Another went to the SMARTboard to flip through photos illustrating such traits as tongue curling and dimples.
A third used iPads to read a Discovery Education piece about a litter of kittens and answer questions afterward.
The final group used classroom laptops for an eduSmart lesson with animated illustrations. For instance, a segment on penguins had pop-up features on the differences in their feet and beaks.
Wayne Fisher, who's in charge of elementary math and science for CMS, was watching the demonstration. He noticed the kids were having a hard time keeping a connection on the school's new wireless network.
"It keeps jumping in and out. I'm not sure why," Fisher said.
The kids moved to desktop computers in the classroom and resumed their online lessons. "With technology," Fisher said, "you always have a Plan A and a Plan B."
Plan B for BYOT
The district is on its own Plan B for this year's technology rollout.
When the 2011-12 budget came in bigger than expected, CMS used about $6 million in county money to expand its Wi-Fi network into all 159 schools. Another $4 million bought iPads for all school administrators and central-office leaders, while CMS gave groups of teachers a chance to compete for classroom tablets.
More than 970 "learning communities" -- grade levels, high school departments and groups of teachers who handle special classes -- submitted proposals for putting tablets to use. There was enough money to provide classroom iPads for 73 groups, scattered throughout the district.
Meanwhile, foundations, business partners, PTAs and other donors have been working to make sure schools have the digital devices they need, whether that means laptops, tablets or interactive whiteboards. Many high-poverty schools have used federal Title I money to bolster their technology arsenal.
In January, CMS technology chief Scott Muri announced that come August 2012, the district would let students and faculty bring their own phones, tablets, laptops and e-readers for classroom use. He described the BYOT launch, which would have been one of the biggest in the nation, as a way to let families help CMS move quickly into 21st-century learning.
Kerman, the North Meck student, heard his pitch along with a group of students in Mecklenburg Youth Voice. She says the teens were skeptical, raising questions about everything from the risk of theft to the Internet access allowed by CMS filters.
Muri left for another district in the spring. Interim technology chief Kay Hall said there were too many unresolved questions for a district-wide August launch.
Instead, she said, more than 20 schools have asked to pilot BYOT. She's surveying those schools to see if they have a plan, an oversight committee and involvement of parents and students. Based on that, she said, she'll pick the schools to act as pilots in September, after the opening of schools and the Democratic National Convention are over.
Having a small number of pilots means CMS can send special tech support into all of them, Hall said. Lack of full-time tech support was one of the concerns raised by teachers.
After 60 days, the pilot schools will report on their successes and struggles, and CMS will figure out how quickly to expand BYOT access.
"There are a lot of things we do know," Hall said, "but there are things we don't know."
CMS won't distribute students' iPads to the classrooms that won them until September, but teachers got theirs in May. Since then they've been experimenting with the various applications. All the classroom iPads come with iMovie for videos, Excel for spreadsheets, Pages for documents and Keynote for presentations.
At Greenway Park Elementary, the "specials team" -- art, music, physical education and media center teachers -- got classroom iPads. Principal Paula Rao said plans range from letting students make videos to demonstrate hands-on skills to using Skype for video teacher conferences. "The possibilities are endless," she said.
Lynn Keith, technology facilitator at Providence Spring, says digital devices let adults teach in the world today's children occupy. In addition to reading and writing stories, she said, students need to know how to accompany them with video.
"It's not the same story that I wrote when I was in third grade," she said. "It's not just words anymore. It's pictures."
A two-day technology conference for CMS teachers at Phillip O. Berry Academy of Technology last week included such topics as using Minecraft and other computer games in lessons, understanding how teens use social media and helping elementary students create blogs. Adults scanning the agenda were bound to feel their ages, with sessions such as "Incorporating Glogster and Mixbook into Wiki."
Market is growing
While CMS has the largest population in the region, virtually all public, private and charter schools are exploring ways to teach through technology.
Mooresville Graded Schools, which provides laptops for all fourth- through 12th-graders, was dubbed "the de facto national model of the digital school" by the New York Times this year.
In the coming school year, North Carolina begins replacing bubble-in paper exams with online testing, a move that's designed to gauge more sophisticated problem-solving skills.
Some families are trying to keep up. At the Northlake Target in Charlotte, team leader Mary Julia Moore said some "younger buyers" who appeared to be in elementary school were picking out iPads for school.
While iPads will be big in CMS classrooms this year, Hall said the district isn't telling parents to buy their own.
"We have to be very careful about recommending what device to buy," she said.
Even at the schools that eventually allow personal devices, students won't be required to bring them. When personal devices are used in lessons, there will be school technology available for students who don't have their own, officials have said.
Cheri Powers, a third-grade teacher at Olde Providence Elementary, said e-readers provide low-cost access to a wide range of books, in the classroom and at home. Children find them more engaging than the traditional paper version, she said.
"Any technology that encourages excitement about learning and encourages curiosity is a plus," she said.
Staff writer Madeline Hurley contributed.
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