This spring, the classrooms of Concord Elementary School in Portland, Ore., buzzed with the ordinary sounds of a grade school: student voices, feet landing on soft carpets, and rustling papers.

But Elizabeth Mueller's classroom was something altogether different. Mueller's crisp voice—carried by microphone and a small speaker stationed atop the chalkboard—dominated the room, finding its way even to the most reluctant ear.

For Mueller, a veteran elementary school teacher accustomed to competing with the knock and rattle of an ancient heating system, the microphone has become as elemental as chalk

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