe said.

"You don't have to go to the computer lab to look something up anymore," Madi added.


Last updated: 7:57 am Monday, April 29, 2013

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