Westwood students accessing higher thinking levels with iPads

A new wave of teaching reform has taken root at Westwood Middle School.

Students in Jennifer Furness’ seventh-grade language arts class use their new iPads to study and later discuss Michael Oher’s book “I Beat the Odds: From Homelessness to The Blind Side and Beyond.” Students are, first row, left to right: Eunice Dennis and Megan McKenzie. Second row: Fardeen Khan, Nadeen Mansour and Nelson Lohse. Back: Elijah Elkerton (glasses) and twin sisters Emily and Addison Althoff. Photo by Elyse Kaner

Students in Jennifer Furness’ seventh-grade language arts class use their new iPads to study and later discuss Michael Oher’s book “I Beat the Odds: From Homelessness to The Blind Side and Beyond.” Students are, first row, left to right: Eunice Dennis and Megan McKenzie. Second row: Fardeen Khan, Nadeen Mansour and Nelson Lohse. Back: Elijah Elkerton (glasses) and twin sisters Emily and Addison Althoff. Photo by Elyse Kaner

Goodbye to traditional lectures and toting bulky textbooks. Hello iPads, greater student interaction, a higher level of thinking skills and a certain open-mindedness that otherwise might not be examined.

And hello to enhanced listening skills, following directions more closely, brainstorming… and the list goes on and on.

The techno-savvy, texting generation is transferring its rapid-fire, finger keyboarding skills into daily lessons in the classroom. Namely with new iPads.

Spring Lake Park District 16 is in the process of distributing electronic devices to nearly every student in grades two through 12 thanks to a technology levy referendum passed by voters last year.

Jennifer Furness’ seventh-grade language arts class was one of the first classes to get the electronic devices earlier this fall. Each student received his or her own iPad.

The district is still keeping learning in the forefront, Furness said.

“Learning is our priority and the iPad is a tool to enhance the learning, promote digital citizenship and increase engagement.”

Last week found Furness’ fifth-hour students thoroughly engrossed in a discussion on the first four chapters of Michael Oher’s book “I Beat the Odds: From Homelessness to The Blind Side and Beyond.”

The book is about football star Oher’s reflections on how he went from being a homeless child in Memphis, Tenn., to playing in the NFL. In doing so, Oher, who came from a family of 12 kids, had to break away from a cycle of poverty, addiction and hopelessness that trapped his family.

The book talks about Oher’s mom, a crack addict who wanders off and periodically leaves her kids alone for days at a time. At the age of seven, Michael and his brother Carlos are placed in a foster home.

(The highly successful 2009 sports drama film “The Blind Side” is based on a story line featuring Oher.)

Help across the aisles

For their daily assignment, Westwood students first logged onto their iPads. If some had trouble getting into the system, their classmates reached across the aisle to help.

Students discussed two questions. The first question asked them to find something in the mom’s past that would explain or excuse her actions, and did she have any positive attributes?

The seventh-graders begin by brainstorming. They use such applications as Pages and Idea Sketch on their iPads to organize their thoughts. They enter their ideas onto the iPads for six minutes.

A signal sounds. Time is up.

Using her iPad, Furness attempts to take a vote on how students feel about the first question. They are to answer with a simple “yes” or “no.” But the iPad doesn’t cooperate.

Instead, Furness shifts gears and resorts to the old-fashioned showing of hands. She had also planned to use the iPad for her presentation, but that didn’t pan out either. It’s early in the stage of technological device usage in the District 16 classroom and minor kinks still need to be addressed.

“The idea is to be flexible,” Furness tells this reporter. “If your plan doesn’t work, go to plan B.”

Seventeen students vote “yes” on the first question about the mom’s attributes and 12 vote “no.”

The discussion begins.

“No,” a student says. “She didn’t have anything to explain actions from her past.”

“Yes,” another student counters. “She could change. When she was sober, she made sure her kids were OK.”

Using a spinner app (called Spin Me) that lands on a student’s name on a large screen in the front of the room, Furness calls on students.

Deeper discussions

The discussion deepens. A higher level of thinking ensues. Furness asks students to build from the opinions they have already shared.

“She can’t change where she spent her life,” seventh-grader Rachel Jacobsen says. “But she has redeemable characteristics. She does leave her kids, but she does come back.”

“Even though she does come back, there’s no excuse for her to leave them for a few days,” a boy retorts.

After a continued discussion, Furness re-polls the students on the first question. Some change their minds. Twenty now vote “yes,” nine vote “no.”

“I applaud you for your open-mindedness,” Furness tells her students.

The class launches into a discussion on the second question.

Because the visits were so painful to Michael, the second question asked whether child protection did the right thing to allow him to visit with his family during his stays in foster homes.

In the initial poll, 22 students vote “yes” and seven vote “no.” The re-poll reveals four students who migrate to the “no” side of the issue. Some students agree with both sides.

“I love that you’re torn,” Furness says. “It fits in with your learning target for the day: I can solve complex problems with no obvious answer.”

The students are directed onto NiceNet.org on their iPads. Their follow-up assignment is to write a paragraph explaining how their thinking has changed during the discussion.

Had they not changed their thinking, they were to describe some perspectives they heard in the discussion that they had not previously considered. The students begin tapping their screens, typing in responses.

“It’s cool to connect online with other students,” Isiah Smith says about his new iPad after class.

Isiah also likes that his math book is accessible on the iPad and that he doesn’t have to lug his textbook back and forth to school. “So if we forget something, it will be online,” he says.

“I like that we can do our homework online,” says seventh-grader Madalyn Ryan.

The bell rings. Furness congratulates the students once again for their open-mindedness, for changing their opinions after examining social issues.

The kids pack up their iPads and leave after what shakes out to be a successful and higher level-of-thinking, class discussion. All this on the cusp of the newly introduced iPad usage into District 16’s classrooms.

What mining and reaping of in-depth knowledge and enhanced educational outcomes from introducing the new technology into the classrooms remain to be seen.

“I think it’s an exciting new challenge,” Furness says. “It’s not about the iPad, it’s about the learning we can do with the iPad.”

District 16 is on track to have iPads or electronic devices in the hands of most every student in grades two through 12 by January 2013.

Elyse Kaner is at elyse.kaner@ecm-inc.com

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