The iPads whispered and blinked to life, then loaded the afternoon's work: a website chock full of long addition, long multiplication, long division, even word problems.
Except for the cartoon badges awarded for success, the IXL.com problem set didn't look much like a game. But the fifth-graders in Kamalene Nelson's classroom at Thomas Elementary maneuvered through the site as if it were.
Daniel Samano looked thoughtfully at a long division problem on his iPad screen and hit on a concept that teachers have repeatedly said makes mobile devices a revolutionary classroom tool: Engagement.
"It kinda wakes me up more than paper and pencil kinda stuff," he said.
From Thomas fifth grade to Knoles third grade, Sechrist preschool to Coconino 10th grade, students can't get enough of the iPads, or their pocket-sized predecessor and still-popular sister, the iPod.
Flagstaff Unified School District has about 500 new touch-screen mobile devices around the schools. Last spring, the district had one classroom set of Apple iPads for a pilot program. At that time, the tablets had only been on the market for about a year. The first tablets debuted in Nelson's class at Thomas and were purchased with grant money.
The students took to them like fish to water, and FUSD bought more devices. Federal funds and grants have allowed the district to assemble its cache. An iPad would retail for at least about $500, and a basic iPod Touch for about $200, at the electronics superstore. Students do not take them home and, at least in Nelson's class, drafted their own user agreement that says they promise to be careful with the valuable computers.
After half a school year using iPads and iPods at nine schools, teachers are sharing how they have used the devices to great effect. More than offering polite but pithy approval, they raved about the devices in a survey prepared for administrators.
All agreed that the devices have positively affected student achievement and engagement and allowed teachers to more effectively use their time. With the portable devices (and the schools' wireless internet) enhancing their daily routines, they don't have to squeeze a trip to the library and back to use the limited desktop computers, and they have freedom to roam about the room offering help because so many students are engrossed enough to stay on task.
In sum, the teachers report that the iPods and iPads appeal to just about everybody -- that's not necessarily true for traditional textbooks, worksheets or essays. They accommodate different learning styles, paces and proficiency levels.
Plus, they're fun for youngsters so enamored with electronics.
At Cromer, second-graders plug neighborhood weather data into their iPods and use the gadgets to do spelling pretests. They see the tests as video games and are motivated to beat their high score. If they turn in all their weekly homework, they get bonus time on the iPods to play math games.
At Knoles, the third-graders have learned to post work to Google Docs, an online document-sharing program, and they hush when the iPads come out. At Mount Elden Middle, reluctant readers find a screen to be more appealing than a paper-bound book.
At Thomas, first-graders groan when it's time to pack up for recess, and one boy who was out sick on iPad day nearly cried when he realized his classmates had used the tablets without him. And of the 16 first-graders who showed below-average reading skills at the beginning of the year, six have been promoted to a higher reading group after just six weeks. Teachers say that previously, that kind of advancement usually took twice or three times as long.
In Mrs. Nelson's class, the children had taken a math test just before winter break, and when they returned Tuesday, they were ready to brush up or get started on advanced skills.
Rather than tackle a worksheet with their yellow pencils and pink erasers, like they did on the test, they switched on their individual iPads and tapped and poked away.
50 PROBLEMS EASILY
Using the sleek little computer to practice math online offers instant gratification for student and teacher alike. Each student's account stores their answers, letting Nelson track and relay their progress in a lot less time than it takes to photocopy, staple and grade individual papers.
As for the kids, she said they can blast through 50 problems in a sitting. "But if you gave them a worksheet with 50 problems on it, they'd put their heads down and die," she laughed.
Carlos Benford cruised through the kinds of multi-step word problems that would prepare him for algebra. Example: Three children and three adults are planning a trip to the zoo. Tickets cost $3 for children and $5 for adults. How much will the group spend?
Even with the computer at hand, Carlos still worked out the problem longhand using a small whiteboard. He correctly calculated $24, then tapped it into the answer box and continued to plug away.
"I think it makes it more fun," he said. "I'm into technology."
Hillary Davis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 556-2261.
A sampling of iPad and iPod projects
Thomas/1st/Reading, math, science/iPad/Reading intervention; math practice; animal habitat reports
Cromer/2nd/Math, spelling/iPod/Collecting Doney Park weather data; spelling tests
Knoles/3rd/Reading, writing, math, geography/iPad/Reports on Flagstaff's history and geology
Mount Elden Middle/6th/iPad/Science, social studies, English, math/Calculating low-level ozone pollution and testing soils in the neighborhood while analyzing connections with carbon emissions and health
MEMS/6th/ Science, social studies, English, math/iPod/Collect data to help USGS with a study on mountain lions
Coconino High/10th-12th/World history and U.S. government/iPod/Make a documentary video on the six most important events that changed the world