iPads as Tools for Engaging Students

(This is a summary I shared with a community foundation that funded two iPads in my building, about my observations when using iPads with reluctant readers.)


Howe Elementary School requested and received two iPad 2s. The purpose of these tools for learning is to engage young learners, especially those who struggle in school and need support, or for those who require more enrichment in their education.

Start Date and End Date
I started using the mobile devices as an intervention tool for two upper elementary students in early October. We ended the intervention in late December. The two students and I met for approximately one and a half hours per week (two 45 minute intervention sessions). Both students were put in more intense interventions for reading after the winter break, and I will be picking up two more students who have made strong gains in a more intense intervention. See the attached lesson plan to see one example of an intervention session, which corresponds to the photo submitted.

A diversion from the intent of these devices was to use the iPads for Able Learners, students who were labeled Gifted and Talented in the past. One 1st grade teacher has been allowing her four able learners to use some critical thinking apps such as Casey’s Contraptions and Rocket Math as a way to challenge them. I’ve asked this teacher to reflect on how it was working for her students. We are also now looking at using iPads because the Able Learner program has been cut to only one position for the district. These devices might provide the classroom support needed at a minimal cost.

Parent and Community Partnership
Using these devices to support diverse students’ learning needs has spawned some innovative ideas at Howe Elementary School. Based on the success observed with the two devices you have allowed us to purchase, the following initiatives are planned for the second part of the year:

Three special education teachers will be using district funds to purchase an iPad in order to accommodate students with learning, emotional and language disabilities.

Fourteen teachers will be implementing an iPad in their classroom to a) discover ways to use the device to increase their teaching capacity, and b) provide another tool for differentiating instruction and facilitating interventions in their classroom.

The Parent Partnership Team at Howe will be hosting a series of Technology Nights in the spring once teachers become proficient at using the iPads. Parents and community members will be invited to explore the devices with teachers and students. The objective will be to share how the school is using them to a) support student learning and b) communicate with families more regularly.

Four iPads will be replacing four desktops in a kindergarten room. This pilot will assess whether these mobile devices are better suited for primary students when compared with personal computers.

Book Apps vs. Apps Based on Books

A recent post on Twitter made me aware of Imagination Soup’s Best iPad Book App for Kids: http://imaginationsoup.net/2011/12/best-ipad-book-apps-for-kids-of-2011/

What I appreciated about this post was the criteria for how they came to their decisions:

“A good book app needs to have:

– an interesting story
– compelling, kid-friendly illustrations
– appropriate text to picture ratio
– easy navigation: pages which are easy to turn, way to return home, way to skip pages
– choices of read to self and read to me
– clickable elements that relate to the story and aren’t just for fluff”

Being a father of a five year old and three year old plus an iPad book app connoisseur myself, I found their choices informative. Taking off my dad hat and putting on my principal hat, are these the same book apps I would want in place in my school’s classrooms? We as a school have rallied hard to persuade parents to turn off the screen and spend more quality time with their children. With the amount of animations, bells and whistles that some of these book apps have, I have legitimate concerns about how much reading is really happening when students interact with them.

If I were to develop criteria for what makes an app truly a book app, it would actually boil down to just one criterion: Does the app benefit the student as a reader? That is, does the book app actually enhance the reading experience when compared to a regular print book? For students who do not struggle in reading, quite frankly there isn’t an app out there that can even closely compare to the reading experience one has when they are totally immersed in the author’s world on the printed page.

However, for struggling readers, I believe book apps can have a purpose in helping them be engaged in the process of reading. Going back to my criterion, here are the apps on my short list.

Top Book Apps

OceanHouse Media books
These applications are the best, bar none. The narration is good, and it works nicely with the background effects. There are very few animations or distractions as the books progress. This helps readers stay focused on the text (the whole point of reading, right?). My favorite aspect about OM books is the highlighting that occurs as the narrator reads the words. Readers may not clamor for these book apps over “Dora” books or “Hildegard Sings”, but the animations in the books just mentioned distract the reader from the text. (BTW – You know your parents are educators when they track your eye movement when reading). I can go on and on about the quality of OM products, such as the “Little Critter” series and books by Dr. Seuss, or how they have nonfiction book apps on high-interest subjects such as dinosaurs. The best part: OM products are some of the most inexpensive book apps in the app store.

