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Classroom Tech: Teaching Math with the iPad Pro and Apple Pencil

March 2020 Update: See Amy’s new posts about virtual teaching when your school is closed, summarized at Virtual Teaching in the Age of COVID-19 and Coronavirus
February 2018 Update: Amy is back with an updated post on her Math teaching blog. A lot has changed technologically in two years, but with iPad Pro, Apple Pencil, Apple TV, ForScore and other apps, you can almost always come up with more ways to use technology to teach!
mathista.org: Using the iPad Pro and Apple Pencil for Teaching

This is a guest post from my wife Amy, who used an iPad Pro and Apple Pencil in the classroom with great success. She used a combination of apps with the iPad Pro and Apple Pencil, and shares her story here. You can find more of her posts over at skirtrunner.com and follow her @Skirt_Runner.

This fall I took a long-term substitute job in my kids’ school district. I have been out of the classroom for over a decade, and during those years curriculum and technology have changed a great deal. I knew the learning curve would be steep when I stepped back into the classroom, but I was ready for the challenge.

Luckily the classroom I entered had a broken Smartboard. Did I say lucky? Yes! This is how I felt as I started the job of teaching Algebra and Math 8 students in late October. Because they weren’t used to being taught using the Smartboard, this would be one area that I would have some built-in time to get up to speed. My own kids (grades 9 and 6) promised they’d help me learn to use the Smartboard as soon as it was up and running.

As the weeks went on, I got my teaching sea legs back and was eager to start using the Smartboard. After all, we’d entered a graphing unit in one of my classes and this technology would make things A LOT easier for teaching. The major problem with the board was that it wouldn’t calibrate. This means that when you write, what you are writing shows up an inch or more away from where you actually wrote it on the board. One day after school my kids helped try to calibrate it, and we thought we had it working. However, after a day of trying to use it in my Algebra class, I quickly realized that it was still enough off that it wasn’t very helpful.

Using the iPad Pro and Apple Pencil with Apple TV


So, the Smartboard was still broken, but I realized that I could use my iPad Pro and Apple Pencil and connect it to the Apple TV in the classroom (which is conveniently displayed on the Smartboard). I used the Paper app and pulled up a blank note of graph paper. With my Math 8 classes, we started to graph lines on the grid and we worked on solving problems using the multi-colored pens available in the app.

Paper was great for what I was doing at the time. We were graphing lines in the y = mx+b form and the graph paper of 10×10 in the app worked very well. However, I knew that as we progressed into larger values, it would be a problem for me. I wished I could use Google Drive for any document and have it be interactive the way Paper was.

Using Paper with a combination of apps with the iPad Pro and Apple Pencil to show algebraic substitutions
Using Paper to show algebraic substitutions

My daughter is a musician and she uses the forScore app for her piano music (read more about her initial iPad Pro for Pianists review). She recently purchased an iPad Pro and an Apple Pencil for her music. One day while I was out for an afternoon run, I had a GREAT idea! I’d seen her annotate and pull in music to forScore using screen shots of paper music. Could I use forScore for my math classes? I mentioned it to her and she said, “of course … you can pull anything in there!”

Soon we were taking screen shots of Google Drive documents, graph paper and even blank paper for notes. forScore pairs with DocScanner, so there are times that I scan in a document that I have a printed copy of. I’m able to use all the annotating features; highlighters, different colored pens, the eraser, text box etc. The Apple Pencil is fantastic paired with the iPad Pro. There’s no lag when writing, so it feels very natural, just like a real pencil on paper. However, when writing on the Smartboard, there’s a bit of a lag which can interrupt your flow.

The Smartboard has since been updated and a new projector was installed. It now calibrates properly so I am able to use it as intended, connected to my desktop computer. However, because I was forced to find this solution and think outside the box, I now have this option as well.

Teacher Tips: Using the iPad Pro and Apple Pencil

Formulas – The Google Drive app doesn’t work well with math formulas. Even if you have created a document on the Google Drive desktop using formulas, when you open it in the app, formulas don’t show up. As a result, you can’t take a screen shot of a document with formulas in Drive. To use documents with formulas, use DocScanner to scan the paper copy and pull it into forScore.

Erasing – The eraser in forScore can’t change size the way it can in some other apps. You can use the side of the Apple pencil to make your eraser larger than if you just use the tip.

Organizing Documents in forScore – To organize your documents, give them a title and then label them by composer. For example, some of my “composers” are: Module 3 Lesson 3 and Graph Paper.

My "composer" list in forScore
My “composer” list in forScore

Airplay – Some of the challenges I face with this method are that I’m using Airplay. It kicks me off the network frequently and the screen on the Smartboard goes dark if the iPad goes to sleep.

