ASCD Whole Child Bloggers

There May Not Be an App for That

Post submitted by Sandi Lauzon and Helen Erickson

My name is Sandi Lauzon and I am the vice principal at Byrne Creek Secondary School responsible for technology. I try to attend the Computer Using Educators of British Columbia (CUEBC) conference every year, as it is without a doubt the best way to connect with like-minded educators who ultimately leave you inspired by the techno-risks they have taken in their classrooms. Their stories of innovative practices always start with a passion to shift learning and teaching in a new direction, but more often than not they include bureaucratic hiccups; creative work-arounds; young heroic teachers willing to take risks; and students who adapt, engage, learn, and, ultimately, teach us all.

At the end of the conference, I like to mill about and catch up with colleagues from other districts. With my iPad in hand, I asked one of the board members how the iPad Inquiry project was going. CUEBC lends out 11 iPads to teachers to use in their classrooms for a month at a time, and I had been following the project online. As it turned out, the iPads did not have a home for the following six weeks and I left the conference with them and a lot to think about before Monday morning. In my role at Byrne Creek, I had already been looking at how the iPad could be used with our English language learners, and now we had the opportunity to justify a purchase of 20 iPads if this pilot project was successful. All we needed was a passionate teacher with the skills to move beyond the apps, who could embrace the iPad as a powerful tool for student learning and was not afraid to jump in and explore the potential of the iPad as means of engaging, creating, and communicating.

Helen Erickson, without dipping her toe in to test the water, accepted the challenge and jumped right in. Here is her story.

Since I started my teaching career at Byrne Creek six years ago, the word flexibility has been a part of my daily practice. I remember walking into my new classroom, pulling the plastic off my new chair, looking at the bare walls and bookcases, and imagining what teaching here would be like. I could not believe my good fortune! How many new teachers have the opportunity to begin teaching in a brand new space—a space where they can contribute to the building and development of a new school and community?

Change has been an integral part of my development as an educator. I remember the day that my class changed from literacy development to numeracy development in the middle of a block. One moment I was teaching reading skills and the next moment new students were at my door ready to learn mathematics! I have learned to embrace change, be flexible, and take advantage of any opportunity to diversify or develop my skills as a teacher. I have realized that when you work in a special place with students who have diverse needs, skills, and backgrounds, you need as many tools in your toolbox as possible. When Sandi Lauzon offered me the opportunity to use 11 iPads in my Numeracy, English, and Composition class, I quickly agreed. I figured the best way to learn how to integrate this new type of technology was to do what I have done since I arrived at Byrne Creek: say yes, and then figure out what to do next!

iPads in Numeracy Development

The first class in which I decided to use the iPads was Numeracy Development. This is a course designed for students who have had an interrupted education and need to develop their foundational numeracy skills before integrating into the mainstream math courses. The composition of this class is incredibly diverse. Students are different ages (grades 8–12), speak a variety of languages, and have different levels of mathematical skills. Some of the students speak a little bit of English and have had some previous training in math. Others are more fluent in English, but have very little background knowledge of math. In this class, differentiated instruction is not a choice, it is absolutely necessary.

From the day the iPads first arrived in the class, it became apparent that students wanted to get their hands on them. Students were keen, curious, and excited to touch these devices, and it did not take long for them to begin experimenting and figuring out the workings of the iPad before I could. However, I recognized a potential problem right away: the students were excited to "play" with the iPads. I realized that these amazing pieces of technology were quickly becoming toys with which to play games, listen to music, or watch videos, but not tools to learn math. Students began asking for "free time" and the iPads were becoming a distraction.

At first, I began finding apps that were math-related. If the students were going to use the iPads, then I felt they should be using them to develop their math skills. There are many apps that are math-related and can help students develop their understanding of numbers and basic operations. However, I realized that when the students were playing games or completing drills, they were often using inefficient or incorrect strategies. Most of the time, they were just guessing the answers. They were actually reinforcing their misconceptions as they played the games. I realized that they needed to do more than play the games to learn.

