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School Notes: Interactive Whiteboards Have Erased Chalk and Slate

Second grader Monty Foster works on math problems in class at the  Piermont Village School in Piermont, N.H., on Nov. 15, 2013. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

Second grader Monty Foster works on math problems in class at the Piermont Village School in Piermont, N.H., on Nov. 15, 2013. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck Purchase photo reprints »

As the six second-graders walked into Heather Caldwell’s Piermont Village School classroom and collected their workbooks, Caldwell was putting up a set of warm-up problems on telling time. A clock face, big hand on the 12, little hand on the 3, stared out at children, who found seats at three tables.

Caldwell put the clock face on the board not by drawing it, but by pushing a few buttons on her computer. The image was projected onto an interactive whiteboard, a classroom device that has replaced the chalkboard and overhead projector. Caldwell keeps all of her lessons in files that can go up on the board straight from her computer.

“I can’t imagine teaching without an interactive whiteboard,” Caldwell said.

This isn’t a new technology, but what’s new about it is its status as an indispensable classroom tool. It’s hard to find a classroom in an Upper Valley school that isn’t equipped with an interactive board and projector. Made by a handful of companies — SMART Board, Promethean and eBeam are among the most prominent — interactive whiteboards are everywhere. While not all teachers use them, most do, and the boards have become essential to an ongoing transformation of teaching and learning.

“I think it’s taken quite a bit of time for them to become a household word,” said Peter Drescher, educational technology coordinator for the Vermont Agency of Education. Now, the boards are “here to stay,” he said.

Introduced into schools a dozen years ago, the interactive whiteboard, at its best, allows an adept teacher to manage classroom and preparation time more effectively. It also makes it easier for teachers to toggle between demonstrating at the front of the room and instructing pupils one-on-one when they’re bent to their task. The interactive board is also a collaborative tool: Some of them allow multiple children to approach the board and work simultaneously, and have their work saved to the attached computer. And passing handheld devices to a class can allow a teacher to administer a spot quiz, a formative assessment that lets a teacher know whether a class (or individual students) has grasped a lesson and is ready to move on.

With interactive whiteboards, students see teachers using technology, and the boards help schools put technology education front and center, Drescher said.

In the second-grade class Friday afternoon, Caldwell seamlessly integrated the interactive whiteboard into the day’s lessons. After the warm-up, which included several more clock faces, she put partial sums on the board. She and her students talked through how to group the tens and the ones to come up with the right answer. The children then opened their workbooks to tackle problem sets while Caldwell and an aide circulated among them to provide individual instruction.

In the middle of this exercise, the interactive whiteboard came into play: Caldwell noticed that the students weren’t showing their work process as they set about solving the problems. She brought up a blank page and solved one of the workbook problems to show how to express both the work and the answer. Then the students went back to solving problems on their own.

Using the board to reinforce to the group an essential element of the task at hand before returning to provide individual instruction fits with a model of classroom teaching that puts less time into lecturing and demonstrating and more into so-called differentiated instruction. Teaching is now less about standing and delivering and more about tapping into how each child learns, and the interactive boards can help enable the new teaching model.

Piermont Principal Jonann Torsey noted that there are different ways of making the boards interactive. For example, a teacher can use a document camera that projects a page from a notebook onto the board. The teacher or a student can then write on the board, on top of the student’s work, and the board will save it all to the computer.

“It ain’t what it used to be,” Torsey said.

The boards are most useful where there’s software that integrates the curriculum, Torsey said. Caldwell is a math specialist. The software she uses for her classes has the school’s Everyday Mathematics curriculum built into it, Torsey said.

In the Rivendell Interstate School District, the K-12 district comprising Orford, Fairlee, West Fairlee and Vershire, elementary teachers have latched onto the interactive whiteboards, mainly because they engage students, said Hank Plaisted, the district’s information technology director.

“Most of our teachers, certainly at the elementary level, they’re pretty facile at using a smartboard,” he said.

When schools first started using the boards, they were generally shared, wheeled between classrooms. Over the years, as teachers have grown used to them, the boards have proliferated.

“Except for kindergarten, all of our classrooms have them,” said Ted Brown, principal at Bridgewater Village School. The classroom boards have been in place for around five years.

The purchase of the boards generally includes some training, and that was the case in Bridgewater, Brown said. “I think in all of the rooms the kids are as engaged as the teachers are,” he said.

In the long run, tablet computers are likely to play a greater role in classrooms, replacing laptop computers, Drescher said. But the tablets will be linked to an interactive whiteboard.

The boards tend to last a decade or so, and down the road new boards might employ touchscreens, rather than projectors, said Plaisted. “It’s going to be a couple of years before the prices become affordable enough (even) for well-off schools,” Plaisted said.

The cost of new technologies is often cited as a drag on school budgets, and Drescher said that schools have to plan for replacing computer hardware every three to four years.

“You’re always tasked with buying the latest and the greatest,” Drescher said. “If you don’t, then you’re two years behind.”

At Piermont, things haven’t quite worked that way. Voters are very supportive of the school, Torsey said. A few years ago, the district ran a surplus and the School Board proposed using the funds to buy five new interactive whiteboards, Torsey said. The new boards, made by Promethean and installed in August 2012, cost around $1,500 each and were far larger than the two smartboards the school had been using.

But the new boards fit with a frugal approach to technology. The school has held onto its laptop computers, some of which are now a decade old. That means all of the third- and fourth-graders have their own laptops to use during the school day. In some schools, the boards were purchased with grant money, but in most cases they are included in annual school budgets.

It’s possible, Drescher said, that despite training and interest from students, not all interactive whiteboards are being used to their fullest capacity. “We probably still have many that still sit on walls and are used as glorified projectors,” he said.

Not all Rivendell teachers like to use them, Plaisted said, particularly in the upper grades.

But “interactive” is the operative word for these devices, and elementary school children gravitate to them, Drescher said.

“The kids, especially younger kids, would just be clamoring, you know, let me touch that thing,” he said.

That was certainly the case in Caldwell’s classroom, where a little over halfway through the hour-long class Caldwell had her students divide into two teams for a game of memory.

“One of the things I like about the smartboard and playing games is that it gets them up,” she said.

A grid of boxes appeared on the board, and students could tap them with a stylus to turn them over. Underneath were short sentences describing a time of day, or clock faces telling the hour. Matching one to the other earned two points for the team. The game ended in a draw, then students sat back down to work out more problems before the class ended, their minds stimulated by the game on the board.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com, or at 603-727-3219.