2011-12-23 / School News

Moving On Up The Technology Ladder

The Scholars’ Academy:
By Ana Solares, Class of ’13

‘Wait a minute, we never had one of those’ this is the thought that flickers through my mind as I’m trying to pull a Houdini and get to my AP Chemistry class on time: it’s a seventh-grader strolling down the hallways, embracing a silvery flat screen known to us humans as the iPad. Five years ago, when I first entered the Scholars’ Academy as a sixth-grader, these new tools our school has now embraced were unheard of. The flimsy chart paper, the primitive Crayola marker, and the traditional white board were our best friends. Now, within the book bag of every sixth grade student lies a Kindle and within the book bag of every seventh grade students is an iPad. The idea for this massive project, which was completed this year after two years of extensive planning, was conjured up while Principal O’ Connell was visiting his son’s kindergarten classroom.

“I was talking to his teacher about what books he was reading and the teacher said that one of the biggest challenges is to keep him fed with books because he has a voracious appetite for books. She told me that she had to touch base with the second and third grade teachers who borrow books from the literacy room. At that point, I looked around the classroom and I had a vision. My son reading books should not be an extra burden on the teacher or contingent upon two teachers bumping into each other in the hallway … Right then and there, I envisioned an e-reader of some sort,” said the principal. “When I looked into that kindergarten classroom with those tiny little chairs and the cute little desks …I envisioned an e-reader or a Kindle upon every table and I envisioned every book in the library in that Kindle. I envisioned every student on task with the ability to pick up any book.”

This epiphany was not just simply laid to rest. After researching numerous reading devices, including the Sony E-reader and the Nook, the principal and other school personnel decided upon the Kindle. Over the course of one summer, school personnel began crunching numbers to ultimately determine from where the funds to purchase these Kindles would be derived.

“Historically, at least in the past few years during the fiscal crisis, the city has asked schools to make budget cuts and we had some funds set aside of about 2½ to 5 percent of the budget cut,” said Mr. O’Connell. School personnel, however, according to the principal, located the funds for the Kindles. Due to fiscal preparedness and efficient budget management the school was able to pool enough resources to get started with the project.

After having solved the first part of the equation, the school then had to petition the purchasing department of the Department of Education and city vendors to approve and make the Kindle purchasable. Teachers all the while, researched e-books that would correspond with their curriculum maps.

After “weeks and even months,” according to the principal, the Kindles were made purchasable.

According to the technology teacher, Mr. Steve Kinney, one of the central contributors of the project, getting the Kindles actually up and running, with the desired uploaded books, proved to be another intricate process.

“Each Kindle needed a specific proxy set up to access the Internet,” said Mr. Kinney. “Because the DOE has a very specific filtering mechanism that wasn’t compatible with the Kindle by default, what we had was 270 kindles without Internet,” he added. Mr. O’Connell wasted no time in contacting the Amazon Kindle K-12 division and e-mailing the CEO of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, with a most leading subject headline: “NYC Public School Invests $30,000 in Kindles and Not One Works.”

In three days, two representatives from the company came to the rescue.

“We had two high ranking executives from Amazon fly in from Seattle to assist us with this project,” said Mr. Kinney.

As for the acquisition of textbooks for the readers, the company Glencoe generously donated the textbooks in PDF format that are now being used for the science and social studies curriculum.

Once the sixth grade was outfitted with the Kindles, the project moved on to the funding of separate iPad Ones for the seventh grade.

“I thought we only had enough money for half of the seventh grade for the iPads, so I thought, ‘This year we’ll buy the iPads for one cohort and next year, we’ll buy them for the other cohort,” said Mr. O’Connell. “For the budget of 2011 and 2012, we again made frugal decisions and were able to justify and leverage a contract for the exchange of state funding to purchase additional innovative and instructional tools.”

These tools, according to Mr. O’Connell, ultimately aid in the instruction of major class sizes due to their being a “1:1 learning device.” The iPads are currently being updated with software’s iOs5, iCloud and other apps.

The last phase of the push for technology involved a “needle-in-a-haystack” comical conundrum.

“Once we had these tools, we had to purchase cases for these tools and that was just a whole project in itself,” Mr. Kinney said. The technology teacher was faced with the mammoth task of finding 270 identical iPad and Kindle cases.

