Tech revolution happening in Arcola schools
ARCOLA — With a population of less than 3,000, Arcola is known far and wide as the gateway to Illinois Amish Country, the broom corn capital of the world and, lately, a leading innovator in educating by iPad.
In October, Arcola became the only public school district in the area to hand an iPad to each of its students — all 800 or so — plus a MacBook, Apple-compatible projector and Apple TV to each of its teachers. Almost three months into the 1-to-1 program, seventh- and eight-grade literature teacher Danica Norton can't imagine running a classroom without the technology.
"It sounds funny, but what did I do before?" she said. "The classroom has changed tremendously. It's extremely valuable. With the way communication is and society is, it's really beneficial.
"I know some people would argue we're too addicted to technology, but at the same time, if that's what society is, that's what we need to be teaching our kids to use and be comfortable with so they can be successful in the future."
When the district hired Tom Mulligan as superintendent in 2013, he and several community members began having conversations about how to move the classrooms into the digital age. They worked fast, starting last spring by purchasing 120 iPads to pilot in several classes. After positive reviews and results at the end of the school year, they knew they had to do more, Mulligan said.
One massive community fundraising campaign later, the district had more than $650,000, enough to digitize the entire K-12 student body — and still have money left over.
For second-grade teacher Brianne Eads, the creative learning aspect is only one of the benefits to iPads for everyone. The devices have also become essential tools in behavior and classroom management, she said.
"We use this app called Too Noisy and I usually set it up during small group instruction because that's when they tend to get off topic a lot. Each time the noise levels are low, a little star lights up and when they get 10 stars they get a (reward)," she said. "It works really nicely because I've set up expectations of what they are supposed to do — and if they don't, the iPad will be taken away.
"And of course, they don't want to lose that."
The devices also make planning lessons and keeping kids engaged 100 times easier, Eads said. During class time, her second graders use apps like eAudience and ePresenter to help them get ready for tests. All elementary students use apps like Spelling City and eSpark to work on math and reading skills.
eSpark is one of the applications that has revolutionized Eads' classroom because it provides students with individualized instruction that allows them to work at their own pace. Most elementary students complete work on eSpark for 30 minutes a day, she said.
These types of apps are exactly what gives second grader Brianna Lexa Salinas confidence when it comes to keeping up with her classmates.
"Having the iPads in class really helps me because sometimes I am slow at math, so I can just learn on my own," Brianna said. "My favorite app is called Xtramath because they have all these little math questions and you have to try to solve them with addition and subtraction. It's a game because you have to try to beat the teacher."
When students hit fourth grade, they're allowed to take their iPads home at night for homework. That's what fourth grader Breden Shonkwiler likes most about having a device.
"Like this week, we are doing a project called Picture of the Week, where we write a story based on a picture, so we really have to work on it a lot and it's due (today). So I like taking my iPad home to work on it," she said.
Breden's teacher, Bethany Wellbaum said the extra responsibility over the technology helps kids take a little bit more ownership in their work. The iPads also limit transition time between subjects, which means Wellbaum can spend more time doing what she loves — teaching.
"I don't have to waste time any more, which is awesome. Instead of taking 10 minutes to walk down to the computer lab, I can tell the kids to just get their iPads and their keyboards out for typing lessons," she said.
Not all fun and games
As transformative as the iPads have been in the classroom, Wellbaum believes balance between screen time and traditional pen-and-paper time is vital.
"It's important to do both. I don't like to have them on it all day everyday," she said. "Obviously, screen time impacts your eyes and your mood, how you feel. Keeping it balanced is really important."
It's that lack of pen and paper, though, and quick access to information that has made the transition to iPads so easy for eighth grader Mary Jose Alanis.
"I don't think I learned as much before, when we didn't have the iPads. It's so much easier with them. It was a lot harder to cite evidence from a book than it is from a screen, but also it's technology I'm familiar with and interested in, which makes it easier," she said, adding that she sometimes notices the devices can be a bit distracting in class, with all the games and music she has access to.
But students are limited in what they can download. No social media apps are allowed and only three noneducational games can be downloaded on the device, fourth grader Morgan Doud said.
"Most of the school apps are really fun, but some are not so fun, so they let us download three fun games. But we can only play those at home," she said. "I have Monograms and Kiwi, but I also really like doing Spelling City, Book Creator and Keynote."
No debate: They're great
At the high school level, iPads are used for something different each day, said language arts teacher Emily Coombe. Students and teachers often explore how to use the technology in class together, but the "kids are directing the evolution," she said.
"In my speech class, the kids just did a debate today. They did all their research leading up to it using the iPads, and some kids even prepared their notes on the device," she said. "They were able to communicate with each other outside of class, pull up visual aids for their presentations and just connect really easily.
"During the debate, we had several students researching on the spot when their opponent presented an issue they hadn't thought of yet. We had real-time answers to questions. This is something we're going to keep learning how to adapt to."
When senior Yazkara Garza graduates come spring, her iPad will be recycled and given to an elementary student. That's great, she says, only wishing she'd had access to this kind of technology at a younger age.
"It has completely changed the classroom; you can get information right away," she said. "I still stick to the traditional side of things some, though; I look up information and then write it down in my notebooks. Having them in class has been so helpful; everything is so quick."
When the iPads were first handed out, the district had to sort through some technical and implementation issues, Mulligan said, but things have run smoothly ever since.
"The potential is amazing," he said. "We have a great balance of traditional learning and innovation, and the level of engagement with the kids when they're using their iPads is pretty powerful."