At some schools, the rules are clear: Kids can chill out to downloaded music on portable players, but once they're inside, iPods and other learning distractions must be stowed in backpacks or lockers and kept there.
At Jamestown Elementary School in Arlington, Camilla Gagliolo took another approach. Rather than fighting the fad, she's capitalizing on it by giving students iPods and re-imagining them as a learning tool.
"It just makes so much sense. They are so drawn to this technology. They are so excited by it. They're comfortable with it," said Gagliolo, the school's technology coordinator.
Using little more than an iPod and a school computer, Gagliolo and her students have been making podcasts -- online radio shows that can be downloaded to an iPod or other portable MP3 player. Avidly discussing their favorite iPod colors and models while they made recordings of their poems and book reports the other day, the fifth-graders bubbled with ideas for future subjects.
"We could read parts of books, to show why we like them. We could do interviews. If there's a field trip, we could make a recording of it and post it," said Mohamed El-Sayed, 10. "Kids anywhere will like to hear about us."
Podcasting is just one of the interactive technologies, like blogging and hand-held computers, being used to motivate students nationwide. It took off across the country last year, an offshoot of the surging popularity of iPods. A survey of 470 high school students released this month by analysts with Piper Jaffray & Co. found that 61 percent of students had some kind of MP3 player, up from 40 percent in their spring survey.
"This is the kind of technology they use for their daily lives. If schools want to reach today's learners, they can't ignore it," said Don Knezek, chief executive of the International Society for Technology in Education.
Colleges were the first to embrace the idea, giving iPods to freshmen and making podcasts of lectures. Now, podcasting is moving beyond the cappuccino crowd to the chocolate milk set.
In a private school near Detroit, middle-schoolers podcast performances of student-composed musical works. From East Oakland, Calif., high-schoolers paint an audio portrait, in English and Spanish, of their troubled community: "It's hard to see someone die in front of you." Gunston Middle School, in Arlington, has a cheeky student-made podcast that includes poetic commentary on Virginia's standardized testing: "SOLs are not your friends; they'll bring your life to an end."
Teachers say the benefits of making podcasts are clear: The trendy technology and the possibility of a wider audience motivate students. "My students research better, read more, write better and understand the material," said Beth Sanborn, a fifth-grade teacher at Willowdale Elementary School, near Omaha, where students have been making podcasts since last spring.
Podcasts at the school -- on such topics as the Constitution, Native Americans and electricity -- are not only filled with kid humor and snappy music, but they are also loaded with facts. Teachers hope they'll be used as supplementary curriculum material by future students.
"We want our podcasts to be timeless," said Tony Vincent, technology specialist at Willowdale. "We want teachers to play them for their classes."
To make a podcast on the Revolutionary War, Sanborn had her students spend a couple of weeks researching their material in books and on the Internet before shaping it into a script. They were graded on the written script, but what really motivated them, Sanborn said, was the hope that their work would be chosen for the 8 1/2 -minute podcast.
For the vocabulary segment, a boy did the word "bayonet." For the time-travel feature, another performed as a town crier, condemning King George's tyranny. Sanborn was especially impressed with the way they came up with their own jokes on such topics as the Constitution.
"You really have to understand the material to figure out a joke about it," she said.
Teachers are also finding other uses for portable music players in the classroom. In Carrollton, Tex., near Dallas, kindergartners are taking loaner iPods home to practice their vocabulary words, and English as a Second Language students are using them to practice English. Another Virginia school, Long Branch Elementary in Arlington, also plans a podcast program focused on its students who are learning to speak English.
Podcasting, it turns out, is also well-suited for keeping busy parents in touch with the world their children inhabit all day at school. All they have to do is program their computers to capture the broadcasts -- which could range from school announcements to plays to basketball games -- and they can then listen to them on their desktop computer or download them to a portable player.
"This idea is so great: I can hear what my daughter is doing and we can tell her grandparents, and they can hear it where they are," said Alison Pascale of Arlington, whose daughter Kalyn McNulty, 10, is one of the Jamestown podcasters.
Gagliolo has high hopes that it will flourish at her school. So far, she has found the technology easy to master and "simpler and cheaper" than making student videos. For most of the recordings she and a half-dozen students made at a recent session, they used a $40 snap-on microphone accessory, plugged into the school's iPod. (They hope to get more iPods so student-podcasters can make reports from throughout the school.)
The toughest part was getting the best possible sound quality from the youngsters, which sometimes meant doing it over and over again. Dalai Saruul, 10, spoke in a whisper when he first read his poem: "Calibur stands 1 foot, 1 inch. He is said to be tall for his age. He is as strong as a rhinoceros beetle and is a kung fu master. . . ."
"You have to speak up," said Mohamed El-Sayed, holding the microphone out to Dalai. "Quiet on the set!" Kalyn yelled. (That meant that Frank Painter, 10, had to stop eating pretzel mix so loudly.) After a few takes, Dalai's voice grew stronger, a better match for his poem's subject.
Finally, the students learned how to edit on the computer, deleting mumbles and dead air. And with a few clicks of their mouse, they made Dalai's voice stronger still.