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TeacherMate: This classroom tool only looks like a toy

Cheap and rugged, the device takes a gaming approach to elementary reading and math.

By Michael B. FarrellStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 5, 2009

First-grade student Imran Shaikh uses a TeacherMate hand-held minicomputer during a lesson at Francis Scott Key Elementary School in San Francisco. The learning device can be programmed and updated by his teacher, Sonny Wong (below).

tony avelar/the christian science monitor

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Sonny Wong strides to the middle of her first-grade classroom at the Francis Scott Key Elementary School in this city's often-foggy Outer Sunset District.

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"One, two, three, all eyes on me," commands the young teacher, prompting the room of children – mostly the sons and daughters of Asian immigrants – to pay attention to Ms. Sonny, as they call her, at least for a moment.

"What kind of voices should we have when we're on our TeacherMates?" she asks, after passing out what look like toy gadgets, à la Nintendo's Game Boy. "Soft," they respond in unison, as they fidget with the plastic minicomputers, switching them on and plugging in headsets.

These hand-helds aren't slick or fancy. They are simple, cheap, and rugged. That's the point, says Seth Weinberger, the Evanston, Ill., lawyer who invented the $100 TeacherMate and over the past year has gotten them into 350 classrooms across the country.

The device seems, well, elementary. Children peer at their small screens, playing basic math games or working on reading, vocabulary, and spelling exercises. They also read or say words into a microphone on the TeacherMate, which records and stores their voices so teachers can later assess their progress.

When the kids finish, their math scores and spelling results get plugged into the teacher's computer. Teachers can adjust skill levels – making it harder for kids who zip right along or easier for those lagging behind.

Mr. Weinberger hopes his gadget becomes the iPod of early education. He wants teachers to have that "aha" moment that so many people had when they first used Apple's music player. "The focus is on making the user experience for the teacher so great that they have to have it."

Weinberger, who started the nonprofit Innovations for Learning in 1993 to develop early-learning technology, recently left his law firm to focus on bringing TeacherMate to more classrooms ­– and, through a partnership with Stanford University, testing them in developing countries.

"This is universal. Kids love little hand-held gadgets. It's just something universally powerful about this form," he says.

Ever since computers became small enough for personal use, education experts have been thinking up ways to successfully integrate them into the classroom. Bulky desktop computers began showing up in classrooms more than 20 years ago, and more recently laptops have been given to students.

But the push to get computers into schools often butted against the reality of budgets, heavy teaching workloads, and the fact that kids have a knack for destroying things.

Years ago "we thought we'd have special [computer] appliances for students' desks," says Marilyn Jager Adams, a professor of cognitive and linguistic sciences at Brown University in Providence, R.I.