By Ed Langlois
Catholic News Service
PORTLAND, Ore. (CNS) — On the first day of school a century ago, nuns typically handed Catholic school students pieces of chalk and slates.
Now, students at Catholic schools in the Portland Archdiocese receive electronic tablets with powers unimaginable to generations past.
"We are teaching a new era of students," said Jennifer Fargo, a language arts instructor at St. John the Baptist School in Milwaukie. "They are bombarded with information. It used to be that teachers gave information. That model doesn’t work anymore."
St. John’s, located in a largely middle-class suburb south of Portland, is a pioneer among Catholic schools in providing a digital device to every student, an arrangement usually called "1 to 1." Starting in 2011, each elementary school student received an iPod touch, a small-hand-held device which holds books, math programs, learning games and music. Older students got iPads. Meanwhile, technicians upgraded the building’s wireless infrastructure.
"It’s a tool to enhance curriculum," said Ted Havens, principal of St. John the Baptist. "Learning still comes from the teacher."
When Havens arrived four years ago, St. John’s had a typical technology program. A computer lab held 17 desktop machines. Students rotated in and out all day, chipping away at projects. Havens, a former computer teacher, had heard of districts providing tablets to each student as a way to boost learning. He toured a nearby public school that uses iPads.
"We saw students who were really engaged," he recalled. "We saw that test scores went up."
At the next school auction, Havens pitched the idea and supporters were enthusiastic, giving more than $70,000 up from the previous record of $40,000.
"It really spoke to people," he told the Catholic Sentinel, Portland’s archdiocesan newspaper.
Today’s grade-schoolers are digital natives who grew up using devices. Carly Weber, a fifth-grader at St. John’s, said she has been learning better since the iPads arrived. Her math and spelling achievements have climbed. She’s especially thankful for an iPad application, or app, that reinforced the steps of long division.
First-graders use iPods to analyze a story and fifth-graders use iPads to record skits. Recently in a hallway, two seventh-grade girls practiced a dance routine with music from a tablet. Eighth-graders have been researching letters, newspapers and journals from the antebellum South.
The devices — and their access to the Internet — changes students’ roles from memorizing to researching. Grace Butler, librarian at St. John’s, said one of her most important jobs now is teaching students how to do good research and evaluate the trustworthiness of sources.
Cathedral School in Northwest Portland received seed money for high-tech devices from the estate of a descendant of the family that a century ago donated land on which the school sits.
Principal Amy Biggs reports a glitch-free start in going "1 to 1." She noted that reading comprehension has "flown" and math skills and computer know-how have risen. Students who learn by visual cues have improved the most because of the iPad’s capacity for graphics.
In the school’s third grade, Skylar Bordonaro used an iPad to take a quiz on a book she just finished. The device keeps track of what she has read and how she does on the quiz, sending a report to the teacher.
In seventh-grade science class, students are making films to simulate protein synthesis. While a textbook may show only one angle of a DNA strand, an iPad can display a 3-D model that students can rotate and magnify. They can send observations to each other.
Cathedral School will buy a new batch of iPads for sixth-graders each year. When students graduate, they take the devices with them. Filters are also put in place to keep students away from troublesome websites. Teachers spot check what students are doing and a program alerts officials when a device has landed in inappropriate territory. Parents pay for damaged or lost iPads, while a warranty covers devices that malfunction or wear out. A handful of tablets have been sat on or stepped on at the schools.
St. Mary’s Academy began giving each student an iPad this fall and discussing how they should be used and not used.
La Salle Prep and Jesuit High School will go "1 to 1" next fall. Although students — and parents — may have hoped heavy textbooks would disappear, that is not yet the case since not all publishers are making texts available in digital format. But electronic texts are expected in the future and revised editions could be faster to obtain and cheaper than new paper texts.
Not everyone is convinced of the benefits of universal tablets in schools. Susan Nielsen, a columnist at the Oregonian, Portland’s daily newspaper, wrote in December that school boards can become more interested in funding technology than learning.
Analyzing a tablet program in Los Angeles, Nielsen said a lot of groundwork is needed before the "1 to 1" programs make sense.
"I’m pro-iPad. But I’m also pro-tuba, and it wouldn’t make sense to buy a tuba for every child, either. Not without a whole lot of music teachers and some sort of tuba sustainability plan," she wrote.
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Langlois is a staff writer at the Catholic Sentinel, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Portland.
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