In the past, I have struggled to help students realize the importance of mental math skills. They often complain that the math we are doing is too easy and they want to learn what the other students in the school are learning. They see their friends' math textbooks and want to know why we are not doing algebra or trigonometry. Their interest in the math games on the iPads provided a perfect opportunity to begin conversations about mental math strategies and to differentiate instruction. When the students realized they could achieve higher scores or complete the games they were playing at higher levels if they were able to solve problems faster and more accurately, they became interested in learning more efficient mental math strategies. The iPad gave me a way to differentiate instruction because students could choose which games to play and which skills they wanted to work on, such as number recognition, place value, addition, and subtraction.

We began class each day by looking at some of the questions they were asked to solve when playing their math games, and we started talking about different strategies they could use to solve these problems. For example, we discovered together that questions like 13 + 22 could be quickly solved by "rounding and borrowing": 13 became 10 and 22 became 25, and it was easier to add 10 and 25. We had conversations about mental math strategies for all the basic skills, and students began to spontaneously share their discoveries. They started to teach one another how to solve multiplication or division problems quickly and efficiently. The students monitored their progress and thrived as they received instant feedback in the form of higher scores or by "leveling up." They became teachers, were interested in learning from each other, were motivated to build their skills, and became increasingly confident in their mathematical abilities. As their scores continued to improve, they began to see themselves as capable in math.

iPads in Language Adapted English 10

Like Numeracy Development, Language Adapted English 10 presents its own unique challenge. The students are transitioning from the ESL program into the mainstream program. This means that they are making the crucial transition from learning the English language to learning through the English language. They are different ages (grades 10–12); speak a variety of languages; and are international students, refuges, and immigrants. They are united by the fact that they will all need to write the same English provincial exam that all grade 10 students will write, but they will only have one semester (five short months) to catch up with their peers who have completed English Language Arts 8 and 9. Language Adapted English 10 is like a merge lane on a highway. The students have been traveling on a parallel route to their peers during the English as a Second Language (ESL) courses and now they will need to merge into this faster stream. They will need to develop the skills they need to survive in classrooms where the speed of instruction is faster and they will be required to read, speak, and write more. They need to be prepared for classes with less-explicit language instruction.

I have learned over the years that to meet this unique challenge, I need to adopt a unique approach. Instead of dividing the course into the traditional literature units of drama, poetry, short stories, and novel study, I realized that I needed a more integrated approach so students could practice the skills of reading, viewing, speaking and listening, and writing and representing together. I decided to adopt what I call a collaborative, thematic inquiry-based approach to language arts. Each cycle of learning begins with an essential question such as "How do the major transitions in our lives affect our identities?" or a theme statement, such as "overcoming differences." Once we have discussed the question or theme, we begin reading a variety of texts to gather new information and ideas. The next stage of the cycle includes activities where students speak about the texts they are reading and the insights they are gaining. Finally, students participate in activities that require more writing to demonstrate their knowledge and learning. The iPads are a perfect tool to connect these processes and facilitate the social construction of knowledge.

Using the iPads gave the students a reason to interact with each process and produce work that could be published or shared. Instead of their work ending up in the recycling bin, they posted their work online for other students to see. Instead of completing comprehension questions based on their reading, students used the Puppet Pals app to re-enact scenes from the articles, novels, poems, and plays that they were reading. Apps like Explain Everything helped the students create and participate in academic conversations. They recorded their conversations and took turns listening to one another and providing feedback. They used the iPads to create multimedia presentations to help show their learning about the essential question or theme. When students struggled to find the words to communicate their ideas, they used the iPads to show their understanding in alternative ways. They created drawings, found images, and recorded their singing. They played musical instruments or created dances. They even used their skills in different sports to represent their knowledge. I have often realized the students who are learning English as a second language frequently know and understand more than they can communicate with words. The iPads became versatile and powerful tools for creative expression in the hands of the students.

iPads in Language Adapted Composition 11

Once again, Language Adapted Composition 11 is a one-of-a-kind course. This course is designed for students who have learned English as a second language and want to improve their academic writing skills. Many of the students who take this course are frustrated by their performance in Senior content courses such as social studies, history, and English because of the strong emphasis placed on academic writing. As students are often required to demonstrate or show their knowledge through their writing, these students struggle because their writing skills are not strong enough to provide an accurate representation of their understanding.

