At first glance it might be hard to tell what exactly Michelle Rooks’ sixth-grade English class is doing.

Some are jointly editing their essays on an Apple TV screen. Others are spread out, some typing quietly on their iPads, others discussing ideas for stories they’re writing about discrimination.

“They love it,” Rooks said. “If I asked them to look at each other’s work on paper, they’d say, ‘No way!’ This way it’s fun.”

The flexibility that technology provides is a glimpse into the education of the future: more individualized, more gadget-savvy and, for some learners, more engaging.

“If a principal or a parent walked in right now they might not understand the level of support going on,” said Diane Woodard, the secondary technology instructional coach and the Teton County School District’s technology coordinator.

It looks like the days of having students sit in rows and stare blankly up at the ceiling if they’re stuck on a writing prompt might be over, or at least, no longer the norm.

The district introduced laptops for every high schooler, iPads for every middle schooler and more technology in the elementary grades this fall. Since then creating routines around the new devices has been key.

A popular one is “apples up,” a concise way of reminding students to turn their device’s screen down to pay attention to instructions.

Teachers and technology coaches say that once structures have been put in place they’ve noticed how the devices allow students work at different paces and levels and get more time in smaller instruction groups.

“We’re seeing some really incredible stuff going on with personalized instruction,” said Michelle Roundy, the elementary technology instructional coach. “The students can work on different areas of their learning, and there’s more time for feedback and instruction.”

Using a variety of educational apps, teachers are able to track students’ progress in ways they never were able to before.

“The immediate feedback to students that I’ve seen can change the trajectory of their learning in the moment,” said Holly Voorhees-Carmical, director of curriculum, instruction and assessment. “They can capture what actually needs to happen next and change it. It’s phenomenal, and it’s exactly what teaching should be about.”

Now teachers can also analyze data and track performance faster than before. Administrators say that will help the district reach its mission of 100 percent of third-grade students reading at grade level in 2022.

“The time it takes to analyze data was overwhelming in the past,” Woodard said. “Now analysis can be done immediately. The feedback loop is really tight, and we have the opportunity to meet with those learners that aren’t progressing.”

If students go to college, professors aren’t going to hold their hands. District administrators say students introduced now to technological options to enhance learning will find out what works for them and be better prepared for their lives after high school.

“We hope students will be asking themselves, ‘What can I do to support my own learning?’” Woodard said. “It might be digital. It might not be.”

In Rooks’ classroom some students used a text-to-speech function where text can be read to them. Others listened to recorded feedback from the teacher on their essays.

Another feature that helps students is the option to replay lessons that might have been taught with an audio component, and then recorded, in class.

“I remember the days where all my teachers would lecture and I’d never have the opportunity to replay them,” Woodard said. “Now learners can scrub back and forth in the evening to support their learning.”

Students can also tap on a word to hear a teacher saying it as they review their notes at home, or snap a picture of something in class and add it to their notes.

“It doesn’t replace the traditional learning that happens in the classroom,” Roundy said. “It takes it and enhances it and allows us access to what we couldn’t do before.”

Professional development helped the introduction of new technology go as smoothly as possible. Woodard said she was most concerned for high school teachers who were switching from PCs to Macs.

“It’s about learning how to balance and how to distribute technology to meet the needs of every learner while incorporating traditional teaching, too,” she said.

Voorhees-Carmical said that with more training and familiarity, she hopes enthusiasm toward the devices will continue.

“The more support we provide teachers, the more they’re embracing it,” she said. “The embracing is starting to happen. It’s not all there yet, but it will get there.”

Woodard said professional development is further along in middle and high school classrooms. Flexible learning environments that incorporate technology offer students a lot, the technology team said, so they’re hoping that more success stories will encourage teachers to keep experimenting.

Rooks has seen her students’ excitement firsthand.

“They love it, and they’re so focused,” she said. “They’ll look all day long at an Apple TV. They’re so savvy, and when they spread out they’re really productive.”

Instituting laptops and iPads in a year was a challenge for members of the technology staff, but for the most part, they say, the wrinkles have been ironed out.

There’s still technology to be purchased. Woodard said there aren’t quite enough keyboards for every student yet, but district officials are aware of the shortage and plan to order 100 more.

Maintenance costs of the technology — including upgrading old projectors to new TV screens — are the primary concern.

“In light of the funding situation we just want to make sure we can support these pieces moving forward,” Woodard said.

Insuring devices and repairing damaged devices are expenses that can add up. The technology team for the entire district is also only five people, and in a year the number of devices they’re responsible for has doubled.

“We’re just trying to stay ahead,” Woodard said.

The technology team also hopes to make strides to better communicate with parents, who commonly reach out with concerns that they can’t control use of the devices at home.

“It’s all of our responsibilities to teach digital citizenship and understand the impacts of having technology,” Roundy said.

Students can’t download social media apps on district-owned devices, but they can access the internet if they have Wi-Fi.

Woodard said they’re doing a survey with middle school teachers and principals to get an idea of how many students don’t have internet access.

But very few students don’t have access to a cellphone, Woodard said, and some applications, like Google Docs, can work offline.

Lots of students live in rural areas, Information Coordinator Charlotte Reynolds said.

“I think sometimes there is a sense that a lack of internet access is an economic reality,” she said. “But in our county it’s not limited to that issue. It matters where you reside.”

Contact Kylie Mohr at 732-7079, or @JHNGschools.

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