Nook Kids Read to Me books
Technically, they are not apps. The Nook Kids app is an eReader. You can purchase these eBooks for kids through Barnes and Noble and read them on a Nook Color or an iPad. What makes this a top choice for struggling readers is that there are zero animations, they provide high quality narration and the books available for purchase are quality text for emergent readers. My favorite is Ray Charles’ rendition of “Chicka Chicka Boom Boom”. The price of these books are a little more expensive than what the App Store offers, but they still have the potential to enhance the reading experience of a struggling reader. iBooks also offers Enhanced Books. I have not tried them but they sound similar to what Barnes and Noble offers.

Specifically, check out the Audiobooks collection for children’s literature. I own over twenty of these recordings myself, ranging from Fancy Nancy to Blueberries for Sal. Jim Trelease, author of The Read Aloud Handbook, would concur with me that hearing the printed word read aloud is a powerful way to get students hooked on reading.

Honorable Mention

– Loud Crow book apps
The animations are more frequent, but the layout and production of these apps, such as “Peter Rabbit” and “The Going-to-Bed Book”, make them difficult to resist.

– Disney Puzzle Books/Toy Story Series
Disney is hard to avoid, especially with little kids. Thankfully, they have produced some book apps that focus more on the written word then on everything else. Their use of highlighting text in the Toy Story books is appreciated.

Apps That are Based on Books
I am not saying these are poor apps by any means. I just feel they are mislabeled; they are more of an app than a book. I know my kids still enjoy them, but I would not necessarily place them on a device in one of my classrooms for the purpose of building stronger readers.

– “Winkin”
– “Finn’s Hat”
– “Hildegard Sings”
– “Morris Lessmore” *(Even though it didn’t make the cut, this app is just too good not to experience; you decide.)
– Angelina Ballerina: New Teacher”
– “Rapunzel”
– “The Monster at the End of this Book” *(Another app based on a book that you just may want to own).
– “Hugless Douglas”

If you have more suggestions for any one of these categories, let me know. Happy reading!

Teachers Required to Submit Lesson Plans? Here’s a Win-Win!

In my district, teachers who are not tenured are expected to submit lesson plans to their principal for review. To be quite honest, my likeliness for reviewing their plans has about the same chance as Prince Fielder staying in Milwaukee as a Brewer. I just don’t have the time to delve into the weekly plans of my probationary teachers, plans that are submitted the Friday before the lessons start and won’t reflect how their instruction has changed due to a one day lesson that lasted two days.

The solution? After observing my probationary staff for the first of two times this fall, I am requiring each of these teachers to submit five lesson plans to me between now and spring, when I will observe them for a second time. They get to pick the lessons, with the caveat that one of their lessons showcase an excellent example of instruction, and another lesson reflect a lesson that they know needs improvement. The other three lessons can be anything they want. For all five lessons, they have to reflect on how it went, what was successful and what they would do differently if they could reteach it.

I haven’t tried this yet. I don’t even have the template selected for the teachers to use. So why do I think it will be successful? Thinking as a teacher, I would find it more beneficial to take a lesson I actually employed, reflect upon it and evaluate the effectiveness of my instruction. This type of thinking requires much higher level thinking compared to the alternative. As a principal, I can see through their lessons how the teachers are growing as professionals, especially in their reflections. This information should be very useful to me when I observe them again in the spring.

What are your thoughts? Have you tried something similar? I’d appreciate your thoughts.


UPDATE: As my brain was still going while trying to get some sleep last night, I remembered a conversation I had with one of my reading teachers that day. We are in the process of planning the implementation of iPads with teachers, in an effort to provide tools for reading and math intervention in the classroom. She is the ying to my yang; I want to get devices in the hands of kids right away, while she cites studies about the danger of too much technology. These are good discussions. One thing she mentioned that stuck with me is the F pattern people use when reading text on the web. In a study by Jakob Nielsen in 2006, he found that people will read the top two lines of a website, then go down the left hand side of the screen to try and read the rest. This reading pattern is roughly in the shape of an F. The thinking is there is just too much information online for anyone to follow it all. Plus many web advertisements are located on the right side. Web readers are scanning information for what’s important and avoiding the ads on the right.

