My Visit to Bella Romero K-8
Written by Julie Garbus
It’s 10:30 am at Bella Romero K-8, and 25 7th graders are in science class learning about cells. In a few ways, this classroom resembles my own 7th grade science classroom some 35 years ago: beakers and flasks, students in pairs, a teacher. In most ways, though, it’s completely different. Each student has his or her own iPad. About half the students are writing on their iPads, glancing at a workbook as they write. The other half are immersed in an experiment, iPads on their tables along with flasks, pipettes, and cornstarch. Jenny Vojik, the teacher, isn’t standing in front of the class giving a lecture; instead, she’s moving from table to table. But the biggest difference is in the students’ faces. No one looks confused. No one’s gossiping or passing notes. All of these students are absorbed in what they’re doing.
Vojik explains that the students are working on about 10 different projects, moving at varied paces. The iPads support learning so that all students “get what they need when they need it.” Instead of having to present one lesson to a whole class, Vojik can go from group to group monitoring, “getting kids unstuck,” and offering enrichment. What I’m witnessing is a concrete example of differentiated instruction, a framework for teaching that rests on the simple fact that students aren’t all alike; they come from different backgrounds and have different levels of ability, skill, and motivation. Differentiating means taking all these factors into account to craft teaching and assessment methods so that each student learns effectively. This type of instruction works well for advanced students, those at grade level, and those experiencing challenges alike. The particular type of differentiation in Vojik’s science class involves students experiencing a blend of face-to-face classroom methods and computer-mediated activities.
I sat down with two boys, Isaias and Lorenzo, who were going back and forth between iPad and workbook. They explained, “We’re writing about the membrane and about parts of the cell. We write the information we get and, when we’re done, we write a summary of the lesson. It’s better than last year because the teacher doesn’t have to keep telling us what it’s all about.” The iPad “shows us pictures of what we need in an experiment. We make videos of each other doing our projects. We use different websites.” Another boy, Bryan, explained, “We use the program Keynote to make presentations.” He flipped through his presentations and picked out one about early biologists, complete with pictures of Robert Hook and Anton van Leeuwenhoek. “We use it for all the classes—science, math, social studies, language arts. And we can check our grades on it any time.” The boys showed me a group of reading games they used, adding that they were especially for kids who needed extra reading help.
Next, I visited with Iliana and Guadalupe, who were in the middle of an experiment. “Each lesson is on the iPad and we can look up the procedures there. You take pictures of what you do, put it in the iPad. Then you do analysis. We make graphs to keep data.” Iliana demonstrated different ways to make graphs. Vojik stopped by the table to ask what the girls were seeing in their flasks, gently leading them from observation to inference.
Student engagement is an especially important benefit of iPads. “I see huge differences in student engagement,” noted Vojik. “You can’t see cells with the naked eye, but you can see them with different cell apps and websites. When they get stuck, they can hop on their iPads and figure out the answer.” Jon Cooney, Bella Romero’s principal, articulated the connection between differentiation, engagement, and more effective teaching. He said, “IPads have been a tool for us to differentiate learning for different levels of students. They can access materials at their own pace. As student engagement increases, teacher engagement increases.”
Participating, involved students persevere and graduate from high school. Fostering student engagement, then, is particularly important at schools such as Bella Romero, where almost all students are Latino and come from economically disadvantaged families—groups whose high school graduation rates trail those of white students by almost 20 points. With the help of The Success Foundation and the strong staff at Bella Romero, the kids in Jenny Vojik’s science class are on track to thrive.
Click below to read a sampling of letters from Bella Romero students thanking The Success Foundation for the iPads:
Ever Michelle Johnathan Arianna Angel