Special Report: Teaching with digital apps

Finding high-quality digital apps and integrating them into instruction isn’t always easy. Here’s how some educators are making the shift.

Want to create your own video game to help students learn phonics? Or poll students to check their understanding in the middle of a lesson? There’s a free app for that.

For social studies teacher Jean LaBelle, the value of her school’s new iPad program was driven home by a recent lesson on the Emancipation Proclamation.

LaBelle, who teaches U.S. history and other subjects at Maynard High School in Massachusetts, leads a lesson in which she asks her freshman students, “Did the Emancipation Proclamation end U.S. slavery?”

In prior years, she would hand out a photocopy with the text of the document and call students’ attention to the passage that reads:

That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free…”

What she’s looking for students to understand is that Lincoln “was freeing the slaves in territories he didn’t have control over,” she explains. “He freed the slaves in states that were in rebellion—but [his proclamation] didn’t apply to the border states that were still loyal.” In other words, emancipation was a gradual process—“not, ‘thenceforward, all slaves are free.’”

To teach this lesson in the past, she would ask the question aloud and call on a student who raised his hand. This often was the brightest pupil, who probably would answer the question correctly—and then LaBelle would move on.

This past spring, taking advantage of the iPads given to students as part of a pilot program, she delivered the lesson using Subtext, a free app that allows classroom groups to exchange ideas within the pages of digital texts.

Dennis Pierce

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