iOpening experience: Tablets ignite passion for learning in fifth graders

By Brian Knox | Published Saturday, March 16, 2013

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A fifth-grade class at Decatur’s Rann Elementary recently got their own iPads – and much, much more.

What they really received, their teacher said, was a window to the whole world.

Giselle Gutierrez beamed as she explained how she has seen a “spark” in her 12 students.

A NEW PERSPECTIVE - Fifth-grade student Jazzmin Andrade shows off her new iPad at last week's distribution at Rann Elementary. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

A NEW PERSPECTIVE – Fifth-grade student Jazzmin Andrade shows off her new iPad at last week’s distribution at Rann Elementary. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

“It’s really exciting to see the learning they are doing,” she said. “They are asking, ‘What’s my homework?’ When’s the last time you heard a kid say they want more homework?”

Prior to receiving their own iPad, the students shared a single classroom iPad and also used Gutierrez’s laptop or desktop computer to research topics. Gutierrez and principal Melonie Christian noticed how excited the students became about learning while using this type of technology.

Gutierrez said once the students learned how to use the iPad, she’d find they would go to the public library on their own, outside of school, to research topics they had discussed the previous day in class. Then they would return to the classroom, eager to share their newfound knowledge with their classmates and teacher.

Last fall, Gutierrez was awarded a grant from the Decatur Education Foundation for student iPads. Earlier this month, the students received their own iPads they can take home and use. The purpose of the grant was to help the students, who are all dual-language learners, improve their language skills. For example, they can access a dictionary that not only gives them the definition of the world but also provides an audio pronunciation.

But what she has noticed is that the learning is already going far beyond language acquisition. One student who had learned about the Eiffel Tower decided he wanted to see what Paris looked like, so he figured out how to use Google Earth to pull up images of the city. Another student used the same application to look up his grandfather’s house in Mexico, even proudly pointing out to his teacher, “There’s my goat!”

Another student became interested in the Titanic and Hindenburg disasters, so he used the iPad to research those events. In fact, so many students became interested in so many different topics that the class now has a day set aside for students to share their knowledge. Each Wednesday, the new “expert” talks about his or her topic and answers questions.

“I can’t wait to come to work and learn what they are going to teach me,” Gutierrez said.

She’s not alone. With students excited about learning, she rarely has an absence in her class. No one wants to miss the opportunity to learn something new.

“Sometimes at fifth grade, you start losing that enthusiasm for learning, but they are just fascinated about learning,” Gutierrez said.

Technology has not only opened up a new world of knowledge. It has also unlocked potential some of her students may not have realized they had.

“I have a little boy and he said, ‘I never knew that I could go to college. I can go to college and be whatever I want to be,'” Gutierrez said.

“A lot of these children will be the first in their family to go to college, and they will do that because that desire has been put there. The fact is, the Internet and technology have opened those doors for them to areas they didn’t know existed.”

For example, when studying volcanoes, the students learned about volcanologists. Through studies of space, the students learned about cosmic photographers. The kids were amazed. They had never heard about these jobs.

“For them, jobs were Wal-Mart or what their parents do, or teachers or police officers … they just never understood that technology can open up worlds to them,” Gutierrez said.

She understands that some critics of technology fear that students will become dependent on that technology, meaning they will have to think less.

Gutierrez has found the opposite to be true.

“We stressed to parents that technology does not replace their children’s thinking,” she said. “It doesn’t. Technology is a tool, and once you learn how to use that tool, then your thinking just explodes. But technology does not replace the joy of learning.”

Perhaps the students can put it best. The day they got their iPads, they discussed how it would impact their learning. Those comments were sent to everyone who played a part in bringing that technology to the classroom, including Christian, district Technology Director Troy Bagwell, Superintendent Rod Townsend and members of the school board.

Student Marsela Garcia said, “Thank you so much for the iPads. This way we can keep on learning new things and read and discover. Mrs. Gutierrez says that some kids in China want to be pen-pals with us. That is crazy! We learned so much from a boy in Australia when Mrs. Gutierrez mentored him. And she didn’t even have to leave Decatur.

“Wow! Is learning always this much fun?”

THINKING OUTSIDE THE BOOK - Students in Giselle Gutierrez's class are all smiles about their iPads. The iPads were purchased mainly through a grant from the Decatur ISD Education Foundation. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

THINKING OUTSIDE THE BOOK – Students in Giselle Gutierrez’s class are all smiles about their iPads. The iPads were purchased mainly through a grant from the Decatur ISD Education Foundation. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

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