Sylvan teachers get lesson on iPads to pass on the sixth-graders

All Sylvan sixth-graders will get tablets to supplement learning

naustin@modbee.comJuly 27, 2013 

Teachers in Sylvan Union School District took a turn on the other side of the notebook last week, learning how to use tablet technology they know their students will pick up in a snap. Sixth-graders in the north Modesto district will get their own iPads to use at school this year.

While a frolic through iPad's fun apps came with the training, the 30 teachers also worked on the nuts and bolts of managing a tech-equipped class — how to keep students on task and out of trouble.

"They started each day very enthusiastic, and by the end each day were noticeably spent," trainer John Patten said.

He wanted teachers to get past the tablets' shiny newness. "It's not so much about the fancy things you can do. It's what we want kids to do with the technology," he said. Focusing on tech as a tool, "takes the whole flashy, whiz-bang out of it."

For example, an old-school technology lesson might be to teach students how to make videos. Tech teaching 2.0, however, meshes that with other assignments. An English assignment to write a persuasive essay could become using a video to argue a point.

The focus isn't on making a video, Patten said, "You're creating a solution."

Sylvan committed $590,000 to get an iPad in the hands of every sixth-grader this year, making it one of the first districts to go to individual technology. Turlock Unified has checked out computers to high schoolers in specific classes for two years. Modesto City Schools has class sets of tablets and laptops at sites, what most schools still use.

More iPads in the future

Sylvan Union Assistant Superintendent Laura Wharff said the plan is to add a grade of iPads each year until every Sylvan middle-schooler works on one. Each elementary school, meanwhile, will get two carts carrying class sets of Google Chromebooks.

Patten said the Chromebooks were chosen as a better system for multiple users, while the individual

iPads will allow students to have online texts, applications and in-progress homework always at the ready.

"This really changes the classroom instruction equation. We have students who will, essentially, have the entire human knowledge base in their hands, a broadcast and publishing studio," Patten said.

Some teachers at last week's training were iPads veterans, while others were trying them for the first time.

Somerset Middle School English teacher Robin Koski said she's used laptops in class before and found students more eager to learn using them. "I think it honestly grabs them — for now. Five to 10 years from now that may change. But it's a new tool," she said.

Going digital has benefits

"There's so much more kids can do," said Somerset teacher Jan Taylor. "They can do research — our (classroom) encyclopedias are from the 1970s." Taylor said online collaboration tools will make group projects far easier and communication more productive.

"As we go forward, textbooks are changing. More and more are going to digital," she said.

Digital textbooks, online materials from places like NASA and National Geographic will all be open to students, Patten said. "We will be utilizing all available digital resources that meet our needs," he said, including digital content evaluated by the California Department of Education at Brokers of Expertise ( and California Learning Resources Network (

State network director Brian Bridges said digital texts are ready and waiting for schools ready to take the leap. "It's been possible the past four years for districts to abandon physical books. With e-textbooks being about 30 percent cheaper and with publisher capability of updating these books regularly, there's never been a better time for districts to go digital," Bridges said.

The Modesto-based California Learning Resources Network evaluates free and commercial digital texts for compatibility with California standards.

"Imagine the power of an 11-ounce device containing a thousand books," he said.

Teachers eager to use tech

Teachers are inspired, said Karyn Garcia. She's planning ways for her fifth-graders to earn tech accessories such as ear phones, to keep learning game beeps and squawks in check.

Ustach Middle School teacher Andrew Cayabyab said he's eager to try it with his special education class at Ustach Middle School. Linking vocabulary to images could help their reading, he said, "If you're able to have a visual it makes more sense."

The small hands-friendly tablet also switches with a motion to large type to read e-books, bought or borrowed from online libraries.

Cayabyab said the hands-on interaction will help students concentrate. "You tend to lose kids when you're just up there talking," he said.

Michelle Buffa, a speech pathologist at Orchard Elementary, said she uses her iPad to track student progress as well as learning games she uses with students.

Despite the high efficiency of technology, the work for teachers is pretty much a wash, she said. Using iPads in the classroom can allow students to learn more independently, but planning such lessons takes more time.

Teachers at the training said they were happy to make the switch.

"I'm excited," said Tammy Payton, a third-grade teacher at Standiford Elementary. "I love the relevancy. I love that we're taking education into the century we live in."

Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at or (209) 578-2339, on Twitter, @NanAustin.

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