iPads a welcome addition to Marshall kindergarten classes

MARSHALL – The first thing you might notice when you walk into Erica Hess’ kindergarten classroom at Park Side Elementary School in Marshall is the fascinating seating options available for her students. Then, you realize that those students are using those interesting seats to sit on while they use brand new iPads to learn.

While the digital classroom scene is part of a growing educational trend, it’s somewhat new to the Marshall School District and perhaps schools in the region.

“I think the kids love the iPads,” Hess said. “Otherwise they wouldn’t be so excited to use them. Even at rest time, they are still excited to use them. It’s choice time, so it’s up to them if they want to use it or not.”

Together, Hess and kindergarten teacher Sue Strautz applied for and received a TIGERSS (Technology Integration Generating Education and Real Student Success) grant from the district.

“They wanted to know what we’d do with the money if we got it,” said Hess, who has taught for 10 years, five of which have been at Marshall. “And like we envisioned, the students are using the iPads in some capacity every day.”

Hess admits that she was extremely passionate about integrating technology into her classroom after she returned from a technology conference and a visit to a 21st century school in Wisconsin.

“What I like best is that it gives me the ability to tailor the learning so that the kids are more excited about it,” Hess said. “We want kids to love learning, and we want them to never stop learning. So, if I can foster that at a kindergarten level and that love can continue, then I feel like I’ve done my job.”

Strautz and Hess split the 24 new iPads they received as part of the TIGERSS grant. Having applied for a Pride in the Tiger grant before Christmas as well, the duo received a total of 12 more. So now, each of their classrooms have 18 iPads to use.

“Five of my kids do have a partner with the iPads,” Hess said. “But they’re strategically placed with kids that might be out of the room for part of the day. So really, they all have some individual time now, so that’s nice.”

Long before the iPads arrived, Hess knew she needed to change up the seating options for her students. While furniture shopping, Hess tried to imagine what a 5-year-old child would like to sit on while using the new iPads.

“When we went to Wisconsin to visit that school, they had a saddle seat and had little tiny chairs,” she said. “They had one table for their class of 36, which had two classroom teachers. They decided, as a team, that they were going to push their classrooms together. They made it work.”

Hess said that she’d always had a variety of furniture in her room, such as crate chairs with padding on the top. But she got some additional ideas after seeing the way the Wisconsin school made good use of its furniture and space.

“I’ve always had different kinds of furniture, I just didn’t have it to the magnitude that I do now,” Hess said.

Hess’ classroom now includes a large carpet, an egg chair, two orange cubes, a kid-sized couch, a tall table with chairs, a rocking chair, a saddle seat and a variety of other chairs.

“We’re using flexible seating, not the traditional seating,” Hess said. “I had them roam around and try out the different seating options and then after a week, I asked them for their favorite. I created a seating chart that way.”

Somewhat surprising to Hess, more students wanted to sit at the tall table than she expected, and instead of sitting on the orange cubes, students preferred to use them as a table while learning on their iPad. In addition to being very respectful of the new furniture, students were also well-behaved while learning on the iPads, Hess said.

“We’ve had no behavior problems,” she said.

Before being assigned individual iPads, Hess had her students “apply” for their iPad license. They had to learn about safety, how to protect the device and simple tasks, such as knowing where the home button was.

“It was so cute because they took it so seriously,” Hess said during a Marshall School Board presentation Monday. “Now they each have a license with their own picture on it.”

Student had the opportunity to practice videoing at Independence Park during a field trip recently, Hess said. Many of the students were proud to have captured footage of a kite stuck in a tree.

“It’s the little things like that, that are the most memorable,” Hess said.

The kindergarten students have the opportunity to use the iPad for many different activities, including Dreambox Learning, a web-based math program.

“I like that they have puzzles on them,” kindergartner Charyti Reyna said. “I also like to do Dreambox.”

Reyna, who was thrilled about receiving a Kindle for Christmas, said she liked that there were so many choices to make on an iPad.

“That’s why iPads are so fun,” she said.

By using Dreambox, Hess can analyze each student’s progress as they move through problem-solving math games. So far, her students are making remarkable progress, she said.

“They’re halfway through kindergarten and half of the class is halfway through first-grade math concepts already,” Hess said about her students. “Some of those kids are already into second-grade math concepts, too. And it nice because the kids don’t really know because the games all look similar.”

Hess and Strautz also developed their own individual learning plans, including the Lego Learning plan, which assists students with mastering standards. The process of developing, however, takes a great deal of time.

“Each of the standards are on there, and the students push them and demonstrate by following those standards,” Hess said. “Math and reading are kind of embedded together.”

Using the iPad also allows student access to learning games, such as Finding Santa, Hello Crayon and Magnetic Letters.

“Finding Santa is like Finding Waldo times 20 million,” Hess said. “It’s huge. They have to find six reindeer and one Santa hiding on the side. It’s hard, but they enjoy mind games.”

The crayon app allows students to basically write anything on a whiteboard, while the magnetic letters app gives students the chance to practice spelling and moving letters around.

“My favorite one is the Christmas one (Finding Santa),” kindergartner Olivia Anderson said.

The iPads also have countless interactive books downloaded for free on them.

“We have tons of interactive books on the iPads,” Hess said. “The guided books are at their level and at their interests, and they can listen to them with their headphones. It’s cool.”

During Daily 5 time this past week, Hess said that students were so engaged that the room was so quiet. She explained that Daily 5 is a structure to manage the reading block time.

“It’s not a curriculum, but it’s a way to practice in the five aspects: read to self, read to someone, work on writing, word work and listen to reading,” she said. “So they can pick one of those five things to practice while the teacher is working on small reading groups. They practice their star words through those different methods or they’re practicing their reading or writing.”

The iPad can be used for all of the Daily 5 areas, Hess said, though writing is the most difficult.

“The screen are only so big and even though they’re still small kids, they write big letters,” Hess said. “They can only fit two or three words on an iPad because they write so big. So writing is really not a good option for them on the iPad.”

Hess pointed out that she also feels that it is equally important to do hands-on activities that don’t involve the iPad.

“Nothing can replace paper and pencil writing in their journals,” she said. “Writing is so important, and we still use a lot of word work type things, where they have to go around the room and write words they see.

“I’m hoping that the kids know we can learn in lots of different ways. We can read really great books, write stories and learn from each other, not just from an iPad. It’s just endless.”

Much like the board members, Marshall Elementary Principal Bill Swope said Monday that he was very impressed with the effort Hess has put forward.

“Erica has broken the mold,” Swope said. “She stepped out of the box to do this grant. Her leadership is exemplary.”

While things are currently going well, there’s still a huge learning curve ahead. But Hess is determined to meet the challenges head-on in the future as well.

“I hope it’s the way I can continue to teach forever,” Hess said. “Technology keeps changing all the time, but I certainly hope that we can keep expanding on what we’ve done this year, and that it won’t go away.”