Devyn Cabral and Britney Croman lounged in papasan-style chairs at the back of their fifth-grade classroom, iPod headphones jammed in their ears.
While their Shady Hills Elementary School classmates focused on their 90-minute reading block, the two girls listened and laughed.
Teacher Debbie Hunnell didn't even blink. She did, after all, bring in the iPods for her students.
"They love using the iPods," Hunnell said. "They like being able to hear the personality of the author. They can listen to things that are harder to understand. … It's highly motivational."
Devyn put it in the terms of an 11-year-old.
"It's cool," she said, taking a break from Science Fair by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson. "When you're sitting at your desk and reading a book, it's harder. It's easier for me to comprehend by listening to it."
Throughout Shady Hills Elementary, teachers have been taking advantage of iPods as an extra tool aimed at encouraging their students to learn in different ways. The iPods are finding their way into the curriculum as a less expensive, more portable piece of technology that teachers and students can use when computer labs, for instance, aren't available.
The school has 80 iPods, available in sets for teachers to check out for their classrooms. And more are on order.
The way that Shady Hills puts them into play has garnered attention across Florida. Media specialist Tracy Bonnett and technology specialist Jerry Marsh recently presented their program at the Florida Association for Media in Education annual conference, getting several inquiries about how to duplicate their model.
"Tracy and Jerry … gave us great resources for free podcasts, showed us exactly how they were using it with their students and teachers, and provided us with time within the workshop session for hands-on learning using their iPods," Denise Gomez, a media specialist at G.W. Carver Elementary in Coral Gables, said in an e-mail. "These iPods, with the right material, could reach and entice those struggling students that might normally tune out during your average lesson."
The idea of reaching students at their level appealed to Lynn Johnson, media specialist at Pacetti Bay Middle in St. Augustine.
"We had just been talking before school started about how we need to embrace the students' use of technology instead of fighting it and make the move to their use of technology," Johnson wrote in an e-mail. "They are using the iPods and iPhones and are very tech savvy. Why not help them make use of them educationally and give them the source that they are most attracted to?"
Such thoughts played a big role as Bonnett and Marsh worked to persuade their school to jump ahead in the technology realm, purchasing iPods with huge storage capacity while replacing aging desktop computers, using Title I funding to help cover the cost.
"We are pitching digital literacy," Bonnett said. "This is a new high-tech, motivational and fun way to get different books into the hand of kids. … It's working to get kids excited about reading."
The effort involves more than just letting kids use iPods, though. To be successful, Marsh noted, the initiative needs to be implemented in a way that includes accountability measures in the school improvement plan, training for teachers to properly use the technology, and an organized way to collect and catalog meaningful materials.
The media specialist and technology specialist also must work to support classroom teachers, amassing these digital libraries and showing teachers the best way to use them. The days of simply checking books out of the library, or chasing down computer glitches, are long gone, said Deb Svec, president of the Florida Association of Media in Education.
Kindergarten teacher Janicia Volce sees positive results in her classroom.
On a recent day, Volce taught her students about the five senses. Then she handed each an iPod, loaded with a video about firefighters, and told them to pay attention to the ways a firefighter uses his or her senses.
The kids could pause the video if they had a question. They could rewind if they missed something. They even could control the volume.
With a projected video, or a shared recorder, or some of the older technologies that schools employed, those things couldn't happen. Kids would argue. Or get distracted.
"This enhances my teaching ability," Volce said. "It's important to use a variety in the classroom. … This gives me another option that keeps their attention."
As each child finished the video, he turned in the iPod and took out a blue "learning folder" to begin answering the question about the five senses.
"I like watching iPods," said Zachary Bombly, who then turned to talk about firefighters.
Third-grade teacher Tracey Stalter incorporated iPods into her rotation of reading centers for her students. The children listen to the stories for the main ideas, character, problem, solution and other pieces that they're asked about on the FCAT.
It's another way to determine whether they're comprehending the material.
Julianne Audino, 8, said she liked the iPods "better than reading, because we actually get to listen."
Seven-year-old Dejah Staton wasn't so thrilled.
"I'd rather read the book," she said. "You can imagine it on your own. This is telling you."
Still, even Dejah deemed the iPods "cool."
How cool are they?
"Not better than PE or lunch," fifth-grader Brayden Lyman said. "But pretty close."
Other Pasco schools are getting on the bandwagon.
Crews Lake Middle, which gets students from Shady Hills, has been collecting digital versions of the Sunshine State Readers for its iPod Touch lab, with plans to start using them next week, media specialist Robin Borick said. Students seem to like using iPods even better than computers, she said.
Educators from Moon Lake, Mary Giella and Hudson elementary schools also have been in touch with Bonnett and Marsh seeking ideas. Marsh expected the concept to grow.
"For us, it's an everyday occurrence," he said. "This is something that is definitely doable."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools..