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Why my students are real world-ready with nothing but a device

My paperless, real-world classroom uses just an iPad, software, and the internet; and my fourth- and fifth-graders are thriving.

[Editor’s note: Award-winning science teacher Anthony Johnson, whose real-world ‘Johnsonville’ approach article was a viral hit, delves further into how his students use their devices in every lesson, every day.]

Just as few modern-day workers could function in their jobs without a cellphone, a laptop, or periodic trips to Google, I want my students to learn how to solve problems using devices that will likely be similar to ones they will encounter for the rest of their lives.

I strongly believe in the power of technology to transform learning and the lives of my students. In fact, I’m not sure where my classroom would be without it. My school is fortunate enough to have gone 1:1 with iPads, and I challenge my students to use their devices in every lesson, every project, and every experience we share as a class.

As mentioned in my previous article about Johnsonville, my classroom simulates adulthood through immersive project-based learning. Students get jobs, manage personal and classroom finances, and manage complex relationships between clients and suppliers—all while trying to turn a profit. And they do it all without using a single sheet of paper, because Johnsonville is a paperless town. There are no notebooks and few pens. Even our Discovery Science TechBooks are on their iPads.

Our LMS, Schoology, is as much of a hub as Google Drive, and it’s where students come to collaborate with each other when they’re not in the same room. There’s fierce competition in my class to sell products and improve the economy, so the kids will use any means necessary to undercut competitors and make business relationships, both online and off.

For some teachers, the paperless classroom might seem a bit scary, but I’ve found it’s actually less work. I don’t have to grade papers one at a time or store them in a file cabinet. I don’t even have a teacher’s desk in the classroom. All I need is my Macbook Air and access to the internet. The kids take it for granted that I’m always available and send me Schoology messages late into the evening. Even as I write this, school let out 45 minutes ago and I can see them still having classroom discussions. When it snowed a few weeks ago, we technically missed two days of school. I don’t flip my classroom often, but on those two days I made videos for them to watch and then we talked about them after (virtually, of course).

Building Skills for Life

Having an iPad for every student allows for self-paced and individualized learning, letting them set their own appropriate learning goals, evaluate their progress, and stay engaged with all the materials they need to go through on a weekly basis. For their businesses, they might create reports in the Pages app and presentations using Keynote, maintain spreadsheets with Numbers (which they also use to keep track of their grades), and maintain a separate electronic portfolio.

On the creative side, they love to use iMovie and other related apps to showcase their scriptwriting and visual skills, and GarageBand steps as they produce audio stories based on historical events. Some students are even creating interactive electronic books and publishing them to the iTunes Store (and earning huge Johnsonville incentives).

One thing I insist on is that the kids check their Google calendars every day, the same way I do. My principal sends out meeting requests for pretty much the whole school year straight to our calendars, and I do the same thing with my students. When there’s a test or a project due, they know there’s no excuse for not knowing about it. If they start to get busy, they set reminders for themselves just like an adult might. These are lifelong organization habits that will serve them long after they leave my classroom, or school altogether.

Mostly, though, there’s not a whole lot to remember to bring, except the iPad of course. When they forget it (or forget to charge it), they get taxed, because they’re likely to be less productive than usual that day. The parents recognize that, too, and make an effort to help their kids.

(Next page: Selling parents on the device classroom; designing a paperless classroom)

One of the easiest ways to sell parents on the paperless classroom was simply to show them the start-of-year supply list. The only thing I require for the whole year is a thumb drive and a set of headphones—a true necessity. When there are 24 kids in here who don’t sit still creating something at once, it can get pretty loud. The headphones are part of good digital etiquette, teaching them respect for others who may be concentrating on something totally different.

Being a science class, we naturally do a lot of projects and experiments, and the kids record each one using their device. The kids are natural problem-solvers, so I know that when I ask them to build app-controlled cars out of Lego and Spheros or learn about force and motion using Hot Wheels, they’ll break off into groups and figure it out. Some of our favorite projects come from a curriculum we use called DefinedSTEM, which focuses heavily on real-world situations. It’s all digital, and gives the kids a chance to use their devices in lots of new ways.

Last year, for example, we used a DefinedSTEM project on weather, where the kids took on the role of an on-camera meteorologist, educating the community about what to do during a hurricane or tornado. The kids loved it, and took it to a whole other level, downloading maps of weather fronts from the internet and giving their lesson in front of our green screen wall. Then using TouchScreen Studio on their iPads, they cut some very creative videos. One student asked his mom to take him all around the city so he could deliver a series of “live” weather reports from the courthouse, the park, and other recognizable locales. The class and I both loved it, but I couldn’t help but wonder what his final project would have looked like without that device.

Same Size, More Space

I’ve been teaching in the Johnsonville style for 14 years now, and before the iPads, things looked a lot different. My classroom has stayed the same size, but before we went digital kids used to create a physical city out of shoeboxes that took up anywhere from a quarter to two-thirds of the floor space.

Now the design aspect—like everything else—is all in the cloud. The class used to manage their economy using spreadsheets, but back then we had to book time in the computer lab to do it. Sometimes we could only get in once or twice a week, and we certainly couldn’t do all the same things using desktops that we can with our iPads.

The added benefit of getting rid of the shoebox city is that there’s so much more open space for the kids to move around. And they do move around—a lot. Since our school WiFi works everywhere, the kids hardly sit. They take their iPads outside on nice days and we do experiments on the playground.

On field trips, they document everything. Even the school buses have WiFi now, and students work on their field trip Keynotes on the ride home, when their experiences are still fresh and their excitement infectious. After they’re finished, we upload them to the cloud and, at the end of the school year when we take the devices away, they can still watch them from anywhere. And the best part is, they actually do!

To me, the progression to paperless and mobile makes sense. Years ago, I was still waiting in line at the bank and managing my finances with a paper checkbook. These days, I do everything on my phone. I’d hate for my students to think they were stepping back in time each time they stepped into the classroom, so I make sure it looks and operates like the world students relate with, the one they live in every moment they’re not in school. This way, they have the skills and habits they need to succeed when they move out of Johnsonville.

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