Gary Waitschies is giving his class an assignment, but he's not writing it on the blackboard. The fifth-graders in his Clermont Elementary School classroom in Alexandria are having the assignment beamed to their AlphaSmart Dana computers as Waitschies walks down the outside row of students with his Dana. Beep, beep, beep.

He electronically shoots the assignment to the computer of the student at the end of each row. That kid then beams the assignment down the row as beeps fill the classroom.

These laptop-size computers were first used by students who had trouble writing and found typing easier. They also were used by kids who learned in different ways from the rest of the class.

But schools have discovered that most kids find the keyboards helpful. More than 20,000 students in Fairfax County are using them, most of them in elementary and middle schools. Around the United States, more than 1 million AlphaSmarts are used in classrooms. The Dana, the fanciest model, costs about $400.

"We want them to reach for this technology the way they would reach for a calculator," says Clermont Principal Jeannine Tate.

Sometimes the assignment is different than it would have been if the students were using pencils. In this case the task is to write three topic sentences that will tell this year's fourth-graders what fifth grade is like.

Then Waitschies instructs students to "beam your sentences to your Binary Buddy." Binary means two and is used as the basis for some computer language. So in this class your "binary buddy" is your computer buddy. The kids have to edit each others' work and then beam it back.

The students say they love it. Their hands shoot up enthusiastically when they are asked what is so good about the Dana.

"It's easier to complete your work," says Nick Booker, 10.

"We can work much faster on it," says 11-year-old Aisha Anthony.

"I write really hard with a pencil and sometimes it breaks," explains Hala El Barmil, 11. "This is much better."

"I'm the computer expert in my house," says Andres Araneda. "This makes writing much easier," the 10-year-old explains.

The Danas are different from laptops in several ways, says Chris Bryant, a vice president of the company that makes them. They are practically indestructible, very light and fit in a backpack, so kids could take them on field trips for note-taking and not worry about dropping them.

And, he adds, "the beaming is like magic to kids."

What don't the kids like about the keyboard?

They almost all say they wish it had a dictionary as part of the software, and they wish they could take it home.

Clermont has a surprise for those kids. The school is buying more Dana machines, and next year as sixth-graders these kids will be taking them home.

But they still will have to use an old-fashioned dictionary.

-- Ellen Edwards