On the first day of school, fifth-grade teacher Shemia Thompson always has her students stand up and share three facts about themselves and one falsehood with classmates, who have to guess which isnt true.
Its a fun way to break the ice and get the year started on friendly footing.
The York Road Elementary teacher did it again Wednesday, the first day of school for students in all four York County school districts, but with a twist: Everyone used an iPad.
With an app called Sock Puppets, the children chose characters and scenery then tapped the screen to record themselves talking. The puppet characters lip-synched the students words, which played at a higher and sillier pitch.
The activity won rave reviews and a gaggle of giggles.
It was a simple example of the approach Rock Hill teachers said theyre taking as the mobile device becomes a school day staple.
You take great things youve been doing already, and you make them better, Thompson said.
As Rock Hill schools plunge into wireless education, York Road is a step ahead. Thompson is among five teachers leading Quest, a cluster of classes using a nontraditional model that required families to make a commitment before their children could take part.
Quest students attend school from 7:45 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays. On Fridays, most of them work from home, or anywhere but school, while some go to campus for small group lessons. The students will take more frequent field trips than others and tackle hands-on projects using their own iPads.
Parents had to agree to the odd hours and provide their children with iPads.
More than a hundred students are enrolled in Quest. Although most students got a device from a family member, several received donations. Theres one Quest class each of second-, third- and fourth-graders and two fifth-grade classes.
Its a whole different level from regular school, said fifth-grader Bailey Nichols. Itll help kids learn better.
Quest started last school year as a pilot program.
It was designed by Derek McQuiston, a high-energy, tech-savvy former York Road fifth-grade teacher whos now an instructional specialist for the district.
The year before, McQuiston was teaching a math lesson to students at India Hook Elementary using iPods and an app called Number Line, when Superintendent Lynn Moody dropped by to watch.
She stayed for three hours.
Moody saw that students were engaged and learning loads. She was so impressed that she asked McQuiston to design and test an unusual model at York Road.
Derek has a tremendous amount of energy, a commitment to students and a passion for his work, Moody said. Its contagious.
Sometimes, when you have a great teacher, the best thing you can do is just get out of the way and let him teach.
Inventing a program
Moody gave McQuiston freedom to bend the rules. The only caveats: York Road parents had to be on board and the program couldnt be too expensive to replicate.
McQuiston researched programs and trained at High Tech High, a San Diego charter school focused on innovation and technology-supplemented lessons. He got a commercial drivers license so he could drive a school bus on weekly field studies to enliven lessons. He sees the iPad as a 21st century educational utility knife with a long battery life.
But teachers must apply it effectively.
If all you do is scan that worksheet youve been using for 20 years and put it on the iPad, its still just a worksheet, McQuiston said.
Quests longer school days are intended to give teachers more time for instruction. On Fridays, students will work on assignments remotely. Those mornings, teachers will strategize and plan together. In the afternoons, theyll work with small groups of students who either need extra help or more challenging work.
District leaders saw the program as a success worth expanding.
That class bonded like no class Ive ever seen, York Road Principal Patrick Robinson said. I saw those fifth-graders act much more maturely than your average fifth-grade class. They were more connected with what they were learning.
A reason to have it out
The first day of school is typically for introductions and simple assignments.
On the Quest hall, teachers laid out rules and expectations. Although they let students get acquainted with their new tool, teachers were careful not to let it dominate.
Theres going to be a reason to have it out, said Donna Hickey, who asked her second-graders to find their favorite game and share it with a classmate.
Hickey wanted them to get familiar with the device and share. She said it gave her a chance to see what kind of games the children were interested in. Plus, it let them get that out of their system.
Thats not going to happen but today, she said.
Across the hall, Thompson made sure students paid attention while she spoke.
Put (the iPads) to sleep, she told the class. Because some of you are tempted.
Theres been some anxiety among teachers over iPads, Hickey said, because some worry students will be savvier users than educators.
But many are embracing the idea of learning from the students theyre teaching.
Theres only one way to learn, Hickey said. You have to jump in with both feet. Students are going to come up with stuff they like and if we dont let them share it, that defeats the whole purpose. Its inquiry-based learning.
Teachers have planned a series of intricate projects around the devices.
Kasie Baileys third-graders, for example, will take trips to various regions around the state, said McQuiston, whos helping oversee the Quest expansion.
Working in groups, theyll research the areas and create documentaries that will be uploaded to a tourism website available to potential Palmetto State visitors.
Students are looking forward to a new year and a new way of doing things.
Im thinking it was a good idea to get iPads, second-grader Jordyn Murdoch said, so they could at least try something different.
Shawn Cetrone 803-329-4072