By Bill Utterback
CHIPPEWA TWP. -- The scene has become so conventional, so reflective of the era, that the U.S. Postal Service may soon commission a commemorative stamp: Teenagers sitting together, never making eye contact, attention locked on their left hands, which clutch electronic devices.
The scene is repeated daily in malls and minivans, in coffee shops and family rooms.
Since the start of the 2013-14 school year, similar gatherings have become commonplace in Shawn Haddox’s sixth-grade classroom at Highland Middle School in the Blackhawk School District.
“I love using my phone at school,” said student Gianna Thomas, lifting her eyes briefly from her Apple iPhone 4.
Highland Middle School, along with select classes in the high school, is piloting a “Bring Your Own Technology” initiative in which students can use their personal electronic devices in school. The school has laptop computers available for those without personal devices.
Jim Cox, district director of technology, said about 245 “unique devices” daily plug into the district’s network from Highland. That’s about half of the students.
For a recent social studies quiz, students in Haddox’s class gathered in groups of two or three, one electronic device locked on the quiz, the others doing research. Principal Anthony Mooney counted six different varieties of electronic devices in use.
“I really like it,” said Braden Brunson, using his iPad 4.
“It’s really good because there are so many great apps we can use,” Jesse Frank, Brunson’s partner who also was using an iPad, said.
As the partnerships progressed through the quiz, Haddox monitored their results instantly through his cellphone.
“This is so much better than writing on paper, and (Haddox) collecting and reading everything,” Ashley Crespo, using an iPod, said. “You just type and send.”
Crespo and Thomas were partnered with Maura Watterson, who was using a school-issued laptop but anticipated bringing her phone to school in the near future.
“On a computer, it might take me two hours to type something,” Watterson said. “With my phone (she tapped an imaginary phone with her index finger), it’s all done right away.”
In Mary Grimm’s sixth-grade classroom, Mooney was drawn to student Emerald Forrest, whose eyes moved from a textbook containing a map of the United States to her Kindle Fire, an Amazon electronic tablet.
“I like being able to use our technology along with the textbooks,” Forrest said.
“Technology is a supplemental resource,” Mooney said while looking over Forrest’s shoulder. “It’s not the end-all, be-all of teaching, but it is the language the students speak.”
Barb Brown’s sixth-grade math class provided traditional and technological choices for students. Some students played bingo and board games involving math principles, while others played a bug-themed, hand-drawn game on a shower curtain hanging at the front of the room. Another group used electronic devices or the multi-person interactive whiteboard at the front of the room.
“A little bit of everything is the best approach,” Brown said. “Sometimes low-tech and high-tech can co-exist.”
Outside Brown’s classroom, Jacob Schneider, Isaac May and Decklin Oshob used Schneider’s iPhone to film a math video.
“I like using my phone at home and now I can bring it to school and learn with it,” Schneider said.
Students log onto a protected network at the beginning of the day -- so they can’t roam the Internet -- and the school is marked with signs designating technology rooms and no-technology areas (such as the cafeteria and restrooms).
Classrooms have “parking lots” where students must leave their electronics when not in use.
“The feedback I’m getting from students and teachers is all positive,” Superintendent Michelle Miller said. “We’re becoming more creative in the classroom, and students are using technology they understand.”