COAL CITY — In a first-grade classroom at Coal City Early Childhood Center, a group of students settled in for a reading lesson.
Their teacher, Pam Vigna, instructed the children to turn to "The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse" — one of Aesop's famous fables about a mouse who learns that to live simply and safely is preferable to opulence and fear.
It is a story many read as school kids, one of the great old works that taught us two lessons: one in reading and one in life. To watch this group of first-graders read through it, then, would in most ways be no different than watching any group of first-graders of any generation read it.
Except these kids weren't reading it in a book.
They were reading it on an iPad.
"It doesn't change the lessons themselves," Vigna said. "It's just a new tool to help teach them."
For the past few years, the Coal City Early Childhood Center has been gradually integrating iPads into the classroom. This year, half the kindergarten and first-grade classes have five of the tablets each.
Next year, the school plans to have them in every classroom.
"This is just the way things are going to work in the future," kindergarten teacher Todd Painter said. "The more we can expose kids to this now, the more teachers [in subsequent grades] can use it."
"It doesn't replace anything we do," added Josh Quigley, also a kindergarten teacher. "It's just a different spin.
"It helps to reinforce the curriculum."
In their kindergarten classrooms, that reinforcement includes applications that help students build words and ones that support handwriting lessons.
In Vigna's first-grade classroom, the tablets are used in reading lessons in the morning and math in the afternoon.
The students use apps that allow them to independently access books at their own reading level, explore stories further with games and answer quiz questions that pinpoint for Vigna areas that might require more work.
"It puts so many great resources at the students' fingertips," Vigna said. "It's a very interactive tool."
And it's a tool that teachers say the kids — who have grown up with technology and, in many cases, have access to a tablet at home — seem to understand intuitively.
"The learning curve is minimal," Painter said.
That fact is evidenced by first-grader Joe Watson.
During independent reading Tuesday, he was using an iPad to read a story about "how big a trillion is."
He likes physical books, he said, but prefers using the iPad.
"It's pretty cool," Watson said, demonstrating the ins and outs of the educational apps. "I like how you can choose books at your level."
Teachers emphasized that iPads are not replacing physical books. Vigna likes to get paper in front of kids, and Painter said that his kindergartners still enjoy stamps.
Instead, they see the technology as yet another educational tool at their disposal.
As a relatively new tool, it is something that kids get more excited about. But, Painter said, the technology will soon be a common sight in the classroom.
"When we're doing lessons, the kids all have their eyes on the iPad," Painter said. "They want to pounce on it because it's more fun.
"In another year or two, this will just be another educational tool."