Subtext in the Classroom

Posted October 30, 2012 under Case Studies, Common Core

A Sandalwood Elementary class reads Blood on the River together using the Subtext iPad app.


Welcome to ‘Subtext in the Classroom,’ a series of blog posts about how teachers are using iPads and Subtext to bring 21st century skills into real K12 classrooms. Some of these posts will be from our edu consultants (Catherine Miller and Jenni Higgs, two incredibly energetic and talented doctoral students in UC Berkeley’s School of Education), some will be from teachers using Subtext, and some will be from our Subtext team, as we engage with teachers using the app.

Catherine and Jennifer visited a classroom to find out about how teachers are using Subtext in the classroom. They have recorded their observations and impressions about what they saw below. Without further ado, here are Jennifer and Catherine.


Hi everyone! We are Catherine and Jennifer, and we are excited to learn more about how teachers and students are using Subtext in the classroom. As Heidi mentioned above, we’re both doctoral students in Education at UC Berkeley, and we have extensive experience with teaching and coaching in urban and suburban schools (elementary, middle, and secondary). We hope you’ll follow and participate in our posts.

Our highlighted school…

…is Sandalwood Elementary, a public elementary school in Southern California. Sandalwood is a K-6 Title I school with approximately 300 students. It achieved “safe harbor” status last year. Most of the students at Sandalwood are Latino (73%) or Caucasian (14%).

The school buildings are freshly painted and their grounds are well-kept and neat: freshly mown green grass, uncracked concrete walkways, and a large, inviting playground featuring a mini climbing wall, colorful bars and swings, and a sandbox. There are several painted wall murals around the school featuring positive, community-oriented messages (e.g., “Everybody is Somebody”).

Our highlighted teacher…

… is Mrs. K (to respect privacy, all names—except ours—are pseudonyms). Mrs. K’s class space features a cheerful mix of colors and is decorated with helpful sayings about what a good student is: “Sit tall! Don’t give up!” The class has major activity centers on all four sides (reading group, agenda, writing center, math wall). Mrs. K has two grade levels in her room, a split between 5th and 6th. There are 34 students in total.

Mrs. K has been teaching for 24 years and is using Subtext as she implements a 1:1 iPad program with her class. When we asked Mrs. K about why she decided to adopt iPads in her classroom, she described her belief that technology motivates because it engages students at their level:

“…This is what they’re used to, this is their world. It might not be … the way I learned, but the world is different now, you know, and it’s never going to go back to the way it was when I was in school.”

Jennifer spent some time talking with Mrs. K before class, and she asked Mrs. K if she found it difficult to integrate technology in language arts. Mrs. K replied:

“I don’t think so. Because if you think about the Subtext app and being able to read those novels in Subtext, now it has the text-to-speech feature, so my [student] here, who is extremely low in my 6th grade group, can have that access, that accessibility. The dictionary is right there, everything is kind of integrated, and then you’re reading and writing a whole lot more with the iPad if you think of Edmodo and Subtext. In the blog, once I get that going again, they’re constantly writing, they’re constantly reading, more nonfiction. And then the highlighting, if you open it up in iBooks, and now Subtext too, you have the different colors so we can highlight, so it’s very easy to weave it into language arts.”

As you might be able to tell from these quotations, Mrs. K has a pretty fearless approach to using technology in her classroom, and she welcomes the challenges that come with teaching and learning with new tools. She’s also an Apple Distinguished Educator and is Sandalwood’s technology coach. You may be surprised (and heartened) by the fact that Mrs. K did not know what an iPod was until 2009!

What did we see?

On a Wednesday morning, we visited Mrs. K’s classroom and while our first observation was relatively brief, but the strongest impression the classroom made on us during that time was the quiet and independent nature of the students’ work. The students moved through assignments at their own pace. Each was doing any number of activities with Subtext: reading, responding to teacher prompts, listening to text-to-speech, commenting on a peer’s note, or whispering to their neighbor about what they were seeing on the screen.

The 5th grade students were either listening to the text or reading the text (Blood on the River by Elisa Carbone) on their own. Catherine observed one student stop the text-to-speech function, look up a word on the embedded dictionary, and then go back to the text-to-speech. Jennifer talked with some students who were working together in the back of the room on reading comprehension questions; they told her that they liked to read text on Subtext and then talk about the questions together before composing their answers (using a stylus and an annotated PDF form).

This is what we saw in an hour in Mrs K’s class.  Does anything resonate with what you are doing with Subtext right now? More on how this all aligns with the Common Core in our next post!

Signing off for now,
Catherine and Jennifer

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