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Are iPads helping scores in DL?

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News Detroit Lakes,Minnesota 56501
Detroit Lakes Online
Are iPads helping scores in DL?
Detroit Lakes Minnesota 511 Washington Avenue 56501

The natives aren’t so much restless these days as they are excited — digital natives that is, and the ones in Detroit Lakes holding brand new iPads may be holding the keys to better learning.


Detroit Lakes School Education Director Lowell Nicklaus is busy at the middle school, handing out over 800 iPads this week, and the twinkle in his eye isn’t as much in response to the students’ enthusiasm as it is his strong feeling these little devices just might be the best thing that’s happened to education in a very long time.

The results are in

Test scores from last spring’s Minnesota Standardized testing came back, and although school leaders are always anxious to see how everybody did, those in Detroit Lakes were particularly interested to see how last year’s fifth graders did.

They were the test pilots for the iPad initiative last year, so naturally many were curious to see if those second generation iPads could do this generation any good in the classrooms.

What they found made them very happy, as fifth grade scores took a nice, fat leap up the proficiency scale.

The 2011-12 test results showed 64 percent of Detroit Lakes fifth graders making proficiency standards in math; this time around it was 74 percent.

For reading, Nicklaus says a change in tougher testing standards made for across the state drops in actual scores, including Detroit Lakes, but the DL fifth graders went from being 5 percent above the state average to 10 percent above.

But it was science, a subject where so much importance is stressed these days, which really saw the dramatic jump.

The state average at fifth grade is 59.7 percent proficiency in science, which is approximately where the Detroit Lakes fifth graders were last year. This year, those scores jumped to 81 percent.

“That’s remarkable,” said Nicklaus, who is careful not to declare the iPads 100 percent responsible for those numbers, but believes it sure looks promising.

Now that the iPad initiative has expanded into three more grades in Detroit Lakes, fifth through eighth, the real tell-tale sign will come next year when more students are using them, more data is available and higher scores can’t be written off as a fluke or coincidence.

If he’s said it once, he’s said it a thousand times to skeptics of the iPad initiative: “It’s not about the device, it’s about the learning,” said Nicklaus, who knows you can’t simply put an iPad in a student’s hands and assume digital osmosis will cause their test scores to shoot up.

He says it has everything to do with how teachers are utilizing them within their curriculum.

A whole new world

Not all teachers in Detroit Lakes have had their heads in the iClouds daydreaming about changing the way they’ve taught for years.

In fact, last year when fifth grade teacher Linda Mickelson learned she would be mixing it up after 25 years of teaching, her excitement came more in the form of nerves.

“I was very, very scared,” she said laughing, admitting she didn’t know much about iPads, and the thought of trying to teach with them was tough. “The first six weeks of last year was the hardest of my 25 years teaching — but my gosh, was it worth it.”

Mickelson, who was trained over the summer how to work with some of the teaching tools on the iPad, found herself at times relying on her students to help her learn the new digital language.

Gradually, Mickelson became more fluent and she even found herself amazed at the endless possibilities and resources sitting at the dozens of little, eager fingertips in her classroom.

Nicklaus says there are so many different educational games and apps for every subject and every style of learning that each child isn’t forced to try to understand the material simply by reading and absorbing.

Like picky, little eaters tricked into consuming the spinach that their parent had slipped under the cheese on their pizza, the iPad may be doing the same thing as their brains absorb the information, facts and problems slipped into the apps.

“They think it’s fun because they think they’re just playing on their iPad, but really, they’re learning,” said Mary Von Ruuden, a fifth grade math and science teacher in the Detroit Lakes Middle School. If anybody has reason to be happy with the latest scores, it would be her.

“I think the iPad had a lot to do with it,” she said, spilling out example after example of how she used the new iPads to teach her old curriculum last year.

“If they’re struggling with math facts, there’s an app for that. If somebody doesn’t quite get factors, we can find them an app that targets that and they can practice that until they get it,” said Von Ruuden, who also says students who are more advanced can get games and apps that challenge them on their level.

Instant feedback from iPad quizzes and games can tell teachers instantly what areas each student needs more work.

And the learning doesn’t stop when the bell rings, as students take the iPads home. To the amazement of some adults, many kids seem to be stretching out their homework or even crazier…practicing things like math for fun.

“Sometimes last year I’d go home and be like, ah, there’s nothing to do — I’ll just get my iPad out and play some math games,” said sixth grader Ethan Witthoent, who says now math seems easier to him this year.

He says he never would have done that if it were simply paper and pencil worksheets.

Ethan’s not alone.

Fellow sixth grader Shae Yates was already a bit of a wiz on the iPad when he got his last year, so he says schoolwork has become easier for him.

“I like it because if I need to know something about Thomas Edison, I can just look it up right there…anything I need to know,” said 11-year-old Shae, who says he’s never really liked math. “But there are some cool math games, so it’s a little bit more fun,” he said, stating that he feels a lot more comfortable with math now than he ever has.

Students aren’t doing book reports; they’re doing power point-style presentations.

They’re not just doing science experiments. They’re recording it, and then creating video productions to showcase their findings.

And they’re not just reading about manatees and looking at a picture of them; they’re watching videos of their interactions in the canals down in Florida.

Von Ruuden says another positive aspect of the iPad is that every single student has them and can take them home, which means the playing field of technology and extended learning opportunities is more leveled for students who do not have the technology at home.

Digital natives

So what does being a “digital native” mean? And more importantly, what does it mean for today’s students who are putting down the text books and picking up the iPads?

Author Mark Prensky termed the coin “digital native” over 10 years ago to describe the generation of young people who were born into the digital age. They grew up pushing more than just their parents’ buttons.

They were downloading, uploading and fast tracking their way into the work of technology. According to Presky, their minds can handle more stimuli and can process through the basics quicker than their teachers or parents.

However, Presky also suggests that because of this, they don’t always tend to absorb the deeper meanings and complexities of concepts that more adults are wired for.

In fact, he also says there could be a bit of a gap in the way traditional teachers teach and the way today’s students learn because if one were to crack open the brains of most adults and most children, their brains would actually look different due to digital stimulus.

These physiological differences mean their brains process information differently.

Could this be why iPads appear to be such an effective tool for students? Could their digitally induced brains be more comfortable soaking up knowledge given to them their way?

Digital immigrants

If you grew up learning how to type on a typewriter or word processor, face it, you’re a digital immigrant.

Digital immigrants can certainly learn the language — even to the point where they speak it fluently if practiced enough, but it’ll never be their first language.

It’ll never come naturally, and although their brains may still be able to show signs of plasticity, it will still not be wired like those of the digital natives.

Sixth grade reading teacher Kathryn Haugrud admits technology is not her thing as she loves reading real books with paper and ink and binders.

But as she begins her first year teaching with iPads, she celebrates one, small technological triumph at a time.

“I learned how to mirror yesterday,” she said, excitedly. “So I can pull anything up on my iPad and mirror it on the big screen for the students to see as well.”

That means she can better translate her deeper, more complex understanding of literature to her tech-savvy students.

And as for Mickelson, she’s not just feeling more confident this year about teaching with technology, but is downright thrilled about it.

“I love how I’m teaching, and I love how kids seem to want to learn more now,” she said, adding that the iPads have rejuvenated her love of teaching like nothing else in 26 years. “And then when I saw the test scores, I thought yes. Whether it’s the iPads or whether it’s how we’re teaching, it’s working. So fifth graders, look out: I know what I’m doing now.”