Teaching With a Tablet: One Educator's Experience

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Teacher Jeannetta Mitchell

For more detail about my visit to the Presidio Middle School's iPad algebra class, here's the complete Q&A with eighth-grade teacher Jeannetta Mitchell. She talks about the practicalities of forgoing the traditional textbook and seeing students find different ways of learning the material.

Far from being afraid of the technology -- or believing that it will be the beacon of hope -- this veteran teacher is a pragmatist. She's determined to find the best way to grab her students' interest and get them to enjoy learning.

Q. Do you think the iPad is actually changing the way students learn?

A. I definitely believe it’s changing the way they learn. The iPad is more than just a textbook. It has example videos to watch, so if I’m teaching in class and explaining something, they take notes. They think they understand, they go home, they might forget to do something or they’re not sure. They watch the video at home and it’s a teacher explaining the very same concept. So it’s like taking the teacher home with them.

Given the fact that it’s on an iPad, they’re more apt to use it. Because the other students using print textbooks who have the same access to the videos online but who are not using iPads, they have to go to the computer and the Internet. And a kid doing homework at home, they’re not going to go to the computer, find the site, put in their user name and password. They’re not going to bother, because they think, “She’ll just explain it to me tomorrow.” But the kid with the iPad -- it’s right there. All they have to do is hit a couple of buttons and watch the video. They’re more apt to use it.


Q. Where do they work out the problems?

A. On some of the pages on the iPad, there is a sketchpad ... But I don’t think it can replace the pen and pencil; they're still necessary for math. I want to see their work, because if the answer is incorrect, I need to see where they made the mistake.

Q. Do you allow them to use the calculator?

A. I don’t because these are numbers they should be comfortable with. If they use a calculator, they don’t get a sense of what makes sense and what doesn’t. I only let them use the calculator to check the work, not to do the work.

Q. How have their test scores measured up?

A. Initially, the test scores did not represent what everybody had hoped they would represent. The students performed actually at a lower level than my other three classes using print textbooks. And I had a conversation with the class explaining to them that the ipad was not the panacea of all ills. It wasn’t the magic wand that was going to do everything for them, that they still had to think. You have to be engaged. It’s not giving you the answers, it’s helping you get the answers.

But since I showed them the videos and they saw how helpful the videos were, they started using them. And I’ve noticed that the grades have gotten a lot better since I told them to use what’s available. You cannot convince any school, any district, to use this device if you’re not utilizing all the capabilities it has for you.

Q. Have the grades improved?

A. Yes. There’s not that big a discrepancy at all [between the classes that use the textbook and the iPad].  You would not be able to separate them between the classes. But I’m interested in seeing by the end of the year if it actually surpasses the others.

One of the things about the iPad, though, it’s a great tool, but it’s like anything, if you don’t use the tool you’re not going to get anything accomplished.

Q. Do you see the iPad helping with students who are having a hard time?

A. It helps the kid who wants to do well, but in middle school, it’s not going to magically make it happen for them. It’s not the magic wand. But if nothing else, it helps not carrying around a 10-pound book. But overall, the majority of the kids are using it for what it’s for. They’re taking advantage of what it can do.

One thing I do, I can provide multiple choice questions and their iPads will synch to my iPad and I’ll have [the answers] and they’ll have a timer. They do the work, and on my iPad, I can see how many kids are choosing which answers. The benefit for me is that if there are a number of people who are choosing one answer and it’s incorrect, it’s a quick cue for me to go back and see where’s the disconnect, what’s the problem. And it’s so immediate.

It’s different than saying, “How many of you don’t understand this,” or "How many of you got the wrong answer." Kids aren’t going to hold up their hands to vote, but on their iPad, they know they’re somewhat anonymous. It just helps me.

Q. Your students told me the iPads make math more fun.

A. It is fun! And we made it to where they can personalize it, and they’re allowed to get their music on it and things like that. But they also know that I have the capability of finding out every site that they’ve ever gone to, and not one child has gone on a site that they’re not supposed to.

But what’s great is that [principal] Pam Clisham has been really instrumental in getting the message to all the parents. They had to sign off on it. If anything happens they have to replace it, they have to buy insurance for it, and they have to know what sites [students] can’t use.

But the parents knew this was something big, and they wanted their child to participate. You have to get parents bought into it.

Q. At this point, do you think the iPad or the e-reader is just another passing fad, or will it really change what's happening in schools?

A. I don’t think it’s a passing fad at all. When I look at students when they’re handed these big books, and a child looks at that fat book, they won’t say it verbally, they say it to themselves subconsciously, “I can’t learn that.” And I can see it on their faces.

With an iPad, they can look at it, they believe they’re going to learn what they have to from it because they don’t see the whole book. They see bits of information as it’s presented.

So I don’t get anyone who thinks, "I don’t get the first two chapters, I don’t get it, so I’m done."