So how is this related to reflective lesson plans for probationary staff? Mainly, these teachers are all in their twenties and are digital natives (I am an immigrant, digitally speaking). They have grown up reading on screens. Also, they may use the F patterns when reading not only websites but other text as well. Because I want them to type these lesson plans up on a computer so they can be dropped in a digital file, my theory is they will be more comfortable adding their most important thinking (their reflections) on the left hand side. When they go back to reread their reflections before the second observation in the spring, the template will reflect what their eyes prefer. As a bonus, the reflection box runs along all the steps of the lesson plan, so they can reflect even as they teach the lesson, or at least make notes in the part of the lesson they reflected upon.

Maybe I am way overthinking this, but I think it was worth trying out. Take a look at the template I made at https://docs.google.com/open?id=0B9IW4q_SnPUwZjZlOTZjM2EtYTE2OS00MTM3LTkxMmQtMGVkYjFjZTMwZmU0 and let me know your thoughts. The probationary teachers I shared this with really liked it, but I’d probably say that to my boss too! Also, here is the link to the research about the F pattern when reading online: http://www.useit.com/alertbox/reading_pattern.html


Making the Case for Better Meetings

For many, the word “meeting” has a negative connotation. Ask anyone to conjure up images and they may think of piles of paperwork that will end up in the recycle bin, pointless PowerPoints, and styrofoam coffee cups stuffed with candy wrappers, evidence of last ditch efforts by staff to load up on caffeine in order to remain focused.

As someone new to leading a school, a focus of mine is to make meetings more meaningful. Here are some strategies that I have learned from others, along with other tips I have discovered the hard way.

1. Have an agenda and stick to it.

This comment was reiterated at my PBIS training today, and it cannot be said enough. For me and many others, it is nice to see the topics ahead of time so I can plan my thinking. Also, the only topics to be discussed are limited to what is written means there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

2. Use data in a visual format.

Throwing a bunch of numbers in front of unsuspecting staff is just that, a bunch of numbers. Putting those same numbers in an arresting display catches the eye and solicits engagement. Once you have their attention…

3. Provide a framework for discussion.

I like to use a five step data analysis process to guide our discussions. It keeps the language consistent and our feedback objective with each other, especially helpful when we are looking at teacher’s assessment results of their students. We try not to judge, just listen and ask for clarification to promote reflection.

4. Let the teachers do the talking.

My role is to start, facilitate and guide the discussion, not to flaunt what I think I know. The best answers come from within. As long as the discussion is about kids, generally positive and constructive, and uses evidence to support decisions, I see no need to interfere.

5. Follow up with minutes.

This is an area that I am slowly getting better at. Handwritten notes are fine, but I find myself placing them on my pile of things to do when I get back to my office. How big is your “To do” pile? Bringing my laptop and typing what was said during discussion ensures that the minutes will be ready for immediate delivery to all staff with one click of the Send button.

One of my favorite positive quotes about meetings is from Todd Whitaker, who stated, “One goal of every faculty meeting is that teachers should be more excited about teaching tomorrow than they were today”. This advice, along with the strategies mentioned above, are all ideas I have gleaned from other educational leaders that work for me. What works for you and your staff?

The Writing Principal?

As an elementary school principal, I conducted my first writing activity with a class. It was a poem that piggy backed off the book I read aloud to one of my kindergarten classes, The Important Book by Margaret Wise Brown. I had already read them this book at my prior visit, so I followed up with The Little Fireman by the same author to start the writing lesson. This was good on two notes. One, we were able to point out how the author uses patterns when writing her books. Plus, she collaborates with other writers to make new stories. Second, the fireman book gave some inspiration for the kindergarteners to come up with ideas for a topic for our Important Poem.

One of the more active students suggested fire trucks, so I jumped on that opportunity to praise him for making a text-to-text connection. I used my Moleskine book journal to model how to write the shared writing poem, with the help of the document camera. (At first, I thought I could also give the kindergartners a template to try these poems on their own once modeled. Their teachers showed me the errors in my thinking). We used the same format as the author did to write this poem about fire trucks:

The most important thing about fire trucks is that they have a ladder.
They are on wheels.
They are also red.
But the most important things about fire trucks is that they have a ladder.

I provided the majority of the sentences, with the students helping me come up with words to describe the fire truck. Once we were done, we attempted to take a picture of the poem we wrote using the document camera. Between the teacher and me, all we have is the picture below. I’ll have to do it the “old fashioned way” and scan the poem to print off. The teacher will have that poem in one of her literacy centers for her students to reread. I had a lot of fun writing with the students!