“No one had 270 of the same cases. The only ones that did were wholesalers from China and even then our credit card was declined,” said Mr. Kinney. “If I was trying to purchase 270 identical cases from wholesalers in China, I would certainly hope my credit card would be declined also,” he joked. After one month of sifting through a mass of product photos, the technology teacher was able to find seven to eight different vendors on Amazon that were all selling the same cases. The result, according to Kinney, was one that went “swimmingly.”

As for how the Kindles and the iPads are now functioning in the classroom setting, Ms. Kohn, the arts and theatre director, as well as the humanities teacher for two of the sixth grade classes, is already seeing the convenient effects of the Kindle.

“The students are excited about the technology, they’re excited to explore new features, and they’re even teaching me some new things,” she said.

The Kindles, which are now being used by the students to whip through the popular book series, The Hungry Games, are presenting with one minor issue, however.

“Now the only trouble is that the kids are reading too much. We haven’t even gone through the first couple of chapters and some of them are already halfway through the series,” she said. “When I look at them, I can see that they are gravitating towards the material [through this technology]. When they use these Kindles for any assignment and begin to read, you can literally hear a pin dropping in the classroom,” she added.

Seventh grade humanities teacher, Mrs. Circo, tinkering with an iPad of her own, also commented upon the marvels of the new device.

“Just today the students had to look at an engraving by Paul Revere of the Boston Massacre. All they had to do was pull it up, they could enlarge it, and then brainstorm from it,” she said.

Overall, the new tools, according to Mrs. Circo, are an immense aid in and out of the classroom.

“I can model any lesson on the Kindle and they can now access the lesson on Edline through their Kindles, or research anything they want easily,” she said. “[As for conferencing with the students] I can now sit on my couch in my sweatpants and conference with the students on any work through the new technology …For a student, learning never stops and we as teachers have to be able to facilitate that.”

For seventh grade Spanish instructor, Ms. Cave, whose students are using the iPads in conjunction with a new audio and video encompassing software, Power Speak; the new devices are revving up students to learn a new language with vigor.

“The students come in and every day there is a new focus question that they have to answer. They like to take out their iPads and right away, start taking notes,” she said. “The students are really enthusiastic and they just really love the iPads. They’re very precious to them and now they don’t seem too interested in walking around the classroom with their heavy book bags,” she added smiling.

The Kindles and the iPads, the features of which include the ability to move over a cursor and highlight or take notes on any text assigned to them within the margins, however, have some minor hiccups.

“Sometimes students don’t realize that when they just shove the Kindles into their book bags, anything can press upon it and damage the screen or the picture,” said Mrs. Deruvo, who oversees the re-ordering of damaged Kindles. “It’s like an Etch-a-Sketch, you have to be really careful.”

Although Amazon has been helpful with a one year warranty for the Kindles, an insurance policy nevertheless has been created. The policy is currently asking of students to give a donation of $30 for a potential lost or “inoperably damaged” Kindle.

In a recent “digital ribbon cutting” assembly which featured the official inauguration of the devices, Mr. O’ Connell summed up the essence of the project before his sixth and seventh grade audience.

“You’re going to be using these tools in the classroom and leveraging more information than ever before. You’re going to be learning at a more rapid and independent pace than ever before. The question now is how are you going to use this information? ... There is something called a digital divide, which is the item that separates the haves and have nots in terms of technology. There’s also the performance gap; that’s a gap between students who are underserved and students who have had numerous support and access to learning tools at home,” said the principal. “We believe that these tools are part of a toolbox to close the digital divide and the performance gap …We’re hoping that other schools take notice that the idea of putting a Kindle or an iPad or any individual learning device can reshape the way we as teachers think about teaching and learning.” he added.

According to Matt Jackson, a senior and a student tech team intern, the new devices offer one other important feature; absolute responsibility.

“Instead of students saying ‘Oh I have to have a textbook to do my homework,’ or ‘Oh I have to have this and that,’ they have their Kindles. Basically, these Kindles are leading to one thing: no more excuses,” said the senior.

The Scholars’ Academy is also an iZone school that is expanding technology within its walls across the board. Technology that has been incorporated in recent years has included the implementation of Smart Boards in every classroom, a live stream tri caster which posts all video recorded events directly onto the Internet, three technology labs with an Apple X-server which stores personal user accounts for all students, and laptop carts with Macbooks, Lenovos and Macbook pros. It is also the only school in New York City that is conducting a project of this scale within its classrooms. The current goal is to equip every classroom with an additional five or more iPads.

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