'They don't use books': The digital age comes to local junior highs

News-DemocratOctober 12, 2013 

West Junior High teacher Jennifer Podhrasky and Cathedral fourth-grade teacher Sue Ratkewicz talk about how they use technology in their Belleville, Ill., classrooms.

JAMIE FORSYTHE/BND

Eighth-grader Serena Mendiola, 13, stands in front of her class at Blessed Sacrament School in Belleville and reviews the three holy sites in Jerusalem with her classmates. Serena uses a presentation she created on her iPad, which is mirrored on the interactive whiteboard in the corner of the room.

"They do most of their work at home and them come to school and present it," explained eighth-grade teacher Michelle Janes. "They don't use books. They can type and present all from the iPads."

Serena, like all eighth-graders at Blessed Sacrament this year, received an iPad for use at school and at home. The devices were purchased by the school, according to Principal Claire Hatch, but a student's family must cover the yearly insurance cost for the device at $50.

The eighth-graders quickly transition from religion to reviewing their typed journal entries on the iPads. Then Janes announces a pop quiz in English, and the students moan in unison as she explains how they can find the quiz on their iPads.

The eighth-graders complete the quiz and submit it to their teacher via email. Janes' iPad lying on her desk buzzes as finished quizzes come in from students.

"It's been way more successful than I thought it might be," Janes said. "It takes one minute for them (students) to figure it out. It's just their language. It's unbelievable."

Blessed Sacrament hopes to provide iPads to the sixth- and seventh-graders by next school year, Hatch said, with two more grade levels added every year. "The kids are really excited," she said. "It's really turned them onto learning."

Seventh-grade teacher Sandy Casson at Cathedral Catholic School in Belleville said technology helped her students develop critical thinking skills. "I notice they ask a lot more in-depth questions, and they can get the answers," she said.

During a recent class, Casson's seventh-graders were using netbooks to learn more about learning disabilities, a rare birth defect known as Morquio syndrome and bullying, which were all topics covered in a book they recently read called "Freak the Mighty" by Rodman Philbrick.

"I feel like each lesson I can take it so many steps further," Casson said.

Eighth-graders in Jennifer Podhrasky's language arts class at West Junior High School in Belleville used Google Chromebooks to complete an assignment regarding understanding dialect from the 1800s. Once students finished the assignment, they submitted it via email.

"We are all embracing this," Podhrasky said. "It's the digital age. It's what students are interested in."

Eighth-grade math teacher Stacie Mayberry at West Junior High in Belleville had her students laughing during a recent lesson on rational and irrational numbers using the interactive whiteboard. Each student was given the opportunity to "pull" a number out of a box on the screen using a stylus pen and place it in the appropriate circle identifying it as either a rational or irrational number.

Technology leader

Joseph Arthur Middle School in O'Fallon has been at the forefront of putting technology in the hands of students. Six years ago, it was laptops, and now, every middle school student gets a tablet computer.

Central District 104 Superintendent John Bute explained the district launched a one-to-one program at the middle school six years ago, and each student received a MacBook.

As those devices reached the end of their life span, Bute said the district, in conjunction with the school board, chose to continue with the program and purchase an Android tablet for each of the 230 middle school students in grades five through eight.

The KUNO tablets retail for about $500 each and are expected to last four or five years. "This one is specifically manufactured for the educational field," Bute said.

The one-to-one program was initially funded with assistance from external sources. However, Bute said money is no longer available. In order to keep electronic devices in the hands of students, the district purchased the tablet computers at a cost of nearly $200,000.

"We do recognize the world our students live in now is technology driven," Bute said. "We want them to have as many possibilities as they possibly can to learn using technology, using those tools so they are familiar with it. It can only benefit them as they move onto high school, college and careers."

The students take the tablets with them to every class, every day. Each student is provided a username and password to login to his or her assigned tablet. The district downloads specific content to each tablet, which the students can access with or without Internet access.

During a recent English class, sixth-grade teacher Doug Rist showed his students a picture of a large man jumping into a pool on the interactive whiteboard and asked them to write a creative story about the picture.

Rist described technology as an "educational tool" he uses every day. "It's a way to reach all learners in the classroom," he said. "It's a wonderful tool. It will never replace teachers. It's just another delivery system."

Bute agrees with Rist. "I know the most quality thing you put in a classroom is the teacher," Bute said. "The quality of the teacher determines the quality of instruction in that class."

Joseph Arthur Middle School still uses traditional textbooks, but has been purchasing digital content for the electronic devices as the district's textbooks become outdated.

The tablets enable teachers to provide the most up-to-date content to students. "We can instantly update our curriculum with digital content and not have to go and buy new textbooks on a regular basis," Bute explained. "At their fingertips, they (students) have access to more information than they can possibly ever have in a textbook."

Instead of having textbooks opened on their desk, students in Emily Weber's math class at Joseph Arthur Middle School had their math book displayed on their tablet. Weber had the book also displayed on the interactive whiteboard and was going over key math terms and practice problems with her class as they took notes on paper at their desk.

What do students think?

Seventh-graders in Tara Karfs' social studies class at West Junior High enjoy being active in class when they're using the electronic whiteboard.

"I like using the projector board, because it helps us get through the lessons easier and have fun," said 12-year-old Derrick Williams.

"It gives us the opportunity to be the teacher of the classroom," said Jamya Wilburn, 12. "It's a lot of fun."

Alexei Jacob, 13, echoed the sentiment of classmates. "It's fun getting to use the Promethean board," Alexei said.

Fun was also a word used by Joseph Arthur Middle School students to describe working with the KUNO tablets every day. "It's really fun," said sixth-grader McKenzie Haas, 11.

Blessed Sacrament eighth-grader Louise Comerford, 13, said she likes the iPads at her school, because "they are a lot more organized."

Her classmate Serena said she enjoys having the iPads, because "it's easier than having books."

Contact reporter Jamie Forsythe at 239-2562 or jforsythe1@bnd.com.

Contact reporter Jamie Forsythe at 239-2562 or jforsythe1@bnd.com.

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