– On the desks of these third-graders, the usual pencil case and exercise book … but also a digital tablet device. Yes, this school, located in an underprivileged town outside of Paris, is on the cutting edge.
"Please make sure that you are connected to the Internet," are the last French words the   elementary school teacher, Mouna Boumaiz, 32, will say before the day's English lesson begins here in
"Good morning boys and girls," Boumaiz says in English, in a cheerful tone. "I am going to the supermarket. I want bread." Like the other pupils, 10-year-old Yanis, flicks through the images on his touch screen to find the one that matches. In turns, each child asks a classmates for a different item.
And now, the weather forecast with Sofiane, who who will hear it straight from the tablet device. Headphones on his Rasta hair style, he listens to a typically British voice. "Today it’s sunny in London. It’s cloudy in Oxford today. It’s snowy in Manchester…" Sofiane can pause and resume the audio file as he please, so he learns at his own pace.
Three years ago, L’Haÿ-les-Roses, in the often troubled banlieues south of the capital, became one of the first school districts in France to introduce tablets. And the fruits of the efforts to integrate them in the curriculum are starting to show, and spread.
"It's a not only a picture library but also a camera and a language lab, all-in-one," Boumaiz explains. "They can record themselves, listen and correct their own work. And the apps allow us to try loads of different projects."
The pupils seem to love it. Their faces light up when they talk about the tablets. "We can also use them when we can't find what we want in a book," says Tiphaine, 9.
"In science class, we can zoom in on the pictures so we see better," adds Kelly, who is wearing a white sweater and small braids in her hair. Another girl sitting next to her notes that the digital interaction allows each child to participate.
Binta, who just arrived from Senegal, explains diligently: "When we learn a poem, we record ourselves and then we listen to it to see whether it's good."
The tablet offers both tactile fun, and the infinite information of the Internet. If well-directed in school, the device can evolve into a positive alternative to the home computer that may be hogged by an older sibling, or used exclusively for Facebook or video games.
A witch story
Like her colleague, fourth-grade teacher Anne Fragola, 34, has adopted this special tool. "The pupils are less afraid of being wrong. They're more independent, more self-confident and help each other more," she says.
By groups of three, her pupils are creating a presentation based on the work of children's book illustrator Roger Hargreaves, which they will later present to first-graders. In each group, one student focuses on writing the text, while the other two work on the illustrations that will then be photographed. Then, they will all record their scripts: theirs is also an audiobook!
Hanna and her all-pink outfit, Cathie, with a black bow in her hair, and Imane, with her hair up in a bun, created the story of Mrs Witch, who has "a witch's broom and a witch's temper."
In classes of geometry, science or art, the tablet opens up a new world of possibilities of experimentation for Anne Fragola. For example, with an app called Solar Walk, her pupils can move around the solar system, and zoom in or zoom out. "Before we had the tablets, to explain them the alternation between day and night, I would put stickers on a bowl and use an electric lamp.  Now, they can see the Earth move in space and they understand."
The digital hardware was provided by the regional education authority, three years ago. At the beginning, it was not easy to figure out how to best make use of the tablets in the classroom. The teachers also had to look for and buy apps, which tend to cost between 1 and 3 euros, they could use with the students.
"Some really did not fit the purpose", Anne Fragola says. Still, the sense of adventure excites these French classroom pioneers, and they share their discoveries with their colleagues on the regional authority's website. This too, is an innovation.