San Domenico: A well-oiled, thoughtfully run system

Several things struck Ms. Sena, Ms. McIntire, and me as we wound our way onto the grounds of the compound at San Domenico. First, there was the banner promoting Faculty and Staff Appreciation Week (“That sounds nice!”), and then another banner across a walkway as we neared the middle school: FIRST iPad School in Marin! That sense of pride was everywhere at SDS: faculty, administrators, and students were truly proud of the things they had been able to do with their iPad program. And even more strikingly, they were thoughtful and humble about what they had learned along the way. The students we talked to were extremely impressive: they were astonishingly candid and articulate about their experiences with the iPad and how it had enriched their lives at school. Upon further reflection, we visitors realized that we were easily the fiftieth group who had come through to ask these students about their iPad experiences, so these students have, in fact, said many of these things many times before. However, that doesn’t diminish the power or authenticity of their feedback: these students and teachers are doing amazing things to augment their learning and teaching.

We spent a couple of hours parading slowly through several classrooms to see the iPads in action. Here’s my recap of the morning.

FOURTH GRADE MATH: a fourth grade math class met at a series of tables in the library, where the teacher put a problem up on his iPad via a document camera. He also held up a whiteboard slate with the assignment written on it. (When I asked why he wasn’t using Apple TV, the tech director indicated that this particular teacher just really liked using a document camera; every room in the school is Apple TV enabled.) Students then used a Singapore Bar Model app to solve the problems, talking quietly to one another about their methods and raising their hands to ask for help and to volunteer answers.

FIFTH GRADE SCIENCE: We walked in on smores day! This was a room of fifteen giggling ten-year-olds with their mouths full of chocolate and marshmallows following an experiment with the solar cooker ovens they had built over the last week. The students used the iPads in surprising ways: they took quick photos of the thermometers from the ovens to get the most accurate read possible; they made their data charts in NOtability and used iMovie and QuickOffice to record their data. Between bites, one girl told me why the iPads work well for them in school: “You see, we’re tech natives and you adults are tech immmigrants; so using technology helps keep us more engaged.” While I was a little aghast at this sophisticated language from a ten-year-old–and a little insulted to be called an “immigrant” when I grew up with an Apple II in my bedroom since I was two–there’s a great point to consider here.

EIGHTH GRADE HISTORY: What struck us first was the classroom, where students had made posters that compared the US Government to different movies. There was a giant poster of “The Three Branches of the Hunger Games” and a “Twilight”-themed diagram, but the one I liked most was the Federal Government a la “Mean Girls.” These were simple, hand-drawn posters, but they were real products of creativity, an exciting thing to see in the context of a day of iPad celebration.

In the classroom, the students used the iPads mostly for the practical purposes of keeping track of notes for class. The teacher used the app Box (a lot like Dropbox) to offer students access to their notes and homework. Students also use Box to turn in their assignments, which they complete on their iPads using annotation apps like iAnnotate or Notability. They also use a great app called Noteshelf for taking notes. This teacher was over the moon about what the iPad had done for her classroom: it allowed her to have all of the papers for her class easily accessible online and it eliminated many issues with lost and late homework. Using the iPad, she said, “revitalizes my interest in teaching” because it allowed her to concentrate on teaching rather than chasing papers.

SIXTH GRADE MATH: Students were busy making graphs of temperature for different world cities. They had each tracked the daily temperature in cities around the world, and now they were presenting their results graphically using Pages. Students took turns sharing their screens with the class via Apple TV, and then fellow students would comment on their graphs (“I like how you made that part red so I could see the way things changed”; “I think you should have a title on the top”). This class still used physical books and took quizzes and tests with paper and pencil, but the class found ways of using the iPads to help them explore and explain math more deeply.

We also learned more here about how the school year starts at SDS: the first two weeks of school focus heavily on introducing the school’s cultural norms surrounding the iPad, how to use it for different classes, how to organize note-taking apps and organizational apps, and how to take care of the device. While it isn’t clear that we could easily do that on our campus (losing two weeks to iPad-only work might lead to all-out revolt from students and faculty alike), but it was interesting to consider what else we might do on our campus to orient students to the iPad for the year ahead.

MULTIVARIABLE CALCULUS, 12TH GRADE: This was the only class we visited in SDS’s girls’ high school, and it was a small group of serious juniors and seniors. Their textbook is a digital one–HMH Hughes’s calculus text–and its digital format was the driving force behind a major change in the school’s math curriculum: they moved away from an integrated math model because of the textbook that was available on the iPad. While the students loved the lightness of their iPad versus a heavy math text, all but one attested that they’d rather type a long paper on a laptop than on an iPad. We wondered: would this change over time as more “digital natives” grow up and get used to tapping on screens?

FIFTH GRADE MATH: This class was reviewing for a test using Educreations. Each student was tasked with a different math problem, and he or she had to create an Educreations video in which they showed their work and narrated the proper way to solve the problem. This was a terrific way for students to demonstrate their understanding and for students to constructively criticize their classmates’ work. It was exciting to see a class that valued understanding in this way, and it was remarkable to see how many opportunities this offered the teacher to assess and gauge her students’ progress in class.

SITXTH THROUGH EIGHTH GRADE RELIGIOUS STUDIES: This class was less iPad-heavy than web-heavy, and the iPads acted more as a gateway to the internet than anything else. This teacher liked to think of the internet as more of a walled garden, with a pre-set group of links that he preferred his students to visit rather than letting them loose on the internet. This didn’t appeal to me much, since it violates our Sacred Heart commitment to fosering wise freedom–and since I vividly remember resenting the training-wheels-for-my-internet of the bad old days of AOL. Be that as it may, this teacher’s class did something amazing: they used the Book Creator app on the iPad to make digital books about important sacred texts from different faith traditions, from the Torah to the Bhagavad Gita to the Koran. Their project required them to take the iPads out into the world to see, do, look, and explore: they had to use their iPads to record the words from their sacred text in its original language; they had to take pictures with their iPads to illustrate the books that they created. While this tool is far less powerful than the iBook Authoring tool that’s available through the latest Mac OS, it was exciting to see its possiblitites like this: our CSH art history textbook has gone digital as an iBook, but I hadn’t thought about the idea of students creating their own library of iBooks as presentation tools. What could this do for our Symposium project in the sophomore year? What could it do for end-of-term projects or portfolios in other classes?



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