Teachers, especially those in lower grades, for years have sent home notes encouraging parents to practice flash cards with their youngsters and to read for 20 minutes a day.
These days, there's an app for that.
Some schools and teachers have begun recommending educational apps and websites for families to use at home. They believe the technology, and the tools that come with it, help draw kids deeper into lessons.
Brownell-Talbot has been suggesting a few apps each month in its newsletters. Papillion-La Vista teachers shared their favorites on the district's Facebook page this summer. Some Westside kindergarten teachers are sending lists of apps home to parents.
And that's not counting those that get passed along at school curriculum nights, open houses and parent-teacher conferences.
“At open houses, parents will say, 'We have an iPad at home.' They'll want to do creative and educational things at home,” said Pam Krambeck, instructional technology specialist with Educational Service Unit No. 3, which serves Douglas, Sarpy, Cass and Washington Counties.
Such recommendations can help parents sort through the vast number of websites and apps available.
But first the teachers have to find them.
Jason Everett, technology trainer with ESU No. 10 in Kearney, said he and other technology specialists monitor online resources for promising sites and apps. Everett serves on the board of the Nebraska Educational Technology Association, which will focus its fall conference on the topic.
“We curate those and pass them along to teachers and districts,” he said.
Krambeck, who leads training sessions for teachers, said ESU staff members demonstrate lessons using apps, which they also publish on a website. They also try to tie in state education standards, she said, “so they can see it's not just a fun little thing to do but there's an educational component.”
An entry for the Scribble Press App for iPad, for example, describes how students can make electronic books describing planets in the solar system, complete with drawings or photographs. It also lists the number of the state science standard the lesson meets.
Krambeck also directs teachers seeking apps to address specific objectives or standards to a searchable website called Appitic, which lists “tried and true” apps from other educators.
Games are creeping into the app mix, Everett said. The International Society for Technology in Education, of which the Nebraska association is an affiliate, recently featured Minecraft, a popular online game in which players build virtual worlds from square blocks.
Teachers now are using the game as a platform to deliver lessons. Teachers may ask a class studying the Civil War, for example, to re-create a battlefield so they can see the impact of terrain.
“It's just focusing the student so there's a learning twist to it rather than just playing,” he said.
Tracy Platt, Brownell-Talbot's technology director, said the school has recommended websites in newletters for the last few years. But last year, she started adding apps.
This fall, the school, which has distributed laptops to high school students since 2001, distributed iPads to all students in fifth through eighth grades. Along with that rollout has come training for teachers and parents.
Platt and other educators stressed that websites and apps, and the technology that drives them, are nothing without good teachers. But they said the technology helps kids be more engaged.
“That makes a difference in their involvement in the learning process and their desire to continue,” said Sylvia Rodríguez Vargas, Brownell-Talbot's head of school.
Westside has seen the same thing. In addition to take-home laptops for students in grades eight through 12, the district has iPads scattered throughout its elementary schools. All the elementary iPads, including the ones in kindergarten, are loaded with more than 230 apps.
Lynn Spady, Westside's excellence in youth teacher leader, said the district tries to stay with free or low-cost apps.
But the caution for parents, said Paul Lindgren, district technology coordinator, is that free apps may take kids to advertisements. Some don't have all the functions of the paid versions. The district also turns off the ability to make purchases, such as add-on features, within the apps.
Spady said parents also can select apps, such as a social studies app called Stack the States, that allow them to track how well kids are doing.
But Lindgren said the apps he likes most allow kids to create their own content — just as open-ended toys like Legos and Tinker Toys allow them to build whatever they can imagine.
“We like the Tinker Toy apps,” he said.
Matt Lee, district technology integrationist, said such apps can help provide kids with experiences they might not have without them. Creative Book Builder, for example, allows students to create and export their own electronic books with embedded audio, drawings and video. Such apps provide another way for students to apply what they know and demonstrate what they've learned.
“The possibilities are endless, really,” he said.