When the iPad first came out in 2010, Jennie Magiera made fun of her friends for buying them: “Nice job–you got a giant iPhone that can’t make phone calls!!” But when a grant bought iPads for her fourth and fifth grade class, the teacher quickly found a path to transforming her teaching and learning practice. While tests are only one measurement of success, she went from having just one student out of 15 “exceed” on state tests in fourth grade, to having 10 “exceed” the next year.
Just three years later she has gone from the classroom to helping other teachers implement one-to-one iPad programs, as the digital learning coordinator of the Academy of Urban School Leadership, a network of 29 public (non-charter) schools that are 90% free and reduced lunch. Her focus is on using technology to make good teachers better, and to let students be the best they can be.
“I could seriously sit here till we both passed out telling stories of powerful things that happen every day,” Magiera says. Here are three of those stories.
1) The second grade experts.
The students in Magiera’s network are not “digital natives.” Most of them don’t have access to devices at home because of family income. Nevertheless, they are engaged by and excited about using computers, and because the teachers are learning to use them along with the students, there’s sometimes a role reversal in the learning process.
“We had three girls who came in during recess because it was cold and wanted to help us provision the tablets,” says Magiera, meaning setting them up to run certain kinds of apps. “Right away they started problem-solving: ‘She already hit that button…’ ‘Why don’t you try the green box in the upper left hand corner, since you already did the blue one in the lower right?’” They learned the term “microUSB” and created an organizing system to see which iPads were charged. In this mundane technical activity, Magiera saw the students take on a real problem and work alongside adults in a way that seven-year-olds don’t always get a chance to do.
2) The shy one speaks.
Magiera had one very intelligent student who was afraid to speak up in class–she tried writing questions down on notecards, and warning him that she was going to call on him, but he would still freeze up. With the iPads she implemented a classroom “backchannel,” allowing students to participate in a text-based chat as part of the class discussion. In that forum, the boy blossomed. “I was not only able to see who was participating but the quantity and quality of their participation,” she says. “And what I found was this young man not only was the most vocal kid, he was the best in the conversation. He was hitting all the markers, responding to other students, coming up with novel ideas, supporting peers in a positive manner, and really thriving and flourishing in a community of thought when he didn’t want to speak up [before].”
3) The troublemaker revealed.
Yet another student, she says, was constantly disruptive. His test scores and other math grades were poor. One day, she started using a technique called “screencasting,” a program where students can draw or write using a stylus and narrate at the same time, producing a video in a similar format to a Khan Academy video.
“The answer was 15 cents and he wrote $16. I would have thought he wasn’t paying attention or didn’t try. But when I go into his screencast video, it was 60 seconds of the best math I’ve ever seen as a math teacher.” The student had arrived at the wrong answer because of a tiny mistake, but he had devised his own original path through the problem, using his knowledge of fractions to create a system of proportions, a concept he wouldn’t be introduced to for another year or two. “He solved it completely on his own, narrated it beautifully, had the most amazing thought process.” From watching this one minute of video, Magiera got insights into this student’s math skills that she hadn’t learned from having him in the classroom for over a year.
But the insights didn’t end there. Magiera then had the student rewatch his own video. She saw his reactions go from defiance (“lady, I already did it for you once, you want me to watch it now?”) to pride (“yeah! I got that!”) to dismay (“Oh my god, I messed that up! I can’t believe it! I was so close,”). And finally he asked her, “Can I do it again?”
“I just about died,” Magiera says. “I was ready to burst into tears. This was a kid you could not get to do homework. Classwork was a struggle. Now he just heard his own thinking, which is really hard for a nine year old to do, and he wanted to improve authentically out of his own motivation. That was a feedback loop we did consistently from then on.”