It’s a positive thing for them. Plus they don’t have a fear of anything electronic -- they’re still showing me things -- but they do have fear of a fat textbook.

Q. What are some things you might change about this particular app for algebra?

A. We’re in contact weekly with Apple and the publishing company. They’re not saying, Here’s the perfect tool. Just take the test and we’ll take the results. They’re always asking what else can it do? That’s what I appreciate about it.

One thing that's problematic is that the teacher’s edition is not on my iPad. Mine looks just like the students', so I still have to use the big textbook. So hopefully they’ll have a teacher’s app.

And there needs to be a place for the kids to do the work. They’re working on how to reconfigure the sketchpad so it's easier to use.

The supplementary pages are in the back of the book and are hard to find.

But what's nice is they can make a note, either oral or type it in, to find something.

They also can record what I’m saying in class, and that happens more often than I thought. So when I’m talking, the kids can have record button on. It’s very clear what’s being said. They literally can take the teacher home with them. I have to make sure I know what I'm telling them.

And when they’re listening to something, or they want to make an oral note, they speak into the speaker it.

And they can add math apps. They can personalize it.

Q. As a teacher who's now using the iPad in class, what do you say to those who fear it will replace them?

A. Anyone who thinks that the iPad or online textbook is going to replace them, they don’t have to worry about that. It’s just like giving a book to a student who reads well and telling them to teach themselves. That doesn’t happen.

Only the classroom teacher can see the disconnect, the child that has the question but isn’t asking. You have to be involved. I as a teacher cannot sit down while I’m teaching. That’s impossible. You have to move around and keep students engaged. There’s no doubt in my mind that if I left the room they would not be testing as well as they are. They need a teacher. So I don’t think that’s a problem.

Q. So how do you use the video tutorials?

A. Because how I teach might be different than what's in the video, and the reality is that there’s more than one way to solve something. It doesn’t necessarily mimic me.

Q. Is the iPad helping students who are having a hard time?

A. I have students who are participating in this class who did not participate in their previous math classes. So it does engage them. Is it going to make them all brainiacs and straight A students? No, it’s not going to do that, but it will keep them engaged.

They’re interested. But at the same time I walk around making sure they’re doing what I want them to do, instead of some other applications. But that’s what a teacher does even when they have a textbook. Just like if they're holding a cartoon book in front of their textbook.

I don’t believe the students think, "Well I won’t pay attention in class because I can watch it at home."  That’s not the case. They really use it as a supplement, not as a replacement of the teacher.

Q. Do you think the iPad is motivating students to try harder?

A. Some of them are definitely trying more. “I had to watch it three times before I really got it, Ms. Mitchell.” And I say: "But how did you feel when you got it?" They say: “I understand it.”

I’ve never had a student say: "I've read this three times in the book, and I don’t get it, I’ll ask Ms. Mitchell tomorrow." But they will watch that video.

But they don’t have to watch the video. They can see the problem and the iPad shows them the first step in solving it. So they go, ‘Oh, I can get it.’ Because many times you just need a boost, a reminder. And they pull down and see the next step, so it just introduces it a little at a time, it doesn’t just give the answer.

That’s one of the best things about the iPad as opposed to the book. It shows how to solve. The textbook just has answers in the back, no explanation as to how to get there. The iPad shows step by step how to get to it, so that’s the real plus.

Q. But is it solving the problem for them? Are they learning in that case?

A. They don’t really look at it as it’s solving the problem for them. They really want to understand. Kids really do want to learn, and this just makes it more fun for them to learn. Nobody’s just sitting there writing down the answer, saying, "I don’t know how I got there. They know how they got there."

I don’t see anyone thinking that they got one over on the teacher because they got the answers off the machine.

Q. How have students been treating these expensive gadgets?

A. A week ago, none were lost or damaged. Now we have just one that's missing. It was left somewhere that other people knew how to get to it. But the people who took it don’t realize we have a GPS on it. And the parents had bought insurance, but the replacement hasn’t come yet.

But mostly they’ve been really responsible. They give me iPads, I lock it up until class time, then I lock it until the end of the day when they come back for it.

Lenny Gonzalez

Q. What do you think is going to happen to textbooks in the future?

A. Ten years from now I don’t think they’re going to be carrying around these fat textbooks.

I can’t imagine that there won’t be a time that all the textbooks won’t be on the tablet. Students will be able to take it with them. If Houghton Mifflin Harcourt can put an algebra book on a tablet, what’s to stop them from putting a science book on the tablet? In fact, it might create even more consistency about which texts are more used in the district.

Q. What about cost?

Principal Pam Clisham, who was also in the room during the interview added her thoughts on the matter.

Pam Clisham: They’re expensive, but so are textbooks. If you had one iPad and all of your textbooks were on your iPad, it would be the same cost. Right now textbooks are running $50 or $60 dollars a piece, plus supplementary materials.


Jeannetta Mitchell: A student just needs one iPad for all of middle school. For a three-year period, it would pay for itself, and then some.