January 23, 2015

Catholic Schools Week Supplement

Digital tablets bring change, opportunity to Catholic schools

Light from an iPad screen shines on Lydia Gigrich, left, an eighth grade student at St. Louis School in Batesville on Jan. 8. The Batesville Deanery school is a year and a half into having all of its students use iPads in its classrooms and for homework assignments. Sitting next to Lydia is eighth grader Alex Greers. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

Light from an iPad screen shines on Lydia Gigrich, left, an eighth grade student at St. Louis School in Batesville on Jan. 8. The Batesville Deanery school is a year and a half into having all of its students use iPads in its classrooms and for homework assignments. Sitting next to Lydia is eighth grader Alex Greers. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

By Sean Gallagher

BATESVILLE—Digital technology keeps advancing at a quick pace in society, and administrators and teachers in Catholic schools across central and southern Indiana are working hard to find the best way to use these devices in teaching their students.

St. Louis School in Batesville was the first elementary school in the archdiocese to have all its students use Apple iPads—a device which was initially launched only in 2010—in all their classes and for homework.

In the year and a half that the digital tablets have been used in the Batesville Deanery school, they have transformed the way that teachers gauge students’ learning.

In the past, St. Louis eighth-grade teacher Jenny Lents graded tests or quizzes by students at home, gathered all the scores on her own to see how the entire class was doing and then a day or so later could adjust her lesson plans to meet the needs of individual learners.

Lents says, however, that iPads, give her “immediate feedback” when students answer on their iPads questions projected onto a screen in the classroom. She receives their answers as soon as they enter them.

“Then I can go immediately in and help the kids that need more help,” she said. “Or if it’s the whole group not understanding something, then I can go back and reinforce that. It has saved me a ton of time.”

Mary McCoy, assistant superintendent of schools in the archdiocese’s Office of Catholic Education, said that the data on student learning in the past was more “summative,” collected at the end of chapters, in quizzes or tests. Now, she says, it is more “formative,” being gathered on a daily basis in ordinary classroom interaction.

“They’re constantly seeing what those students need or don’t need,” McCoy said. “They’re able to adjust their lessons, right there on the spot.”

St. Louis fourth-grade teacher Jill Hollins says that the digital devices have brought about a greater interaction between her and her students.

For example, they may have in the past been given a worksheet on which they would write down the meaning of vocabulary words. Now, on the iPads, students write a sentence with the words and either draw a picture or find a photo online to go with it. Each student’s page for each vocabulary word is then projected onto a screen in the classroom.

“When they use paper and pencil, a lot of times they’re just thinking, ‘I just want to get this done,’ ” Hollins said. “I think they take more interest and care more about their work with the iPad.”

Jessica Emil, director of technology at St. Louis, said that putting tablets in the hands of children starting in kindergarten isn’t as groundbreaking as it might seem since they have grown up around touch-screen devices.

“They’re very much digital learners, more so for kindergartners through the fourth grade than the sixth through eighth grades,” Emil said. “They’ve never not had a touch screen in their lives.”

“It’s more fun to learn with the iPads,” said fourth-grader Evelyn Storms. “And I kind of learn faster with the iPad.”

Recognizing the advantages of using digital devices that children have grown up with in their instruction is one thing. Making it financially possible is another.

St. Louis School was able in large part to put iPads in the hands of its nearly 350 students through a $125,000 grant it received from the Batesville-based John A. Hillenbrand Foundation.

Initially purchasing the iPads may be a big cost. But maintaining the use of them over the course of several years seemed to be a challenge, according to St. Louis principal Chad Mueller.

He noted a study that estimated that, over the course of an academic year, 20 percent of tablets used in a school would be broken and need to be replaced.

Given St. Louis’ enrollment, that would have been about 70 iPads. Parents and local business leaders on a study committee thought that this would make the initiative unfeasible.

“I kept saying to this group, ‘I cannot see our kids breaking 70 of the machines,’ ” Mueller said. “It became a joke. But at the end of last year, we had seven that were broken.”

He thinks that this fact is indicative of the Catholic identity of the school, and the way it and the parents who enroll their children there form them to be good stewards.

“It shows the type of kids that attend Catholic schools,” Mueller said.

Instilling Gospel values through the use of iPads at St. Louis also means that filters are installed in their Internet browsers, social media websites are not available and that the only apps the students may download to the devices are those directly related to instruction. The school also has a “digital citizenship” committee that helps parents and students to be safe and use good values online.

Lents and her students also used the iPads on the first feast of St. John Paul II last October to learn more about the recently canonized pontiff.

“I had the kids within five minutes find 20 interesting facts about him [online],” she said. “Then we shared it as a class on their IPads.”

Using tablets to deliver instruction has also made it possible for some schools in central and southern Indiana to continue the educational process even on days when winter weather forces schools to close.

Our Lady of Providence Jr./Sr. High School in Clarksville is one school in the archdiocese that has received approval from the Indiana Department of Education to use the “virtual option” during such closures.

On such days, teachers have to post lessons and assignments online by 9 a.m. and have to be available either through text messaging, e-mail or by phone during regular school hours to answer students’ questions.

Providence has developed its own iPad application—PHS iTeach—on which students can access assignments. Teachers at the New Albany Deanery school also have the capability to post videos of instruction online, and to hold online video meetings with students on closure days.

The virtual option can potentially bring more consistency to a students’ educational experience. In the 2013-14 academic year, which included many severe winter storms, Providence was closed on nine days and had to make up seven of those days during other planned vacation periods.

“The whole point is that it allows instruction to continue instead of having stops and starts,” said Providence principal Mindy Ernstberger.

Providence put the virtual option to the test for the first time last November when the school was closed after a snowstorm passed through southern Indiana.

Ashlyn Edwards, a senior at Providence, told her school’s online newsletter she liked how the virtual option worked.

“It was a useful experience because I still got all my lessons, but I could do them at my own leisure and get my work done at my pace,” she said. “I believe it is a better alternative to snow days because … it makes the schedule more definite because it eliminates the question of whether we will really have days off or whether we will have to come in as a snow make-up day.”

Other schools in the archdiocese that have been approved for the virtual option include Cardinal Ritter Jr./Sr. High School and Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School, both in Indianapolis.

Leaders at St. Louis School in Batesville did not seek approval for the virtual option because they felt that elementary school students need more face-to-face time with teachers than those in high schools.

Ernstberger also recognizes the importance of the classroom experience. She said that Providence won’t always use the virtual option when they have to be closed because of inclement weather.

“We want to keep our options open,” she said. “If we have a really bad winter and we feel like we’ve had too many days off in a row, we want to be able to make decisions that would still be in the best interests of our students’ instruction.” †

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