HM - Nov. 2015 - Carlin

Classroom Applications


There's an App for That

By Brian Carlin
New York City Department of Education
Curriculum, Instruction and Professional Learning
Senior Instructional Social Studies Specialist

“There’s an app for that.” – iPhone’s commercial slogan in 2009. The phrase was so popular that Apple trademarked it. The term app is now part of our lexicon, and it’s hard to imagine a time before smart phones and tablets.  At the same time people were becoming addicted to their cell phones, Apple introduced the iPad.  Apps were now available on a much bigger screen and everyone was buzzing.

When the iPad launched there were discussions in education circles that it would replace textbooks[1]. The innovative design, convenience and perceived economic benefits led to school districts purchasing millions of iPads. Apple announced in 2013 that it had sold over 8 million iPads to educational institutions with more then half of those in the U.S.[2] But how would they be used by teachers? How effective and practical would they be in our schools in New York City?

When the New York City Department of Education set out to develop an instructional app, we wanted to make something for history teachers that went beyond looking cool. It needed to be a useful resource for engaging students. New York City had benefitted from many Teaching American History Grants over the years. These grants provided a venue for shared learning and collaboration among classroom teachers, historians and museum partners.

We wondered, how can we bring the excitement and generative learning from the workshops to the digital world? Could we capture and re-create the unique real-time experiences created by the varied expertise of the participants via an iPad app?

The first thing to do was to come up with the topic. Should we cover a large period of history? We decided that focusing on a specific topic would allow us to go deeper instead of broader. This also provided the opportunity to create a collection that told a story, similar to the way a museum would curate an exhibit. After looking at the New York City Social Studies Scope & Sequence, we chose a topic that is taught in several grades and would  tell a story unique to the city: immigration.

In a city full of iconic cultural institutions, choosing the ones to partner with was no easy task. Immigration is at the heart of New York City history, and most museums have artifacts and collections connected to it in some way. Even the topic of immigration was too broad when we began planning.  We decided to narrow our focus even further to the “New Immigrants” of the 1880s to 1924.  The Museum of the City of New York, the National Archives and Records Administration, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, and the Museum of Jewish Heritage, A Living Memorial to the Holocaust were the institutions we invited to partner with us.  In addition, we asked Dr. Rhonda Bondie from Fordham University, and Dr. Edward T. O’Donnell from the College of the Holy Cross to serve as advisors for pedagogy and historical vetting.

What did we ask our partners for? This became a learning experience for us. We asked each partner for 25 artifacts from their collection that they felt would be most helpful for teachers to use. Problems to be solved were: how were we getting these images or documents? And once we got them what were going to do with them? How did we want teachers to access them? And what was the end result supposed to be?

Once we mastered Dropbox, it came down to telling the story…how were we going to tell it? Dr. Bondie worked with a group of social studies teachers from elementary, middle and high school. They dug into the documents through several activities that analyzed the sources while considering how they can be used in the classroom. The teachers sorted the documents into a variety of themes. What the themes were and how we landed on six themes was actively debated. The teachers then drafted questions and prompts for each source as well as activities that they could use to explore the immigrant experience with students.

The next step was to ask Professor O’Donnell to look at our work and surmise what was missing. As is true of many museums exhibits, if the connection to an artifact or an image is not clearly understood, then you might be missing the big picture. Professor O’Donnell provided additional contextual resources that helped connect the dots for some of the pieces. He also wrote three companion essays to bring the story of immigrating to New York City in the late 1800s to life while making the content more accessible for users. These historical context essays served as scripts for original mini-documentary films embedded into the app: The American Dream, The Immigrant Experience and Nativism.

The pieces were now in place with one vital step missing; how do we actually make the app? This was new territory for us, and we explored many history apps and education apps. Nothing seemed to look like what we wanted. There were apps that looked cool, but didn’t seem to be useful for teachers in the classroom. Some apps served as collections of documents or connections to websites. We met with an app designer, Vanguard Direct (VGD) and described what we envisioned for the app.  VGD became immersed in the over 125 historical documents, teaching strategies, and document-based activities we provided.  Together, we developed a list of features for what we wanted teachers and the app to be able to do.

After several builds and revisions, The New Immigrants: NYC 18801924 iPad App launched in Fall 2014. We were very excited and nervous at the same time. Years of work culminated with the app’s release in the iTunes Store, and now it was out of our hands. How would people respond? Would it work? Would they like it?

We have been overwhelmed by the response and tremendous feedback.  New York City teachers as well as teachers from around the country have told us they love it. The app has been downloaded over 78,000 times and has enjoyed a 5 star rating in the iTunes Store for over a year. We were excited to learn this past spring that the app was named a Webby Honoree in the Mobile Sites & Apps: Education & Reference category.

One comment we heard from teachers over and over again was “we want more.” We are now moving forward with the early phases of our next digital project, our NYC app on Westward Expansion.

[1] Nick Bilton. “Replacing a Pile of Textbooks With an iPad. New York Times. August 23, 2010.
[2] Todd Haselton. “Apple: More Than 8 Million iPads Sold to Educational Institutions. TechnoBuffalo. March 3, 2013.