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iPads are part of life for Mater Dei students

SANTA ANA – For Mater Dei High School students such as Katie Gaitan, having an iPad has meant being able to get started on a paper while waiting for a ride home from cross-country practice, or double-checking against an Apple app to make sure she's doing all her homework.

With some textbooks published online, it has meant fewer books to lug around.

For faculty members such as English teacher Melissa Rydjeski, working with an iPad has eliminated hours at the copy machine, and made it easier to work with students through the revisions of their essays. And the iPad has resulted in some extraordinary results that have allowed students to take traditional assignments and integrate video, music and online resources.

Mater Dei has received Apple Distinguished School status for 2012-2013, one of 87 across the country that, through the use of Apple technology, has been able to "demonstrate an innovative and compelling learning environment that engages students and provides tangible evidence of academic accomplishment." Along with bragging rights, the award means that the Apple educational staff can work with the school to help staff push use of the technology to new levels.

"We have seen students take more ownership in their own learning and demonstrate their knowledge in a variety of different and new ways," said Principal Frances Clare.

The school in fall 2011 embarked on a program to equip each of its 2,100 students and its more than 100 faculty members with an iPad. It's called a 1-to-1 program, because each student gets a device. Students pay a $35 monthly fee, or $350 a year. Under its lease agreement with Apple, Mater Dei uses the 32G iPad2.

"The experience of education in a 1-to-1 environment involves a pedagogical shift in how we teach," said Geri Campeau, the school's coordinator of education technology. "Classrooms are becoming less teacher-centered and more student-centered. This is because, with the iPad, students have so much information in their hands – that they can take ownership of their learning in new ways. The 21st century student needs to know how to evaluate, synthesize and apply information – as well as collaborate with their peers on projects and other assignments."

Rydjeski, who has been teaching literature at Mater Dei for 25 years, said that the iPad doesn't replace her as a teacher, but has resulted in changes in the ways she teaches.

"The focus is more on thinking, analysis and synthesis, rather than rote learning and picking the right answer off a multiple choice test," she said.

One of the biggest changes she has made is having students do more research, collaboration and presentation.

"I may comment on things they present, but for the most part, they research and present information to each other," she said. "Instead of me just disseminating information, and their taking a test and me scoring it, we can get things going back and forth, so I'm able to coach things a lot better."

For a study of romantic poetry, she created an eBook of poetry for her students, with her instructions.

"I have found that I am able to be more selective in the literature I introduce to them in the sense that I can create a selection of poems of my choosing, rather than rely on a huge textbook, only a small fraction of which we are able to use in a year," she said.

"What they can do is go through it, with my prompts, and they can look for specific things," she said. "They can highlight things, annotate and look up words. They can press a word and have it defined for them. They can be pretty self-sufficient in that respect. And I say, 'Now that you've done all that, with the book and instructions, let's go through it and you tell me what you got out of it.'"

Rydjeski points to the creative ways that students are using the technology, while learning the material they must master in her classes.

For a section on Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Payne, students created movies, PowerPoint presentations and a Jeopardy game. They had the freedom to choose, as long as they covered the assigned material.

She recalled a segment in one of her classes on the literature of World War I and II, which included W. Somerset Maugham's 1944 novel "The Razor's Edge," poems and short stories.

Rather than write a traditional literature paper, a couple of students created a presentation, similar to a documentary, using photos, music, quotes from literature and their own commentary.

"It almost gave me the chills it was so beautiful," she said. "They pulled in things that you aren't able to do in a paper. They connected with the literature, and they were able to make sense of how it fit in today."

The device's apps can make life easier for both teachers and students.

On one tool called Blackboard, used by colleges across the country, Rydjeski can make assignments and students can submit their work, which she can then review.

Gaitan checks her Blackboard app each evening before starting homework to make sure she's taking care of that day's assignments.

Paper still, though, hasn't completely disappeared. As a backup, Rydjeski keeps a grade book.

Gaitan, the student whose iPad calendar receives automatic updates from various school calendars she subscribes to, keeps a paper calendar to help her keep track of her academic work.

Some of her favorite uses have been making iMovies. Even in applying for her position on the school's Scarlet Ambassador Commission, which helps promote the school for prospective students, she made a 30-second iMovie about herself. She's made iMovies for classes like AP government, religion and science, with effects that give them a professional appearance. She is editor of the school paper, the monthly Scarlet Scroll, which has moved to online publication. In chemistry, a mahjong-like game helped her learn pH values.

Gaitan said her iPad will make her better prepared for college. Her top choices are USC and Notre Dame.

"It's made me a current student – a cutting-edge student – because that's where education is going," she said. "Since we're exposed to it right now, it will make that next step of higher education a lot easier."

Like other users of electronic devices, she's still got to make sure she keeps her iPad charged, and she's got to exercise a certain amount of self-control to avoid the distractions of Internet browsing. The school, which can monitor students, blocks certain content, including social networking, and doesn't allow students to have games.

"It's more a blessing than a burden," Gaitan said of her iPad. "I couldn't imagine being a student without the iPad."

Her iPad habits can give her a laugh.

"I'll be reading a paper textbook, and tap it," she said. "And be like, 'Oh shoot, I wanted to find that word.'•"

Contact the writer: 714-796-6999 or

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