Teacher Tips: Using the iPad Pro and Apple Pencil in the math classroom Click To Tweet

Be Prepared

Here are some tips for working around issues with the network and the display:

  • If you are working with the iPad and Apple TV for one class try to use that same combo for the other classes. In my classroom, it is tricky to switch the input from one to another quickly between classes. I find that I am more successful when I plan all the lessons to either use the same technology OR to use the technology for one group and then in the other class I have a no technology day.
  • To avoid having the screen go dark and having to re-enter the passcode many times during a class period make sure your iPad settings are to 10 minutes or longer for sleep during inactivity. The downside to this is that it will drain your battery more quickly, so remember at the end of use to put it back to a reasonable length of time.
  • Do have backups of the problems/notes you plan to use in case the technology fails. You probably already have individual copies of notes for the kids if you are using it for notes so it is easy to simply switch to the whiteboard. If you are doing something with individual whiteboards it is easy enough to write your problems up on the whiteboard or chalkboard. Using word problems? It is not a bad idea to have 4-6 copies of what you are using so that you could put the kids into groups and have them work through the material with hard copies. There’s nothing worse than having an entire lesson derailed because the technology doesn’t work.
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  1. So basically what you’re saying is that there is still no proper Math app available.
    An app that can easily do basic shapes: lines, circles, triangles that can be changed after being drawn (vector based), has built in gridpaper and can plot a (simple) function

    1. Based on my experience, no. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t one out there. I found that while there are can be hoops to jump through depending on what you want to do, the medium is nice and interactive for classroom use.

  2. Hi There,

    Thanks for your blog. You are one of few who teaches with Ipad pro .

    I am also considering using Ipad pro with pen for maths b/c my handwritting on Smartboard is awful and I find creating equations very very time consuming.

    Have you used the pen with Notebook software on the Ipad pro? Thoughts?

  3. Notability is a great app. I use the classroom setup described in your blog to teach middle school math. The Notability app has worked well because it allows for the use of folders to organize modules. Also, Notability enables Google Drive so you can seamlessly download PDF’s of math worksheets and draw right on them.

    1. I’ve been using iPad Pro, pencil, Notability, and a shared folder in Google drive for two years now. All our students have chrome books. I just set up a folder for each class. I can share my completed notes immediately. I also put homework answers in the folder so students can check their work. If I’ve made a mistake ( which -ahem – never happens, right?) s student will helpfully point it out and within literally seconds I can fix it in Notability and instantly update it in Drive. I don’t know how I taught without this for so many years!

    2. That’s awesome! forScore also lets you post straight to Google Classroom and you can open straight from google drive. Of course it is meant for music but it is working great for math!

  4. I’m considering getting an iPad Pro and Apple Pencil. Our school does not have smart boards and we have older iPads. I do use my iPad and Good Notes. I have most of my files saved as PDF’s and I was using DropBox but have started switching to iCloud Drive as its easier to put the files in and organize from my mac. I can easily add sheets of graph paper to any file I have open and add additional notes. I can make answer keys as we go along and save them and export them back or email them if a student were absent and missed the notes. I’ve started using quite a few interactive/foldable notes and I fill them out using Good Notes along with the students. I don’t like how my writing looks with the regular stylus on the iPad so that was one reason I was considering the Pro/Pencil combo. It also looks like there are ruler and other tools which can be used on the pro??

    1. I purchased my ipad pro and pencil last year, use goodnotes and love it – everything I do is on my ipad at this point!!

  5. I’m trying to tutor math for some kids in our church supported children’s home in Ecuador. I’m thinking Skype for video and voice but want to use GoodNotes, iPad Pro and Apple Pencil on both ends for working problems. Thoughts?

    1. That’s wonderful that you’re doing that! I don’t have any direct experience using remote collaboration tools on iPad, but I found three that might fit the bill: RealtimeBoard, Inko or Pixelboard seem like they’d be promising, given the features they advertise. Best of luck! If you have success and are interested in sharing your experience, I’d love to hear about how it goes!

    2. I just started using Explain Everything too and it is really quite nice. I am recording class (the screen and audio). It has a $25 per year subscription cost but offers collaboration as well as group subscription options. I am looking forward to learning more as the initial learning curve is simple but I am struggling to figure some things out.

    3. Hi Andy. I pay $15 month and use zoom.us, a US teleconference company, along with my iPad Pro 12.9 and Notability (which I prefer to GoodNotes – just personal taste) for math and physics tutoring. Then zoom.us becomes part of my screen recording button and I can share my screen or a whiteboard with my students. It is really seamless and I don’t know of any current combination of technology that exceeds it.

    1. I am doing it daily now using Explain Everything. It is super cool! I post the video file to Google Classroom after class so kids have access to the notes. I often also still post the .pdf version too.

  6. You said you connect your IPad to your Smart Board by using an Apple TV. How do you do this? Sorry. I need to find a way to be mobile in my classroom while teaching and not just standing in the front of the classroom stuck by the smart board. Thanks.

    1. Sure! The Apple TV is another input to the Smart Board display (I think there’s an HDMI input), and then you use Airplay to show your iPad screen on the Smart Board.

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