An interesting email landed in my inbox this week from a good friend who has really been trying to integrate technology into her language arts class. For confidentiality sake, we’ll call her Mary.

Turns out that Mary’s principal recently decided to buy iPads for all of the language arts teachers in her school.  Mary–like many teachers–was excited to have an iPad coming her way, but she wasn’t sure exactly what she was going to do with it.

Her question was a simple one:

“So Bill: If you had ONE iPad in your classroom, what would YOU do with it?”

To be perfectly honest, my first reaction was to be frustrated with Mary’s principal.  After all—in what appears to be an all-too-familiar pattern—she seems to have made a significant investment in devices without any careful planning or coonsensus building.

Think about it:  Shouldn’t the teachers have had plans for the iPads they were getting BEFORE the checks were written and the cash was spent?

Technology planning doesn’t have to be a difficult process, y’all.  But it shouldn’t be an optional process either—or an afterthought.

But Mary’s good people—-and she really does want to find a way to take advantage of the iPad she was getting.  I had to help her do a bit o’ brainstorming.

Here’s what I suggested.


Hey Mary,

Glad to hear that you’re working to find a way to take advantage of the iPad that you have in your classroom.  If I were you, I’d think first about the kinds of instructional practices that matter the most and THEN look for a practice that one iPad can support.

The first thing that came to my mind was formative assessment because as a language arts teacher, I’m constantly making observations of my students on the fly.

I might learn a little bit about their ability to summarize while sitting in on a literature circle.  I might ask a few targeted questions that force students to think about the main idea of a selection and get oral responses from a handful of kids in each class.

The hitch is that I have no easy way to document what I’m learning about my students in these informal observations.  Sure, I always internalize what I’m seeing.  Every observation shapes my perception of my students.

But operating on perceptions just isn’t very effective or efficient.

Because it is so portable and easy to use, an iPad—-paired with a simple form developed in Google Docs—could help a teacher to begin systematically collecting and organizing those formative observations of student mastery.

Check out this sample form to see what I’m thinking:

Wouldn’t it be cool to carry your iPad around with you while student groups are working?  Then, every time that you interact with kids and learn a little something about their mastery of essential skills in class, you could quickly document what you’ve seen using this form.

The best part is that Google Docs takes the information entered in the form and automatically dumps it into an Excel spreadsheet that you can then manipulate any way that you want.

Over time, you’ll start to see patterns in the essential skills that individual kids have mastered—and you’ll have documentation that you can use to support those gut hunches that play such an important role in the judgments that we make about kids.

More importantly, you’ll also be able to start tracking patterns in the essential skills that your entire team of students has mastered.  Google Docs even has several simple reporting features that will automatically tabulate results in your entire spreadsheet.

And how cool is it that you will be able to incorporate your own observations into your assessment practices!

As a language arts teacher, I always trusted my observations more than the multiple choice benchmark tests my district requires me to give—-but without a formalized way to record what I was seeing and learning about my kids, it was difficult to justify my “grades” for my students.

Two important suggestions:

First, keep your form as simple as possible. Notice how mine has just a few basic questions—and that the majority of the questions are multiple choice.

That means I’ll be able to enter observations quickly and easily—which will be essential if I want to convince myself to keep using my iPad for formative assessments.  More importantly, that will be essential if I ever want to convince my peers to use THEIR iPads in the same way.

Finally, notice that my form doesn’t require a ton of typing.  While there are definitely times where I will want to add notes to my observations, it takes some time to grow comfortable typing on an iPad.  Too much typing early in the process might leave you discouraged.

Second, get started sooner rather than later.  Grab your iPad every time that your kids are working.  Make it a point to sit down with two or three kids per class period.

Ask them questions to measure their mastery of an essential skill.  Enter your observations in your Google Form.

Then, act on the information that you are collecting!

Remember—it’s not the iPad that is important in this whole process.  There’s nothing magical about tools even when they are made by Apple.  Instead, it’s the behavior that the iPad supports.

If you’re not using the formative assessment data that you are collecting with your iPad to inform your instruction, then the iPad will remain a waste of cash.

Let me know if you have any other questions.  I’d be happy to help you get this up and running—and I’m excited to see how your work changes the assessment practices of the teachers on your learning team.

Rock on,




Related Radical Reads:

Why are we STILL Wasting Money on Whiteboards?

There’s Nothing Magical about Tools

Developing Technology Vision Statements

Make like an Obstetrician and Deliver

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