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CLEVELAND, Tenn. - Jim David and Sandra Farlow are completely different teachers, both thrust into the classroom of the future.

A relatively young teacher, David said he lives for technology. Farlow, on the other hand, calls herself a "digital immigrant," not having taught on computers since the late 1970s.

Nevertheless, this fall the two are spearheading Cleveland Middle School's Virtual Learning Academy, a technology-driven effort to achieve a "paperless classroom," principal Jeff Elliott said.

The school is beta-testing two Virtual Learning Academy classrooms with 20 students each, 15 fewer pupils than normal, David said. Students selected for the project use the same classroom and keep the same teacher all day long, he said.

"I will know these kids, these families, better than I'll know the other 130 kids I had last year," David said.

An online environment provides students with more opportunity for success, David said.

"I foresee us being a leader in what we're doing," he said. "These kids are digital natives."

The focus on technology helps students see their capabilities without being held back by motor skills, Farlow said.

"If you have a hard time with penmanship, you don't have to worry about forming the letters, you just have to get the words on the screen," she said.

David and Elliott both said they believe middle school is the right time to introduce more technology to students.

The challenge, Farlow said, is learning to use the technology while teaching the curriculum.

Regardless, she said, she finds it stimulating to teach students to be computer savvy.

"These are employees businesses will need," she said. "They're going to have the jobs they want."

Eighth-grader Jackie Ilimbi said she believes her Virtual Learning Academy class will help her prepare for life after graduation.

"We're using more technology, because the world is using more technology," she said.

Eighth grader Matt Ezell said that, even though the classwork is more challenging than typical, he's glad to be among the select few in the program.

"People I know want to come to this class," he said. "It's very fun."

Federal stimulus and Race to the Top funds made the project possible, Elliott said.

Students increasingly are asking to bring laptops to class, Elliott said, but the school still is determining policies on personal machines.

"Hopefully, soon, I'd love to see almost every student bring in a computer," he said.

Despite technological advances, nothing can quite take the place of the teacher, Elliott said. Right now the school is seeking balance, he added, acknowledging that technology isn't the most effective tool for everyone.

"It's about the student and the student learning," he said. "Technology is a great resource, but we don't want it to take the place of interaction."

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