Editor's note: "Hall Passages" is a weekly education feature in the Missoulian. Each week on a rotating basis, K-12 education reporter Jamie Kelly visits a private or public school in the Missoula Valley to see what's new in the halls and walls of our learning institutions. This week, Kelly spent some time in Lowell Elementary.
Steve Jobs, the Apple Inc. CEO who died recently, will never know that one of his legacies is better reading fluency at a small elementary school in Missoula, Montana.
Every day at Lowell Elementary School, you can find first- through fourth-graders thumbing their way to better comprehension and fluency in reading and math and geometry as they largely learn at their own pace, using 40 school iPods.
Remember when iPods were used for nothing more than listening to music? These kids don't.
"When they walk in the classroom and they see that the iPod is there on their desks, they know what to do," said second-grade teacher Tricia Owens, as her students drilled themselves on reading and pronunciation Monday afternoon.
Last year, Lowell received the iPods as part of a grant written by Matt Clausen, director of creativity, innovation and technology for the Missoula County Public Schools district.
This is the first year, however, that the iPod Touches are part of the permanent learning landscape, used in daily lessons in math and reading for at least 20 minutes per day per classroom.
Using them in Owens' class, students read printed materials and record themselves, then play back their own voices to find the errors in their pronunciation. They then improve on the time it takes to get the words right.
And that they do.
Since their introduction, the second-graders' reading skills have improved "drastically," said Owens, a fourth-year teacher at Lowell.
At the beginning of a quarter, Owens uploads the students' data based on their performance on the iPods, then later compares their reading fluency with data from the end of the quarter.
"I usually do one at the beginning of the year and then one at report card time, so when their parents come in, I can show them, ‘This is how they were reading at the beginning, and this is how they're reading now,' " she said. "It's drastic."
Clausen approached Lowell principal Brian Bessette last year about using iPods in the classroom, and the third-year principal immediately seized on the opportunity. Lowell was chosen because it has a high population of at-risk children and students in the free-and-reduced lunch program.
In the second grade, fluency in word recognition, phonics and pronunciation is critical - and that's where the real value in the use of iPods comes in, said Bessette.
"Fluency is the precursor to comprehension," he said. "If they're not reading fluently, chances are they're not going to comprehend because if they're going to be stumbling over what the next word is, they're going to forget what they read three words ago."
The iPods, whose menus students navigate with their fingers, are loaded with educational software, including programs for reading, addition and subtraction, geometry and other subjects. Students also use them to take photos outside for science lessons and even read entire books.
When Owens received the iPods, she wasn't sure how quickly the students would be able to learn to use them.
She was quickly disabused of the notion that they are too complicated for her second-graders.
"They had it within the first week," she said. "It was easy for them. They just know how to use technology. And even the ones who had no idea were just able to do it. They're just so self-sufficient at it."
They're also rapt in their interfaces, their eyes scarcely leaving the tiny screens as they speak into built-in microphones, first recording themselves reading, then playing back their own voices to discover any errors they may have made.
The iPods are also used as an incentive for traditional lessons. Children love to use them, and are taught that it's a privilege to do so, said Owens.
"They have to finish their work in order to use the iPod," she said. "If they don't turn in their homework, they can't use them. And it's devastating to them."
Those who master the iPod lessons are also free to explore more advanced lessons, so they can continue on at their own pace.
"This is a way to personalize education," said Bessette. "It gets them at their level no matter what the level is, and they take it as far as they can."
Reporter Jamie Kelly can be reached at 523-5254 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.