La Cañada students practice using iPads

First grader Lexi Frost, left, takes a photo of her friend Kate Cooper, right, during class at Palm Crest Elementary School's iPad Learning Lab in La Cañada Flintridge on Tuesday, April 8, 2014. The school district recently opened three elementary school iPad Learning Labs with donations from the Educational Foundation. (Raul Roa / Staff Photographer / April 8, 2014)

On Tuesday morning, while their fellow schoolmates played outside during recess, a class of Palm Crest Elementary School first-graders was engaged in a different sort of play.

They were playing with iPads — frolicking through desktop apps that allowed them to squash bugs, recycle cans and solve mazes with the simple tap and swipe of a fingertip — in the school's newly opened iPad Learning Lab.

That lab is one of three built at La Cañada Unified's elementary schools with funding from the La Cañada Flintridge Educational Foundation. A combined $330,000 raised in two year's of LCFEF Spring Gala paddle pledge sessions helped furnish each lab with 38 iPads.

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FOR THE RECORD: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the La Cañada Flintridge Educational Foundation also helped furnish La Cañada High School’s new iMac lab. The LCHS 7/8 PTA and the LCHS 9-12 PTSA raised the $75,000 to purchase the equipment for that lab.
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PHOTOS: Palm Crest Elementary School's iPad Learning Lab

The labs are more than a place for students to play, they are ground zero for a districtwide shift toward a new era of education. It's part of a vision in which teachers will use technology to help guide students as they take control of their own learning and acquire 21st-century skills, said IT Director Jamie Lewsadder.

"This is a testing room, where kids are learning to use technology and teachers are learning to teach technology and helping us decide where our future is," Lewsadder said.

So like any other laboratory, the labs will be where teachers and students experiment together, whether through iPads or other devices, and explore the variety of lessons made possible through technology.

But while the iPads may be new to the school sites, they certainly weren't new to students in Meredith Beyer's first-grade class, who took part Tuesday in an introductory lesson with Emily Blaney, a technology integrationist for the school district.

Blaney opened the lesson by explaining different parts of the lab and the iPads. She demonstrated the room's green screen and introduced the class to important symbols and terminology they'd be using.

"Does anybody know what Wi-Fi is?" she asked.

"You need Wi-Fi to download games from the app store," replied one student.

"Where is the app store? Is it a store you go to?" Blaney continued.

Another youngster explained, "All the iPads have app stores, because they come with it."

During a 30-minute session, the students were free to explore the apps on their devices. When a fun game was discovered, it was shared among all students and although kids worked individually, they often stopped to help or learn from one another.

Craig Mazin, president of the local educational foundation, said helping students learn the technical skills behind devices they're already using at home has been a recent focus of the organization.

"The health of our schools is tied to our ability to stay modern and to compete," Mazin said. "We don't know yet how to best integrate technology into the classroom but we have some ideas, and there are some things we suspect would be good but aren't sure of. We're being very prudent — we don't want to spend a single dollar on a thing that is untested, or a fad or just a theory."

Beyer, a PC user, said she's learning about iPads and how they can be used in her class through a series of teacher training sessions.

One app, she said, allows kids to write, illustrate and narrate their own stories and lessons. Another, a noise meter, helps kids see when they're talking too loudly.

"There are a whole lot of cool things that help with classroom management," Beyer said, acknowledging her own learning curve. "I'm getting there."

The labs are just one way LCUSD hopes teachers will use technology to enhance lessons and help students become conversant with a wide spectrum of new media.

"One area where we see the biggest gain is individualized instruction for kids using devices," Lewsadder explained. "The students can explore and make choices and take control of their own learning. That's a huge shift we're going to see — less of teachers leading and more of teachers guiding.

"It's going to be amazing."

This is the first in a series of articles about the integration of technology in today’s La Cañada classrooms.

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Follow Sara Cardine on Twitter: @SaraCardine.

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