Grading and Assessment Newsletter to Parents

I want to thank everyone for attending parent teacher conferences in November. The goal of these nights are to facilitate conversation between teacher and parent about how your son or daughter is doing in school. I hope you found it helpful and informative.

Discussions are also occurring at a larger level in the education world. Most of what you read in the news focuses on dwindling funds for public education and thinking of ways to do “less with more”. Yet beneath these debates are more productive conversations about the daily teaching and learning happening everyday in school. One of the most pressing topics is assessment and grading.

When you and I went to school, and even still today, an A on a report card meant you were working your hardest and learning to the best of your abilities. Here in town, you can walk down the street from Howe to rent movies for free based on how many A’s you receive. Leaving near the Wisconsin Dells, I recall more than one summer as a kid, bringing my fourth quarter report card to get into a water park for free. I cannot remember what I did to get the A or what exactly I learned, other than to meet my teacher’s expectations.

These practices are changing. The focus on how a student is doing academically in education is moving toward growth of the student’s skills and knowledge toward mastery of a standard, such as adding two digit numbers. This is in contrast to getting a grade for turning in quality homework, raising your hand in class X number of times, or reading so many books per month. The former criteria tells you where a student is at in their abilities; the latter tells you more about their work habits, behavior and ability to play the game of school, all thrown together in a pot to concoct an average for nine weeks of work.

A great example of how grading and assessment will look when moving toward a growth model for mastery is karate. Dr. Thomas Guskey, a recognized expert in grades in school, states that went a karate student progresses from white belt to eventually black belt, he or she does not receive a “gray belt”. His example is a clever way of pointing out that an average is an inappropriate way to recognize mastery in an area. That student earned the black belt because he or she demonstrated the ability and knowledge that all students of karate must attain for this level of achievement. It is irrelevant whether it took them three months or three years to get there. The important thing is that mastery was reached, measured with reliable assessments such as a physical demonstration.

As I stated, when parents and teachers meet, the focus is on communicating information about your son or daughter’s learning. My goal for the changes in how grades are reported are that conversations will be more substantial because better data will be shared between both parties. If you have questions or ideas on this topic, I’d love to hear them. Stop by or give me a call.

How My Checkbook Helped Me Bring Meaning to Data

As a newly appointed elementary principal, I feel like I am learning a whole new job (I previously served as a middle school assistant principal/athletic director and as an elementary school teacher). As I have tried to balance home and work, my checkbook has taken a back seat to parent meetings, family obligations and everything else that is involved in the principalship and parenthood. The result has been a checking balance that has been unchecked, offset by moving savings over to prevent overdraft charges.

At first glance, I assumed I was just too busy to deal with the day-to-day mundaneness of logging expenses and deposits on my ledger. That would make sense considering my current learning curve. However, what was different? Nothing, besides a new job and the fact that I just didn’t want to take care of the finances. This realization led me to think about what I expect of my teachers and the data they blindly input into spreadsheets about their students’ achievement. What was their purpose for collecting guided reading and math facts data, other than to do what their principal asked?

To use the same writing format as Margaret Wise Brown does in The Important Book, “The important thing about data is that teachers can use it to inform instruction. It involves numbers. It takes time to collect. Sometimes the results aren’t reliable. But the important thing about data is that teachers can use it to inform instruction”. A recent tweet I made proclaimed that the best universal screener is the classroom teacher. How can data help them make informed decisions, when they don’t see the end results or the purpose? Is this why I wasn’t keeping my check book up to date?

I started to make changes at home and at school. At home, I downloaded a few apps on my iPad to help me track expenses and pay down debt such as car loans more quickly. What these apps do is give me a visual representation of how I spend my money along with what changes I can make to better balance my household budget. The same holds true for student data. I took the spreadsheets my teachers entered student data into and linked them to graphs on other pages in the spreadsheet. These graphs showed student progress by month in reading and math, growth rate needed to meet end-of-year benchmarks and classroom progress.

My teachers are more motivated to get the data entered in a timely manner, because we see a purpose in our practices. Conversations about student data between teachers are much more productive now because the focus is on student learning and teacher practices, not on what we assume to be effective or ineffective. Relevancy and meaning are vital, whatever the focus may be.