The Princess Screams, The Students Learn

Payson schools experiment with iPads in elementary school classrooms to boost reading skills and students’ grasp of technology


Kelsie Varner, Mickenzii  Stoll and Kaylee Murphy take turns spelling words using one of the many applications on the new iPads for third-graders at Julia Randall Elementary.

Kelsie Varner, Mickenzii Stoll and Kaylee Murphy take turns spelling words using one of the many applications on the new iPads for third-graders at Julia Randall Elementary. Photo by Andy Towle. |

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The cartoon princess pranced across the iPad screen, her castle in the background.

“I’m a princess,” said Emmy Whaley’s recorded voice.

Suddenly, a chipmunk skittered across the screen, landing next to the hem of the princess’ skirt.

“I’m a chipmunk,” said the recorded voice of Madisyn Morgan.

“Eeeek!” shrieked Princess Emmy.

The girls laughed and so did Joni de Szendeffy, Payson Unified School District’s director of information technology.

“That’s good!” de Szendeffy said to the two girls from Heather Chilson’s Julia Randall Elemen-tary (JRE) third-grade class.

De Szendeffy and her crew introduced the iPads to the JRE third-grade students at the end of February. Purchased through a state/federal grant aimed to help teachers prepare students to read at grade level, the district has purchased 150 iPads.

“We have two carts at PES and three carts at JRE,” said de Szendeffy, “They are to help with reading to prepare for Move On When Reading.”

The state passed the Move on When Reading act in 2010. It requires third-grade students to read at grade level and pass their AIMS (Arizona Instruments to Measure Standards) test.

If a student receives a Falls Far Below result on AIMS in their third-grade year, the law requires them to repeat third grade and read at grade level before moving on to fourth grade.

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Trystan Herrera shows Mrs. Chilson his score after winning an action game that assists the students with their math skills.

The Arizona law is based on reforms Florida made in 1999. Florida now claims it has better test scores because of the reforms, including a requirement that students reading far below expectations in the third grade repeat the year.

However, unlike Florida, Arizona has been cutting education spending rather than funding the reforms. De Szendeffy managed to snag a grant to buy the iPads. The district hopes the iPads will foster collaborative learning, boost reading skills and increase the students’ knowledge of technology.

“What I love about this is the collaboration,” said de Szendeffy, “It gives me goosebumps.”

Throughout Chilson’s classroom, heads are bent over iPads. Each group can choose from applications the technology department loaded onto the iPads.

“The teachers gave us a list of free educational applications they found out about at conferences,” said de Szendeffy. “My department then made a template of the applications and loaded them onto each iPad.”

De Szendeffy said she has scheduled her department to load up new batches of applications each quarter to keep the kids engaged.

“Right now it’s all new to them,” said Chilson.

She said her students love using the iPads. Each day of class she said she schedules iPad time and looks forward to adding more educational applications, such as math.

Already her classroom has a computer program that analyzes how the students understand math concepts.

After teaching a math concept with a traditional classroom lecture, Chilson has her students complete a math quiz by filling in bubbles on a scan tron sheet.

Then Chilson scans in the results to a computer program that analyzes each student’s result. The program then prints out an individualized lesson for the student.

It takes Chilson half an hour to scan the tests and print the worksheets. Next, she has to pass them out, collect the results and hand-grade the worksheet.

With the iPads, all of that will happen much more quickly.

“We will get the results back immediately,” she said.

The iPads will leave her free to go on to the next topic.

De Szendeffy said the district purchased the iPads after extensive in-class, hands-on research. “The kids and teachers all said they liked the iPads,” she said.

A big difference between the Apple product and a PC product was the length of battery time. The iPads have an eight-hour battery life, the PC-based tablets about two hours.

PUSD is lucky to have the personal attention de Szendeffy and her crew gives to each classroom. She stops by to make sure the applications and programs work. Before she committed to deploying the iPads, however, she asked lots of questions of other Arizona school districts.

“One large district deployed 8,000 iPads,” she said. “When I asked how they would support all those units with the staff they had, the technology director just said he was giving them to the classrooms and trusted the teachers would figure it out.”

She wished him well.

Two weeks later he called her to say his teachers needed help and he was wondering how she and her department had supported their classrooms.

As she finished up her story, Ron Paludan, technology assistant, stopped by to check in on how it was going.

“We have to figure out why the cameras on the students’ iPads don’t work,” said de Szendeffy. Emmy and Madisyn had come to her after showing her their princess cartoon to ask why the camera did not work. De Szendeffy had spent time searching through the applications trying to fix it in the classroom, but could not find the answer.

Instead, she told Paludan they would have to analyze the problem after school back in the tech department, proving it takes a team to keep the wheels of education rolling.

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