TRUCKEE, Calif. - Think back to a social studies class you had in middle school.
Are there particular lectures or lessons that stand out? It probably isn't the end-of-the-chapter drill, but perhaps you do remember a special research assignment, group project or an especially inspiring teacher.
Now imagine the student experience in Kevin Bixler's history class at Custom Learning Academy (CLA). "What do you know about Russia," he asked the seventh-grade students. A lecture does not follow. Instead, a completely student-driven exploration of the geography, politics and economics of the world's largest country ensues. Each student in the small class has an iPad and a piece of paper that features an outline of Russia for note taking. The students use different search words to access various websites. The class is completely interactive with students sharing "really cool facts" and asking questions. For a short time the Russian National Anthem plays quietly in the background as the students delve into the country-specific research. All of the students are on task. Engagement level is high.
"This generation grew up with technology in their hands. The touch screen and visuals lock in their attention," said Bixler, a credentialed teacher at CLA, who holds a bachelor's degree in American studies from California State University, Chico. "We use technology to foster independent researchers and learners. When there is technology, especially iPads, students are so into it, and when you're into it, you learn."
The seventh-grade students use the information gleaned from the first half hour of class to write a creative paragraph. In just one hour, the students have practiced 21st century skills using their imagination and writing skills to craft a compelling paragraph about Russia's attributes and presented their findings in front of the class. This is the introduction to a whole section that will focus on learning about Russia.
Asked to describe additional iPad uses in their classes, the teens excitedly share information about their favorite apps, talk about the recent timeline and castle projects they completed in history class, share insights about the pros and cons of using the Sketchpad app in art and rave about the online language lessons that reinforce the vocabulary they are learning in their French and German studies.
Across the parking lot in an elementary classroom, first and second grade students quickly walk to their desks after wrapping up singing together in music class. They know the rules: They can begin language arts as soon as their teacher has assigned a specific iPad to them, and the iPad must remain on the table.
There is 100 percent student engagement as the children, 7 and 8-years-old, trace letters by following the arrows that teach proper letter formation with their finger right on the iPad screen. They read aloud and also group words with common sounds. They share their experience with the person sitting next to them. They giggle.
"Using the iPads is a fun and productive way to work on predicates and site words rather than traditional assignments. When they play games (engage in activities) [on the iPad] they don't even realize they are learning," said first and second-grade senior teacher Michelle Hall, whose students are using Reading Raven, Doodle Words and Sight Words apps. Her colleague Stephanie Brodie also likes the interactive language arts lessons, some of which monitor individual student progress.
As the students hone in on the educational games, the teachers provide positive feedback and offer hints for any challenging sections. The time students spend on the iPads reinforces the curriculum and creates a fun and exciting learning environment. Students steadily progress at their own level when using the iPads with teacher support.
In addition to the iPads, CLA has integrated videos, digital photography and computers into today's classroom. Students develop an understanding of how they learn best, reinforce content knowledge and depict critical thinking skills while teachers employ another teaching tool. It's all part of the school day for students at Custom Learning Academy.
Custom Learning Academy is located at 12710 Northwoods Blvd. in Truckee. For more information visit customlearning.org or call 530-587-5470.