Tell a room of 45 sixth-graders, all struggling academically, to take pencil and paper and do 100 math problems, and you'll probably get a big GROOOANNNNN.
But at Morgan Fitzgerald Middle School in Largo last week, teachers put a fresh twist on an ancient task. Instead of scribbling answers on eye-glazing work sheets, they asked students if they wanted to tap them out on the sleek gizmos in front of them.
Forty-five hands shot up.
"I've never seen this big a shift … in morale and excitement," said William Corbett, a veteran principal who has led Morgan Fitzgerald for six years.
The gadgets are iPads, the computer product Apple calls "magical and revolutionary." Since spring — when iPads went on the market — the Pinellas school district has spent $1 million buying 1,800 of them, with 520 arriving last month at Morgan Fitzgerald.
In Pasco, iPads have drawn negative attention. After the School Board ordered some to replace its laptops, Gov. Rick Scott's office asked for a cost-benefit analysis. In Pinellas, the district has provided five of seven board members with iPads, but the vast majority are being used by students.
The devices are another way Pinellas is making a name for itself in bringing cutting-edge technology to the classroom — and, hopefully, boosting academic performance in the process. At High Point Elementary last year, students used iPod Touch devices to boost their math scores. At Clearwater High this fall, every student got a Kindle e-reader to replace traditional textbooks.
"What we're seeing … is that students who are already into reading or are socioeconomically advantaged, they think it's an okay project," said John Just, the district's assistant superintendent for technology. "But it's the students that would never have a chance to have these devices at home, who are on the wrong side of the digital divide, who make a connection (academically) they might not otherwise."
It remains to be seen whether student infatuation is sustained. Or whether gadgets improve test scores.
But the initial buzz has Pinellas thinking it's on to something good.
Morgan Fitzgerald, a B-rated school with 1,400 students, has received more than twice as many iPads as any other Pinellas school. The school has a high number of students with disabilities, and district officials figured the iPads would be especially useful in getting those students more focused on their studies.
Among the other schools receiving a lot: Hamilton Disston (with 191), a school in Gulfport for students with emotional and behavioral disabilities; and Gibbs High (with 162).
The latter has six rolling iPad labs. When one wheels into a classroom, "we have immediate 100 percent engagement," said Gibbs principal Kevin Gordon.
"It catches them. It's visual, it's auditory, it's kinesthetic," said Cindy Bania, assistant superintendent for exceptional student education. "Just immediately, when you turn those things on, students will come over and see what they're doing."
At Morgan Fitzgerald, about 200 struggling students received their own iPads to use in class (though not to take home). But teachers and students throughout the school are getting access, even if they have to share.
The school has big plans for its new stuff.
Among other projects, principal Corbett wants to create a "digital library" including a list of academic links, including movies, PowerPoint presentations and podcasts that Morgan Fitzgerald teachers will create of themselves giving short lessons on specific topics. When a student falls short on a particular skill or objective, he or she can be directed to the library and, through their iPad, access a link that can help them learn the material better.
Bottom line: using technology to better customize education to fit a kid's needs.
Corbett expects his staff to hit the ground running with that in the fall. In the meantime, teachers are finding good uses for iPads on their own.
A reading teacher is using a talking thesaurus. A French teacher is grading homework while he's walking to his classroom. A science teacher is using a solar system app — a software program geared to the iPad — that allows students to zip around the sun, or zoom in on a Martian crater, simply by moving their fingers on the screen.
"It's like Christmas every day," said reading and language arts teacher Sara Carroll.
Carroll said she is already seeing improvements in student writing. Something about the clean, neat look of their words on the iPad — as opposed to the chicken scratch many of them produce on paper — is giving them confidence to write more, to self-edit better, even to use the right punctuation.
"It sounds crazy, I know," she said. "But it's a huge difference."
Kids are giddy, too.
"They're awesome," said Courtny Boe, 11, a sixth-grader. "I like the part where you can just touch and type. It's easier. It makes it fun."
And, she added, some of the other students are jealous. They didn't get their own iPads.
Ron Matus can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8873.