The first graders sat quietly mouthing words to themselves like "cat" and "hat" before taking swipes at the screens of their tablet computers to create 10-page e-books of rhyming words illustrated with clip art.
The students attend Ross Elementary in Dodge City, Kan., the pilot school for a one-to-one classroom technology program that is going district-wide in January. Then, every student in the district will have an iPad to use in the classroom.
"Stop, lock and drop," Lindsey Siek told the class, ending the language arts lesson. The children dutifully closed out of the page-making application, set their iPad tablet computers on their desks and prepared for math by taking pockets labeled ones, tens and hundreds and paper digits out of their desks.
That lesson would teach how multi-digit numbers are made up of ones, tens and hundreds and utilize two media to reinforce the lesson three times, something that would have taken a bucket of plastic blocks and a lot of time to organize and clean up in the past.
"I try to incorporate it more as a tool than something with a lot of great apps," fifth-grade teacher Michelle Palmer said. Palmer was one of the district's first teachers to use the tablet computers in her classroom after receiving specialized training from Apple, the manufacturer of the tablets.
Along with the media consumption apps, learning games and creation apps, Palmer uses a classroom management and social media application to communicate with students and schedule lessons for the day. Students can then pull up the day's group reading assignment or look back on past lessons in an interface that resembles Facebook.
"If you use it the right way," she said of the iPads, "not as a space filler or a time filler, you can engage on their level."
The tablet computers get used alongside traditional media and creation tools, she said. The students still use some textbooks, and they still gather cross-legged on the carpet where she reads from a book on natural disasters, teaching words like "tsunami" and "high population area."
Some hiccoughs are expected when trying anything new, she said, and she and the students have had to learn to be flexible in the face of glitches, but it's not different than trying anything else new in the classroom, she said.
"At home they have technology, so why do we expect technology to take a back seat in the classroom?"
Some of the learning applications use games and puzzles to teach lessons. Since she started teaching vocabulary with the iPad, one student received his first perfect score.
"He told me, 'I didn't even study," but I said, well, you did study. You studied on the iPad," Palmer said. In Dodge City, where a significant number of students are learning English as a second language, the combination of words, definitions and pictures helps cement the lesson, she added.
Page 2 of 3 - "Students are showing more creativity than I've ever seen in the classroom," said Assistant Principal Amy Eaker. Additionally, they've had fewer discipline problems this year, indicating the students are more engaged in class.
Originally the school district planned to introduce the tablet computers to the rest of the schools in March, but the success of the pilot program convinced district leaders to start earlier, spokesperson Yvonda Acker said.
She attributes the success of the program so far to the amount of professional development courses offered, and measured schedule leading up to a district-wide release. The schools in Dodge have implemented late-start days to accommodate specialized training.
And pilot program teachers have become "our own source of experts," Acker said.
"That's the thing we understand: you can't just hand (the devices) to a teacher and walk away," Acker said. "We've been going slowly, prepared for every step of the way."
"That's where a lot of [school] districts fall down. They get the devices and don't do enough in-service [training]," said Jane Eberle, a professor of instructional design and technology at Emporia State University. "The follow up is extremely important."
The many demands tugging at teachers' time can leave them few opportunities to learn how to integrate new tech into their classes, Eberle said. Teachers need time to get comfortable and familiar with the technology so they can figure out how it can become an essential classroom tool, the chalk and slate of the modern world. They also need to learn when other technology, like the book or the pen and paper, is superior for a particular lesson.
Applications on subjects like astronomy to anatomy can take students on interactive tours from the solar system to the solar plexus while built-in GPS, decibel meters and video cameras give students tools to gather information and build from it.
In addition to becoming comfortable with the devices and applications, teachers need to learn to assess students' work when they are doing more than writing book reports, Eberle said.
"It's fun to get new toys, but if you don't know how to use them it's kind of a waste of money," Eberle, who was previously an elementary education teacher for 15 years in Manhattan, Kan., said. Like televisions, "you can't just park them in front of it. You have to have discussions and conversations about where to find the good stuff versus the bad stuff."
Students "know how to use technology. They aren't afraid of technology; they've used technology for a long time. Some of the things they still don't understand is respecting intellectual property of others ... and the ability to use search effectively," Kathy Schrock, an education technologist who writes one of the most popular websites for teachers in iPad-equipped classrooms.
Page 3 of 3 - "Information literacy skills" are essential against the ocean of existing and flood of new information that is now so easily accessed, she said. "It's about teaching students how to organize their digital world" In the past, a lesson on bias in articles "used to be very difficult to do. Now it's easy." Students can reach a multitude of conflicting viewpoints in milliseconds.
"This device allows you to do pretty much everything you need to do," Shrock said. "Basically it's a tool. What we want teachers doing is developing good lessons and good assessments."
If shown a path through the digital landscape, "teachers are extremely creative, they can think of ways to use it in the classroom," Schrock said. "It opens up whole new ways to assess work."