A ‘cool’ classroom tool

MARSHALL – Holy Redeemer School students and teachers have unlimited possibilities right at their fingertips this year thanks to the addition of new LearnPad tablet devices.

The Rev. Paul Wolf and HRS principal Carol DeSmet were instrumental in getting the technology project rolling.

“Carol and I had definitely been looking at different options because technology is always on the forefront,” Wolf said. “Our kids do need it. Technology is continuing to grow and develop, and you have to keep on that cutting edge or you fall behind.”

HRS teachers were trained in August, and individual LearnPads were assigned to every single student in kindergarten through eighth grade during the first week of school.

“We’re one of the first schools to use this product,” music teacher Anna Lenz said. “It’s an Android-based product. By October, we were supposed to get them into our classrooms, so it’s a new adventure for us this year.”

Behind teachers Amanda Jelen and Lisa Vandendriessche, the fourth-grade classrooms were among the first to incorporate the LearnPads into the curriculum. This past week, both sections of students learned about hurricanes and other natural disasters while using the new tablets.

“They’re learning about hurricanes, so the first video they’re watching is about Hurricane Katrina and how it formed,” Jelen said. “The second video is about what happened during the storm. The third thing we’re doing is looking at aftermath pictures of Hurricane Katrina.”

Fourth-grader Kaylee VanHauwaert said she enjoyed the educational opportunity the LearnPad offered.

“I like them because you get to do homework on them and stuff,” she said. “The (hurricane) video was good. I like when all the water was spreading. But it was sad. I’d be scared when all that stuff was flying everywhere. I would never want to be in one of those.”

After following the instructions and watching the videos, the students then opened up a document and wrote a hurricane response.

“They’re going to write a one paragraph response on what they felt like watching the videos and seeing the pictures, what the people of New Orleans could have done differently and what we can do to help people affected by hurricanes,” Jelen said. “It’s a really good resource that ties into our lesson.”

Jelen appreciates that she can actually grade the student work right from her own computer after the students save it on their LearnPads.

Jelen noted that her room served as a pilot classroom. Now, three months later, they’re in full swing when it comes to using the device.

“I love them,” Jelen said on Tuesday. “And these kids have caught on so quickly. We’re pros. We do videos all the time. We do our homework on them. They study spelling words. There’s a lot of stuff we do with them.”

Jelen said that the LearnPads provide a more engaging interaction for students than when they’re merely reading text.

“I feel like the kids learn so much more with them because they’re so entranced right now,” she said. “I went to the dollar store and bought them headphones, so they’re all in their own little world.”

Brody Deutz said he liked using the LearnPad better than paper and pencil.

“We learn on them sometimes,” he said. “They’re pretty easy to use. We also play (math and spelling) games.”

In Vandendriessche’s classroom, the students were also learning about tsunamis and volcanos along with hurricanes.

“They just did four vocabulary words and wrote a paragraph on what they just learned about hurricanes,” she said. “Then they got with partners and read about other subjects.”

Vandendriessche appreciates the learning opportunities that it provides students.

“They’re so excited about learning, that’s the really awesome part,” she said. “And we’re able to enrich it and make it real for them. We just talked about tsunamis and the destruction they cause on our readers. We saw the actual pictures. It’s for science, but we’re incorporating reading, too.

“It’s such a wonderful tool to help enhance education and get them excited about learning.”

Students can also work ahead if they want to.

“They have their spelling on there for the whole year, so they can access that early if they want to,” Vandendriessche said. “I have readers on there for the whole year, too, that go along with their reading. Those vocabulary words are highlighted. It’s awesome.”

Fourth-graders can also access Math Blasters to work on their multiplication tables.

“It’s just unbelievable what you can do on them,” Vandendriessche said. “What a benefit it will be for these kids, in all aspects of learning.”

One of the best features, according to many of the HRS teachers, is the ability to customize access.

“The kids can’t go on any other site unless I put it on there,” Vandendriessche said. “They can’t go on sites that I don’t want them to, so that’s nice.”

The ability to control access points was important to DeSmet and Wolf.

“We wanted something teacher-driven,” Wolf said. “We didn’t want something wide open where the students could go where they wanted to. Technology will never take a teacher’s place. It will always take a good teacher to drive the education.”

The process of integrating technology has not been without challenges at HRS. Math teacher Michelle Appel said it took some getting use to.

“It’s evolving,” she said. “Eventually, I’m hoping we can use the LearnPads a little more. We use them to practice the concepts we’re doing, to tie in with what I’m teaching, so they get more repetition.”

On Tuesday, sixth-graders used the new tablet in math class.

“We’re working on math, on algebra problems,” Eli Cole said. “They’re pretty fun. I like going on different websites for certain classes and researching.”

Cole noted that there were some compatibility issues early on.

“We still have a little trouble sometimes,” he said. “Some Internet sources aren’t for the LearnPad.”

That’s when the need for a backup plan comes into play.

“The LearnPad is another tool you can use, and the kids get really engaged,” Appel said. “But if the Wi-Fi goes down or the Internet gets overloaded, you have to have a backup plan.”

LearnPads are even used sometimes in phy ed class, especially when the gymnasium is tied up.

“We’re going to use them next week to track heart rate,” Deb Westby said. “We’ll also have an activity log that the entire family can use, to go on and track activities they do. It’s nice to be able to use them when we can’t be in the gym.”

Although she feels that there aren’t as many good apps at the middle school level as compared to the elementary level, seventh- and eighth-grade history/geography teacher Kim Louwagie said her students do use the LearnPads on a regular basis.

“We’ve read together, done virtual tours and played review games,” she said. “We use them for maps and review mostly. But we also find unusual foods, the ones we don’t see around here, online.”

Eighth-grader Muriel McLaughlin enjoys using the device.

“I think they’re cool,” McLaughlin said. “I like that we can research on them. But a teacher has to give you the code. You can’t go on a random website. In band, we have all our music on them.”

Every student is charged with caring for their tablet the entire school year.

While teachers and students are learning as they go, the LearnPads are also being paid for along the way. Fortunately, Wolf said, the church community has pitched in for the cause.

“It’s a huge investment, but this (technology-rich environment) is the world we live in now,” he said. “We as a parish and school are funding it. We put it out to parishioners, and they have been very generous. It’s not completely paid for, but people have been responding to the need.”