Teaching this course presents its own unique challenges. While the students are often highly motivated, it is difficult to encourage them to develop a body of written work. They will often complete a piece of writing, submit it for assessment, and begin the next assignment. I frequently see them read my comments or feedback, think about it for a moment or two, and then move on. I have struggled to find a way to motivate students to go back and make revisions or corrections to their work, especially if their work is a hand-written essay or composition. Using the iPads in class helped the students do more than produce one draft of a written text.

In the past, students showed little interest or desire in crafting the texts that they were creating. If they did go back and revise or edit their work, they did it reluctantly. When using the iPads, students can do so much more than create a written text. Now they are creating visual and verbal essays, videos, and podcasts. As they work on these projects, I have witnessed them paying much more attention to their language and carefully considering the effect they want to have on their readers and viewers. They choose their words carefully, reorganize their sentences, and, amazingly, use feedback from me or their peers to revise their work. The iPads also provide opportunities for individualized and differentiated instruction. Many of the students have identified grammatical skills they need to work on, such as sentence structure or subject-verb agreement, and then they use the apps and games on the iPads to practice these skills. I believe that this attention to detail is motivated by the students' ability to create something meaningful that they can publish and share with a wider audience. Once again, I have seen how the iPad has become a tool that enhances students' learning.

My A-Ha Moment

When I first began working with iPads in the classroom, I feel I made the classic error of trying to find apps to teach with. For example, when students were learning about geometry in my numeracy class, I looked for geometry-related apps. What I realize now is that there may not be an app that matches what I want to teach, but there is mostly likely an app that students can use to process their learning of new concepts or express their understanding. I know now the secret to using any piece of technology in the classroom is to begin with clear learning goals and intentions that are based on "big understandings." Once students know what they need to learn, they will often find a way to express their ideas. Providing tools such as iPads for students enables them to use the items and skills they use outside of the classroom to communicate their knowledge. Furthermore, they are building the skills and learning how to use the tools that they may be required to use in the workplace.

There may not be an app that will teach what you want students to learn, but there is most likely an app that will support and enhance students' learning. Since the pilot project we have purchased our own set of 20 iPads and are using them in both learning support classes and ESL classes. We are working to create a model for using the iPads through our library and have also purchased a set of thematic Kindles in an effort to attract new readers to our library. Everything is an evolution that hinges on innovative teachers who jump in, adapt their practice and find creative ways to engage each learner, meet students where they are, and guide them to where they need to be. At Byrne Creek, this philosophy is at the foundation of everything the teachers do, and it is what makes this place so special.

Sandi Lauzon is the vice principal at Byrne Creek Secondary responsible for instructional technology. She holds a master's degree in educational leadership and has taught physical education, English, and art. She is grateful for the role that athletics and fine arts has played in her life and is dedicated to providing opportunities for students to excel in their own way. Lauzon is an advocate for arts education, healthy schools, and tech-literacy, and she continues to be inspired by the teachers, students, and families she works with at Byrne Creek Secondary.

Helen Erickson is an experienced intermediate and secondary school teacher. She is currently a teacher at Byrne Creek Secondary School, a school she has taught at since its opening in 2005. She teaches a wide variety of courses, including English as a Second Language, English, and Numeracy Development. Her other roles in the school include supporting English language learners in content-area classes such as math and science and assisting students who are completing independent directed studies. In addition to teaching in Burnaby, Erickson also has experience teaching in China and Trinidad and Tobago. She completed her Master's of Education in Language and Literacy at The University of British Columbia and is a strong believer of professional development. She is constantly working with her colleagues to develop innovative teaching methods.

Comments (3)


May 16, 2012

Thank you for sharing your experience! This is a great article - I will be sharing it with my colleagues!

James McConville

June 26, 2012

Sandi, thank you so much for sharing.  Your honest approach really lets others know what to expect.  I like the ah-ha moment when you realized it isn’t about the app but actually about the process.  I wish all teachers could find a way to get to that point.

Greg Haybittle

September 27, 2012

Great article, I had the same sort of A-ha moment with my classes. Then wrote my own app which is going very well. Whilst I realise this is not for everyone at this stage, eventually app creation will become more user-friendly for teachers to customize these resources.

Do a search for PianoPad, there’s a free version if interested.

Here’s also a review


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