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More Middle Schoolers Using iPads, Not Paper

Charlotte Albright
Bailey McHugh, eighth grader at the Harwood Middle School in Moretown, does most of her school work on an iPad through a program funded by the Tarrant Institute at the University of Vermont.

An educational foundation aims to triple the number of middle schools in Vermont that provide students with their own  iPads or other similar devices.  The new grant will train teachers to make sure the devices are engaging — not distracting — young learners.

The new $5 million grant is the second large gift to schools from the Tarrant Foundation through its Institute for Innovative Education housed at the University of Vermont. The goal is to keep kids engaged in learning at a vulnerable point in their lives. At a press conference announcing the grant earlier this fall, Tarrant Director Penny Bishop said it targets a challenging time in a young student’s life.

“Early adolescence can be a vulnerable time. In fact, we can predict almost half of all potential high-school drop-outs as early as the sixth grade,” Bishop said.

Bishop says just dumping a bunch of iPads or laptops into a classroom is rarely effective, unless teachers get intensive coaching in how to use them wisely.

“We focused however on the potential of technology to promote any time anywhere learning, to provide an authentic, real-world audience for students’ work, and to offer relevant and engaging 21st-century tasks,” Bishop explained.

With iPads, students can research, produce, submit and archive multi-media assignments both at home and in school. Digital portfolios can also become the platform for learning plans soon to be required for all middle and high school students in the state.

So far, about 13 Vermont schools have been partnering with the Tarrant Institute to buy iPads and train teachers. Harwood Middle and High School in Moretown has been in the vanguard. During her social studies class eighth grader Bailey McHugh flips open her iPad to show a screen full of colorful icons.

“Apps—we can type email and make spreadsheets with it,” she said. “We also have all kinds of cool drawing apps and things like that. We have some … project apps; right now we’re doing a project in science about Newton’s second law,” she said.

Bailey admits, though, that some students find it tempting to use the iPad to stray from the task at hand.

“The way they have it set up that we can download like any games and any music and stuff on it…I think maybe there should be some sort of limit on how much or how often you can use it,” she said.

Teachers at Harwood do sometimes ask students to close their laptops — for example, in the interest of authenticity, they are making Civil War scrapbooks on paper. But those can be scanned and archived in digital form.

The Tarrant grant has not only paid for iPads, it’s also sent coaches each week to help administrators and teachers re-design lesson plans and work out logistics, like what to do if a device breaks, or a student loses or misuses it. Middle school social studies teacher Sarah Ibson says more and more school work is migrating to easy-to-navigate computer screens, away from notebooks and file folders. Tarrant’s trainers, she says, help create those pathways.

“And they’ve really helped us think about how we can bring digital portfolios into the Middle School,” she said, about Tarrant's trainers.

Co-principal Amy Rex says weaving personal learning devices into middle school has been relatively smooth.  Introducing it in high school is a bit more challenging, because those teachers typically have less time for on-site training. Some instructors, she says, are naturally tech savvy.

Credit Charlotte Albright / VPR
Eighth grader Bailey McHugh, and principal Amy Rex demonstrate iPads widely in use at the Moretown School.

“And others were really nervous. It’s really more about being nervous than about being nervous than being reluctant,” Rex said.

Once parents, students and teachers are on the same wave length about new technology, everyone benefits, Rex said. For example, parent-teacher conferences are now more student-centered, with kids reflecting about the work they show during the meeting, and parents and teachers seeing specific signs of progress or room for improvement. Putting the student at the center of those conversations, Rex says, instills in children a sense of responsibility for their own learning.

The Tarrant Institute is hoping to bring personal iPads to 40 Vermont schools in the next five years. That’s less than half the total number of programs serving 10-15 years old in Vermont, so a digital divide still exists. But it is — at least in middle school — narrowing.

Charlotte Albright lives in Lyndonville and currently works in the Office of Communication at Dartmouth College. She was a VPR reporter from 2012 - 2015, covering the Upper Valley and the Northeast Kingdom. Prior to that she freelanced for VPR for several years.
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