A novel’s setting comes to life. Rhiannon Sparkes uses books and apps on iPad to meet the different learning needs of her fifth and sixth graders. She builds a lesson that deeply engages students in the setting and themes of “The Secret Garden” by Frances Hodgson Burnett.

Introduce the topic. The iBooks app gives all students just what they need.

Sparkes’s students download a free version of The Secret Garden from the iBooks Store. They start by reading the novel together in class, which ensures they all have a sense of the characters and plot before diving into the complex concept of setting. Even though the students in Sparkes’s class are at different skill levels, each one has the tools they need to fully participate.

Active reading on iPad.

Using the iBooks app to read allows students to highlight key passages, take notes, look up definitions of unfamiliar words, and even listen to the text using VoiceOver. Having the book on iPad means Sparkes is sure every student in her class is able to read at his or her own pace.


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“Any time I want to do something in my classroom, it starts with the learning goal. Technology is there to serve an instructional purpose.” Rhiannon Sparkes, Elementary School Teacher, Dorset Elementary School

Build student understanding.

Apps give students rooms to explore.

Sparkes leads activities that take students out of the classroom to develop their understanding of setting through experimentation.

Capturing the garden's potential.

Sparkes purposely teaches The Secret Garden in March, the precise time of year when the snow begins to melt and gardens begin to reappear in Canada. Her students go outside with iPad and take photographs using the built-in camera. They focus on the potential for life in the soil and how that contrasts with the bleak gardens after winter. Exploring how their own local gardens are coming to life connects the students directly to the book’s themes and characters.


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Forming a narrative through pictures.

The students select 15 to 20 of their photos that best illustrate one of the book’s key themes — rebirth. Students compose photos that look like they were taken in the early 20th century, which is when the novel takes place. They’re careful to leave out modern elements like cars, and use iPhoto to edit and assemble a montage that showcases the energy lying beneath the earth.


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Sounding off.

Sparkes asks students to think about mood within the settings they photographed. Then, using
GarageBand, they each compose a piece of music that reflects the mood of the garden as it comes to life.
They use a collection of instruments to create a score to accompany their photos. Sparkes gives her students the structure of the assignment and they set their own standards for success, pushing their creativity accordingly.


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“Set the learning goals, and then let your students run with it. What they bring back to me surprises and astounds me, every time.” Rhiannon Sparkes, Elementary School Teacher, Dorset Elementary School

Apply learning.

iPad lets students create a modern twist on a book report.

In their final project, students demonstrate that they understand the intricate relationship between setting, mood, and the novel’s themes.

Crafting a meaningful cover.

Using the ScrapPad app, students create a title page for their final project that visually conveys the novel’s themes. Each student creates a unique piece of art that expresses the feeling of growth and rebirth.


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A complete presentation.

To demonstrate their understanding of setting’s central role in The Secret Garden, the students combine their photos, music, and title page to create an iMovie montage. Emotional and evocative, the final projects show they’ve learned a complex topic through fun and creative mediums.


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“iPad helps make learning accessible to all. The assignment is not just an essay anymore — students can use photos, art, and their creativity to tell me what they’ve learned.” Rhiannon Sparkes, Elementary School Teacher, Dorset Elementary School