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Blackwell column: iPod project transforming classrooms

By Maggie Blackwell
mblackwell@salisburypost.com
I first became aware of the iPod Project at a school board meeting, when North Rowan High School Principal Rodney Bass gave an update on the project’s timeline.
Having had a career in information management, I was definitely intrigued. I knew about the iPod touch but do not have one, although I am addicted to my old iPod classic. How would the iPod touch affect a classroom? Would the expense be offset by value to the students?
I was also skeptical. How can they keep students from downloading music? Inappropriate content? Will they send text messages to each other during class? Or worse, during tests? How would it work in an educational environment?
Over the course of two months I learned the answer to these questions and more. Simply put, the iPod transforms the classroom.
That guy who likes to be funny to distract you from his inability to read well? There’s one in most every class. Well, now he’s plugged in, listening to the book audibly. He pulls up a review, answers the questions, typing with his thumbs, and e-mails it to his teacher. He’s good at typing with his thumbs. His handwriting might not be the best, but when he types, his work looks the same as everyone else’s. The iPod allows him to enjoy novels he never could have completed before. And he understands them; the e-mailed answers were correct.
You know the girl who runs into class right after the tardy bell? You remember her ó she lingers in the hall with her boyfriend to the last minute. Now she scoots in before the bell rings. If she’s tardy, she has to share an iPod with someone else. If she gets her work done on time, she can practice that cool spelling game. She’s almost got 1,000 points on it.
The good student who was oh, so bored with the easy assignments? Now he’s totally tuned in to the movie of guys canoeing down the river, telling about water and erosion. Because he’s using his ear buds and his own iPod, he can rewind and play as often as he wants to be sure he catches the parts that might be on a test.
Kids learn in different ways. The educators divide them into four groups: auditory (listening) learners, visual (seeing) learners, tactile (touching) learners and kinesthetic (moving) learners. The iPod allows students to learn in the manner most effective for them as individuals. I can read the book. You can listen to it. I can watch a movie. You can play a game. We’re all learning.
The system isn’t perfect. In the classes I visited, there were always a few students who weren’t engaged, even with the iPod. A few pretended they were working on assignments, but they were not.
But the teachers shared with me there was a whole strata of students for whom the iPod has been magic. It has bridged the gap between being a not-so-good student and being an OK student. It presents information to them in a way they are comfortable getting it.
The teachers are scrambling to catch up with the technology themselves. Having had only one training session to date (more are scheduled), they are on their own to find free applications that line up with the correct coursework. They have to be creative enough to develop assignments that integrate the information, the application on the podcast and a project with the individual students.
One teacher estimates her prep time has increased by 80 percent; another says it has more than doubled. As time goes by, things will be easier.
Some may wonder, if the kids are “into” their iPods, what are the teachers doing? This is the cool part. The teachers are spending time with the students one-to-one. “See this?” they say. “This is the important part. Click here to see this part. You’ll like this.” The teacher’s conversation with the student does not disturb the others ó they have their ear buds in. The teacher moves to the next student to coach her, to encourage her, to answer questions and to point out items of interest.
The iPod project has gotten this far with a huge amount of work from a number of people: the director of technology for Rowan-Salisbury schools; his staff; the school technology person; the principal; teachers; and of course, students.
Only a handful of other schools in the nation have used this method to reach students. One or two in North Carolina have used iPods or MacBooks, but none have used both until now. Hats off to Superintendent Dr. Judy Grissom and the staff for being ahead of the curve. The project is exciting some higher-achieving students and recapturing some lower-achieving students.
As I write about education for the Post, I visit a lot of schools. I see a lot of kids. Talk to many teachers. I don’t know when I have seen students this excited about their work. I don’t know when I have seen teachers this excited about their work.
This fall, a whole new class of freshmen will walk into North Rowan High and receive their iPods. The kids I followed this spring will be sophomores. I plan to check in again and see how it’s going. I’m intrigued.

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