At Friends’ Central School, a one-to-one iPad initiative helps students make deeper connections to the world around them
by Bill Donahue

In Wynnewood, home of Friends’ Central School, students and educators alike have been uttering buzzwords such as “more engaged,” “stronger connections” and “deeper learning” since the start of the 2014-2015 school year.

With a one-to-one iPad initiative that “went live” when the school opened its doors earlier this year, every student and teacher in every classroom uses an iPad as a tool to facilitate learning. In other words, Friends’ Central is working harder than ever to make the school’s vision—“to awaken courage and intellect, and peacefully transform the world”—into reality.

Under the leadership of Craig Sellers, head of school, and Shannan Boyle Schuster, assistant head of school for academic program, members of the Friends’ Central faculty have been preparing for the iPad rollout since the summer of 2013. The goal, and the challenge, was to introduce technology into the classroom in a way that complements the Friends’ Central mission: to “cultivate the intellectual, spiritual, and ethical promise” of its students.

“In education, if you’re not continually trying to improve your program, you’re going backwards,” Schuster says. “A school needs to reflect real life, and real life is filled with technology. The software changes every day, but this is about having students being comfortable with technology, about being lifelong learners and about having good etiquette and a positive digital footprint.”

The one-to-one initiative is an integral part of Friends’ Central’s long-range plan, “Vision 2020,” a course of action that includes a number of changes, innovations and renovations to the Lower School and the Middle/Upper School. “Vision 2020” blends enduring Quaker principles with a high-performing academic experience that prepares Friends’ Central students for the rigors of college and life thereafter.

Schuster, who joined Friends’ Central in July 2013, has some experience with one-to-one. Before coming to Friends’ Central, she worked as dean of faculty and assistant director of studies for the Flint Hill School in Oakton, Va., where she played a key role in helping the school navigate a one-to-one program a few years earlier. Integrating technology into the classroom, she has found, requires educators to know when it can help deepen understanding and when it can be a distraction.

“Technology is a tool, just like a pencil,” she says. “You don’t use a pencil to color in a picture, and you don’t use a wrench to hammer in a nail; it’s not the right tool. Some days it’s better being outside and taking students on a walk to compare different kinds of leaves. When used appropriately, technology can be more engaging, and if we can make school more engaging, the learning goes deeper.”

The faculty of more than 100 educators had a full year to prepare for the iPad rollout. Carl Bradley, director of instrumental music for the Middle and Upper Schools, was more than ready. In his 20 years teaching at Friends’ Central, he has not encountered a more transformative tool than the iPad, which he describes as “its own instrument.”

“I have no desire to teach the way I taught 10 years go,” he says. “The goal is to have students being creative in the world of music, and this technology has made that possible in a way that was not possible before. Our students have become part of a different form of musical expression in their lives, and that’s an experience they will not soon forget.”

Using online music-notation software called Noteflight, for example, students under Bradley’s direction can author and manage their own compositions in various genres of music, from classical to dance. This means class time is more about students expressing their creativity and less about learning music history.

“I hear from parents that their kids are writing music at home,” he says. “If kids are so excited about making music that they are going outside of the structure of the class and saying, ‘I want to keep doing this,’ I’d say that it’s making a connection.”

One of the most compelling signs of the initiative’s impact is the fact that that Bradley has created an iPad music ensemble for students. At an upcoming concert in December, the iPad ensemble will perform on the same stage as the school’s chorus and jazz band, playing live compositions created only with their iPads.

The iPad’s ability to facilitate connection extends far beyond Bradley’s music room, of course. Jim Rosengarten, a history teacher and department chair in the Upper School, points to an app called Subtext, which he describes as a “digital delivery system for a book.” The app enables him to embed questions, discussion prompts and other interactive tools in digital documents as a way to facilitate discussion with students. This, he believes, will shape students into “more active readers.”

“One of the things I did was break the class up into small groups and have them analyze a digital document and make notes, which I could then share with the group,” says Rosengarten, who is also a parent of three Friends’ Central students. “The end result is you’re getting this annotated document through this engaged community of learners. I’ve been doing things like this my whole teaching career, but the material has never been so accessible or retrievable.”

For Sharon Morsa, a Middle School math teacher, the iPad program can help students “see the evolution of their own progress,” she says. Every worksheet she distributes to students is stored electronically, meaning students will never lose their work so they can go back and review their progress. In addition, having technology in the classroom has cut down on unnecessary paper use.

“I want to be 100 percent paperless,” she says. “So far this year, I’ve photocopied maybe 150 worksheets; by this time last year, it was closer to 2,000. Right now we’re still in the transitional phase, but we’re already seeing the positive effects. I’ll have some students taking pictures of the board and say, ‘Wait, please don’t erase it yet.’ They’ll take a picture [with their iPad] and then they’ll mark up that picture with their own notes so they can understand it better. It’s interactive and engaging.”

Alex McDonnell, a humanities teacher and the fifth grade dean, has used the technology initiative to help students approach course material in different ways. For example, one assignment has students using their iPads to re-imagine a book as a two-minute movie trailer. In addition, students are encouraged to participate in “backchannel conversation”—secondary discussions that take place during an instructor-led learning activity—which gives students additional opportunities to share ideas.

“The idea that kids are talking to each other [through the iPads] makes class richer, more intuitive and more organic,” he says. “I think society sometimes gets worried about kids and screen time, but there’s a difference between being a passive viewer and being actively engaged. Machines don’t have to isolate; they can help us connect.”

Although in-classroom technology will keep Friends’ Central students learning skills they will use later in life, it’s just one aspect of the Friends’ Central experience that strives to inspire them to make a positive difference in the world.  

“Seventy-five percent of schools are the same, but it’s that 25 percent—the culture—you can make unique that makes all the difference,” says Schuster. “Here, we’re caring, we’re individualized, and we’re giving kids the tools they need to help them succeed.”

Friends’ Central School

Lower School Campus
228 Old Gulph Road
Wynnewood, PA 19096

Middle & Upper School Campus
1101 City Avenue
Wynnewood, PA 19096

Photograph by Jody Robinson