Before he goes to bed, Ty Carey often does a review of his spelling words.
The fifth-grader has a pen and paper at his side in case he wants to take notes. But it's the iPod he holds in his hand that has helped him score higher on recent tests.
On it, he can hear the voice of his teacher, Carmen MacDonald, and see the list of words in her handwriting. She breaks down the syllables and offers words of encouragement.
The lesson is one MacDonald -- a special education resource teacher at Lowell Elementary School in Wheaton -- made on her own after school with a MacBook Pro, a tablet she purchased at the beginning of the school year and software that allows her to record her voice and drawings on a video.
"This is the way it's going. It's all digital instruction," MacDonald said. "It's part of their life. You don't want to be behind."
That's why Ty and fellow fifth-grader Maddy Allen are traveling with MacDonald to Springfield Thursday to demonstrate to lawmakers how they use technology to learn in the classroom and at home.
They will be joined by MacDonald's son, Matthew, who taught her how to create digital lessons after doing something similar with his special education students at Bolingbrook High School.
"We want to get the technology pieces into our kids' hands," MacDonald said, adding that one purpose of the event will be to raise awareness among legislators about the importance of funding for education technology. "It lets them take ownership of their learning."
The group of four will join representatives from nearly 60 other schools statewide -- including Fenton High School in Bensenville, Glenn Westlake Middle School in Lombard, Ardmore Elementary School in Villa Park and Westview Elementary School in Wood Dale -- at TECH 2014, an annual event presented by the not-for-profit Illinois Computing Educators.
Computer workstations will be set up in the Capitol building and students will have an opportunity to demonstrate the technology to members of the Illinois Senate and House.
MacDonald decided to take a stab at creating digital lessons that her students could access outside of school after being faced with a time crunch each day.
"We just didn't have enough time, with the core curriculum, to get through a lesson," she said. "My intention was that they'd be able to do it from home."
MacDonald said she was inspired by Khan Academy, a popular online program that provides tutorials for a variety of subjects. However, she has never a big proponent of making kids learn through "big name" computer programs.
"I just like that personal aspect I can still have with them," she said of the lessons she's developed. "It makes it a real, personal relationship, I think, with my kids. This is the way teaching should be, needs to be."
Like Khan Academy, MacDonald's lessons are available at any time of day through any device that has access to the Internet. Ty, for example, has reviewed lessons while traveling with his family to Michigan. MacDonald said students without access to the Internet at home have opportunities during recess, study halls and after school to view her lessons.
"You can see the parts that you need to see," she said, adding that she tries to keep the lessons at less than 10 minutes each, but students can skip to whatever parts help them.
So far, MacDonald has created about 135 instructional videos for a variety of subjects. They are accessible to all students and teachers who have a password for her page on sophia.org, an educational website filled with online courses and tutorials.
MacDonald said students who aren't part of the special education program are taking advantage of her lessons now. She has also heard positive feedback from parents who say they enjoy watching the lessons with their children because it gives them a better understanding of what the students are learning in school.
"It's a lot of work, but I do think the teaching profession is a lot of work to begin with," she said, adding that she has invested a few hundred dollars of her own money in the lessons.
MacDonald hopes similar initiatives will continue to grow in Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200 and other schools.
"It's the rage a little bit now, but I think it's here to stay," she said. "I think we're going to be able to achieve a lot more."