I graduated high school a little more than seven years ago, and a lot has changed since then. I’m fairly certain I wouldn’t pass seventh grade. If I were given a Billy Madison-like challenge and asked to go back to school, there would be more than a few occasions when I’d ask the middle school teacher to slow down a touch. And maybe go back over that last part again.
I came to the conclusion that I probably couldn’t keep up with 12-year-olds after visiting Saligman Middle School in Melrose Park earlier this month. It wasn’t what students were learning that made me feel outdated. It was the “how” that got me nervous. I found myself thinking I shouldn’t stay too long in that classroom in case anyone got suspicious and asked me to prove that I’d actually graduated high school.
I was startled at the difference between the classroom I sat in not that long ago and the one at Saligman, where Wi-Fi floated through the air and each student had an iPad in hand.
Most of the classrooms in Philadelphia-area Jewish day schools will soon resemble those technology-rich environs at Saligman.
That’s because the Kohelet Foundation, a local nonprofit organization supporting Jewish education, has invested more than $1 million to equip each student, fifth grade and up, at its nine affiliated schools, with iPads and the necessary training and technical support to use the tools.
The idea is that when you’re dealing with a generation where suburban 5-year-olds know as much about the Blackberry and Apple brands as they do the fruit, you have a couple of options: either “plug-in” your curriculum or watch as students search for an escape route, texting one another something like: “Should I say I have an ear infection or that I’m nauseous?”
Kohelet officials also see proficiency with technology as essential to being competitive in the modern job market.
The students at Saligman all had laptops beneath their desks, and have been using them for years. But the iPads have only been a regular accessory since returning from winter break. I already had the feeling, though, that paper, textbooks, even keyboards, would in the not-so-distant future go the way of chalkboards and learning to write in cursive.
Whereas a teacher of mine would ask students to put their pencils down to signal that they’d finished an activity, at Saligman, a language arts teacher asked students to turn over their iPads. I remember strolling to the front of the room to write something on the whiteboard. At Saligman, the students remained in their seats and showed their work by linking their iPads to an Apple TV.
“I think it’s going to be essential to their lives and that’s what makes it an essential part of our classrooms at this point,” said Marsha Messinger, who has worked at Saligman and its affiliated Perelman Jewish Day School since 1989. “Their world is going to be all about connecting and technology and portable technology.”
Kohelet executive director Holly Cohen said she’s excited by the idea of area Jewish day schools sitting on the cutting edge, rather than “being 20 years behind” other schools. But the advent of using iPads in the classroom is such a recent phenomenon that there is little research on the technology’s educational value.
On the day I visited, students in the eighth grade language arts class were learning about independent and dependent clauses. Messinger instructed students to craft sentences and identify different clauses. Using their iPads, students either typed or scribbled on the touch screen and then distinguished one clause from another by highlighting each with a distinct color. When Messenger asked for volunteers, hands shot up around the classroom, and students seemed eager to display their grammar skills on the Apple TV.
“I like how potatoes are bodacious and the source of all happiness,” wrote one student.
To ensure a smooth sail, the foundation has provided training to teachers and introduced the iPads gradually. They are already in use at Abrams Hebrew Academy; Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy; Kellman Brown Academy; Kohelet Yeshiva High School; Perelman Jewish Day School and Torah Academy. Other schools are slated to receive them next week.
For her seventh grade students in a separate class, Messinger created an e-book with pictures and video offering instruction on how to write a paper. One of those students, Ilana Kuba, compared learning via iPad to learning from one of those archaic textbooks.
“It would have been less exciting,” she said. “It’s more fun with the iPad.”
That is, unless you’re the guy asking someone half your age for help.