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Nevis students learn with iPad technology

Jessica Swanda and Tom Aman, both 11, were excited for school to begin, iPads waiting to be tested. (Jean Ruzicka / Enterprise)

Sixth graders stepping into their Nevis classrooms this fall were introduced to new learning tools, and teachers Calvin Gunn and Tom Stambaugh were greeted with grins.

The iPads that each of the 38 students received the second week of school ironically resemble hand-held chalkboards kids used a century ago.

But the instruments are sending kids into cyberspace - with infinite possibilities for learning.

Nevis sixth graders Tom Aman and Jessica Swanda heard the rumor this summer.

"My friend's mom is on the school board," Swanda explained of her source.

"I was excited," Aman said. "And wondering what we were going to do with them."

The initiative is earning a thumbs-up, and a tinge of jealously from their seventh grade counterparts.

"We are learning more and we're having fun learning," Swanda said. "It's different from last year."

Aman predicts the entire school will soon have their names attached to the back of an iPad.

School administrators and the board discussed implementing them in the upper elementary grades and junior and senior high school, but decided on the pilot project.

The iPads were introduced to sixth graders the second week of school, the first week spent getting the applications "synched."

"Bud was a gold mine," Stambaugh said of Bud Kading, the school's technology coordinator.

"If we'd gone school wide, he'd have been busy," Gunn said as an understatement.

The process, the teachers and Kading agree, was "more work than we thought."

Initially, they assumed they could go to the book company for apps. But they are not yet available.

And unlike textbooks waiting on the shelf, applications for iPads are vast in number and require scrutiny.

"Finding the apps and making them work is complicated and time-consuming," Kading said. "Apple sends you through the hoops. But now I can handle it."

Gunn shared similar sentiments. "I like technology," said Gunn, who's been a vanguard in its implementation at Nevis. "But this stretched me," he said of the hundreds of thousands of applications. He often "headed down a rabbit hole" on his quest.

"Finding the right app is one of the challenges," Gunn said. "But once you find it, it's like finding a gold nugget."

Textbooks remain in use because few of the school's textbook publishers have downloadable apps.

But Stambaugh thinks this will soon change. He estimates within two to three years, books, which are far more expensive, will become nearly obsolete.

The kids themselves are fearless when it comes to exploring this vast new world.

"Kids are ready," Stambaugh said. "We don't have to teach technology. Even those without a computer. They are not scared to mess around until they get it.

"It's like they are pre-programmed."

"If I tell the kids, 'guys, I'm stuck,' they figure it out," Gunn said. Watching YouTube over the summer, he'd find himself being tutored by a third grader on the screen.

Students are enamored by the possibilities.

If they don't know the definition of a word, one tap takes them to a glossary or dictionary. No longer limited to a single picture to illustrate the text, students can flip through a photo gallery or dive into an image with interactive captions.

They can use a finger to rotate a 3D object to show a human brain from every angle, or have the answer spring to life in an interactive chapter review.

The Nevis kids at this stage are proficient typists and can take notes on the computers. Some use their thumbs on the divided keyboard, others enter info on a traditional keyboard.

But the old-fashioned pencil remains in use. Spelling tests, for example are written. And kids can use a stylist to write on the screen.

The students use the iPad for language arts, grammar, spelling and writing.

A textbook and Study Island, a standards-based e-learning program, are used for math, with tests corrected instantly when taken on the iPad.

Basic addition to calculus are accessible on the iPad. "Kids don't have to wait for the teacher," Gunn said of gifted students advancing.

A book and iPad are also used for science. When students head to their iPad, they don't have to log on each time, they simply click and begin typing notes.

For students struggling with reading, they can put on headphones and hear the info.

"Every day we are learning something," Gunn said of options available.

"Companies are going to have to adapt," Stambaugh said. When textbooks become available as apps, "It will be a gold mine for teaching," he predicts.

With the addition of iPads, the classroom routine has been flipped.

"Now, we teach the lesson and kids go home to do homework," Stambaugh said. Using the iPad, homework is watching the lesson. Kids return to school to do the work. "And the teacher is there to help.

"Teachers will have to buy into it," Stambaugh said. "But it takes time."

Their initial fears of the computers being lost or not being re-charged have proven unfounded.

"The school did the right thing" by starting with one class, the teachers agree.

Several teachers - from kindergarten through high school - are asking to borrow the extra computers in the classroom.

There are still some logistics to work out. And the MCA state test scores for this class of sixth graders will be closely examined.

Gunn and Stambaugh anticipate the scores will reflect "success."

Superintendent Steve Rassier is confident the district will move forward with school-wide implementation of the hand-held computers, possibly next fall.

"The pilot project is an assessment tool," he said of determining what works, what doesn't. "The board wants specific information on how this impacts learning.

"It energizes classrooms," Rassier said. "They will learn more," he predicts of the outcome.

Swanda, 11, agrees. "It feels like we're not doing much. But we're learning. It's exciting. And it's not as heavy as a book."