From the editor: Learning for the next generation

2014-03-09T00:00:00Z 2014-03-21T10:34:20Z From the editor: Learning for the next generationBy DARRELL EHRLICK Gazette Editor The Billings Gazette
March 09, 2014 12:00 am  • 

The next time I begin a sentence, "What's wrong with kids today," I give you permission to knock me upside my fat, bald little head.

While I don't understand the allure of dressing like you're homeless, I have to admit: I am wickedly jealous of students today.

Not only would I kill to look like I did in school (OK, minus the mullet and the peach sweater in the senior pictures), I would also kill to have the teachers and technologies students in Billings Public Schools have today.

A few weeks ago, I got to sneak away from the office for a few hours to tour Arrowhead Elementary School. For me, it wasn't just a chance to see education in action in Billings as a concerned community member; this will likely be the elementary school my children attend.

Tiffany Hall's first-grade class is one of several classes in the district that use iPads throughout the day. Through the use of apps, there's virtually no subject — from handwriting to reading charts — that the technology doesn't enhance.

What may seem novel or even like toys to some skeptics is really a very sophisticated learning tool.

Hall explained that for many applications, she can see exactly which students get certain math problems right — instantly, as soon as they answer. She can also circle back to those students struggling — no correcting papers, no delays.

The other advantage is that the learning programs can be used to meet each student exactly at his or her respective learning levels. Take reading for example, Hall said, if one student is struggling, the applications stay at that level until there's some mastery of the reading material. For those who need to be challenged, the material increases in difficulty. In this way, this fleet of iPads helps Hall cover the differences in educational aptitude in a particular class.

Hall and her colleagues meet on weekly and monthly basis to discuss new applications, new ideas and how to assist other teachers in implementing the always-developing technologies.

And this technology isn't just making students overly reliant on a computer. Instead, the iPads are used to help them with skills as traditional as handwriting. In one application, the students trace letters. The program only works if the students form or trace the letters in the correct way. That means an entire class of students can be almost guaranteed to form the letter "n" or "r" correctly. As a side benefit, these programs can also help identify learning deficits like dyslexia.

Students will learn how to use the keyboard for typing by third grade. My class at Senior High was the last to use actual electric typewriters for typing in ninth.

I can't gripe about students having it easier than when I was in school. I can hardly remember my first-grade class (sorry Mrs. Lundhagen). When I watched Hall teach math, I didn't realize that first graders can read story problems and perform both addition and subtraction.

I received a good education from Billings Public Schools. Scratch that: I had a great education from them.

But what's even more exciting is the opportunities those same schools are providing to the next generation of Billings and beyond. This isn't the sit-quietly-and-read type of stuff being taught. It's the type of education that encourages problem solving. And as I looked around at 18 kids, I tried hard to find one who was talking or tuned out. Most of the students clutched the iPads, hooked on doing math.

It's not just that Hall is an amazing and dynamic teacher. It's not just the technology. It's not just that this happened to be an exceptional day — it wasn't.

It's a story that is hard to report but so easy to see once you visit a classroom: Our schools today have never been better at reaching students and creating a love of learning. They're soaking up the curriculum and having fun doing it.

Now, if they could just create an app for cleaning their rooms.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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