By Jill Keppeler
Niagara Gazette — NORTH TONAWANDA — It can be nerve-wracking, to meet new people. And when those new people aren't even in the room — and you're only 5 or 6 — it can be even more nerve-wracking.
A first-grade class in Ohio Elementary School prepared this week to meet their new pen pals from a first grade class at Roy B. Kelley Elementary School in Lockport. However, they weren't trooping onto a bus, or preparing to greet students walking into their room, or even opening letters.
Instead, they gathered on the rug at their classroom, peering at an iPad held by Laurie Berger, district director of curriculum and instruction, and the image also projected on a larger screen in the room.
When the FaceTime screen and its spinning icon cleared, they saw the face of a stranger about 30 miles away — and then the faces of a classroom full of other children the same age, who waved solemnly at the Ohio students.
Lockport teacher on special assignment Heather Bitka laughed as she turned the iPad around.
"I don't know about you guys," she told the NT class, "but we're usually never this quiet."
About a week before, the technology was still very new in the Ohio Elementary classroom, and even the lure of pre-Thanksgiving festivities wasn't enough to draw the students from their new iPads.
Burger said that the first-grade classroom, taught by special education teacher Julie Reszczenski and first-grade teacher Maureen Byrne, was the first in the North Tonawanda school district to have an iPad for every student. It will not, however, be the last.
"This is kind of the kickoff to unbelievable things that will happen with technology" in the district, she said.
On the day before Thanksgiving break, the class was utterly absorbed in working on educational apps. Student Hannah Walker practiced writing her letters as she was scored on how well they were formed. Noah Hudson used an app to put words in order to form sentences to describe a photo. Other worked on phonics or mathematics apps.
Reszczenski said the apps were chosen to integrate into what the students are learning in the classroom. While they think they're just playing games, they're reinforcing lessons learned in more traditional ways.
"With the new digital age, it's just something new and exciting we're going to be exposing the students to," she said. "While we've typically done pencil and paper, now it's done on iPad. It's a wonderful age in first grade."
"They don't even realize the benefit of it," she said. "They don't even realize how much they're learning as they're going along."
Student Ilimdar Khasanov was no exception: He was so into the addition game he was playing that he recruited a visitor to the room to compete against him.
"I like the games," he said. "I like Spider-Man games too, but there are no Spider-Man games on here."
On Wednesday, as the class of Reszczenski and Byrne met the class of teacher Molly Koelle in Lockport, the initial trepidation quickly gave way to excitement. Both groups seemed to forget the other group was sitting in a school about 30 miles away.
The classes sang songs to each other, introduced their teachers, stepped to the front to greet their individual pen-pals from the other school — and the Ohio class introduced their Elf on a Shelf doll, Junior, which led the other class to promptly bring out its "Elf on the Shelf" book.
"We've got the same book!" a child at Ohio School exclaimed, precipitating a scatter to retrieve the book and show it off, and a slew of stories about individual elves owned by students' families. (When one girl reported her family's elf was found kissing a Barbie girl, the entire group at both schools cried "Ewwwww!")
Within an hour, the meet-and-greet was over for now, the iPad returned to its usual mode and both classes going back to their daily routine. The relationship between the classes will continue, however, with email exchanges between the classroom pen pals and future FaceTime conversations. The NT students will visit the Lockport classroom Dec. 16, and plans call for the Lockport students to visit NT sometime in the spring.
Burger said, however, that it's all about more than just a fun time for the students. It all ties in with the new Common Core standards to do with technology and communication, teaching speaking and listening skills.
"These are standards we have to meet," she said. "We're tying them in through the means of iPads."