Posts filed under ‘Wednesday Whatsits’

Wednesday Whatsits: What’s a SMARTboard?

Student Using an Interactive Whiteboard

“My daughter tells me they got to play on a smartboard in her class. What’s going on?”
“The school my friend teaches in got SMARTboards two years ago! How does my principal expect me to teach without one?”
“My son’s PTA is trying to raise $30,000 to install smartboards in every class. $30,000?! What for?”

For the technically uninclined  reader, a SMARTboard (or rather, an interactive whiteboard – SMARTboard is just the most well-known branding) is a large touch screen that hooks up to a computer. It can be used to project and interact with any computer program as well as specialized programs, such as SMART Notebook, which are designed to work well with the touch screen in the educational context.

Will the SMARTboard revolutionize education?
It certainly seems to have changed the game, but looks aren’t everything. In my opinion, there are two main benefits to the SMARTboard, and it is up to the grant writers to assess the cost-benefit ratio:

1. It can make it easier for teachers to plan interactive activities.
I deliberately used the word “easier” rather than “possible.” Even most of the best lessons I see teachers do on their SMARTboards could have been (and were) done in years past with paper and fun-tack. The difference is that the old way required more preparation and didn’t look as snazzy (which actually didn’t bother anyone until the bar was raised). Also, if you wanted to share materials, you had to take turns, sometimes physically rummaging in your colleagues’ files instead of downloading a carbon copy off their website.  However, besides saving the teachers a great deal of time and expense, providing this medium is valuable because it increases the likelihood of teachers actually using clever techniques. Face it – we’ve always been able to share interesting pictures and documents with our students, but when it required thinking of it days in advance, going to the central library to sign out a slide, hooking up the carousel projector, and… you know, I actually don’t know what else was involved in ye olden days, because when I was in school my teachers just didn’t do that very often. I wonder why.

2. It lets kids get their hands on technology in a collaborative, supervised way.
I don’t need to tell you that we live in a wired world. Hey, this is a blog. Our kids are only going to make it if they can function in this environment. Many won’t get to practice at home, and even those who do might not learn to harness their powers effectively without careful guidance. Huddling around a desktop or laptop is not the best classroom management solution. Maybe an interactive whiteboard is.

What about the coolness factor?
OK, I confess. I think the SMARTboard is one really cool invention. But coolness wears off fast. Don’t count on expensive toys to hold kids’ attention for more than a few weeks, at most. That is the job of effective teaching combined with available tools and materials.

You touch it! It’s kinesthetic! Isn’t that great?
I’m all for multisensory learning. But sorry, this isn’t it. It does involve a little more movement and hands-on interaction than most typical teaching activities, but as I’ve already stated, that can almost always be achieved with low-tech measures as well. What’s more, I believe that computer screens are actually quite un-tactile. Sliding a finger across a screen provides less feedback than actually picking up an object and moving it. It doesn’t provide any more texture for writing than a pencil on paper. And, most importantly, it’s a distracting decoy that can take away from true multisensory learning: In bygone years, I brought in boxes of different shapes and sizes and a sack of marbles to demonstrate the concept of volume. Now, there’s a nifty slideshow simulation. Doing things yourself can be replaced with watching an internet video of someone who already did it. Instead of planning in advance and bringing in specimens of what I’m teaching about, I can download a whole bunch of pictures that look great but FEEL the same as the rest of the touch screen. So no, “touch screen” is NOT the same as “tactile/sensory.”

The bottom line (OK, several lines):

  • Technology has a lot to offer, but  it’s only as good as the person at the controls. For teachers who can deliver a well-designed lesson without a SMARTboard, and are willing to learn new techniques, they will probably enhance their teaching and streamline their preparation. But there is no substitute for good teaching.
  • Limited resources should be allocated effectively by screening which teachers are most likely to benefit from this tool. It would likely be wasted on an experienced teacher who is doing well in his or her subject area and isn’t adept at mastering new technology. On the flipside, it might be most beneficial in a class with a large proportion of students with special needs, where it could be used adaptivelyto compensate for the limitations of traditional methods.
  • Principals would be well advised to invest in staff development and training to ensure that they get the most out of their SMARTboards. Without training, many teachers might view them as simply very expensive projection screens, or worse, just more wires to trip on.

December 28, 2011 at 1:51 am Leave a comment

Wednesday Whatsits: What’s the ELA?

(Apologies to the rest of the universe, as this post is kind of NY-centric. I really don’t know what goes on elsewhere.)

Year after year, I run into at least a handful of students, teachers, and parents in a tizzy about the ELAs. They’re not sure what they are, why they matter, or what to do about them, but they hope I know. And is my kid going to have to take a science ELA?

For starters, please calm down. ELA stands for just “English Language Arts,” and yes, there will be a test.

What is it?

In New York State, the ELA test is given to students in grades 3-8 every Spring. It is a pretty standard language arts test, which includes short reading and listening passages, multiple choice questions, and written responses. Some grades also have a short proofreading exercise. It’s usually given in two sessions on two consecutive days.

Does it matter?

It might. Depending on your school, the results might be used for class placement decisions or to screen for academic risks. Some intervention programs use the results to determine which students should receive government-funded enrichment. School-wide averages may also be used to flag those in need of extra help. In my school, promotion decisions are never based solely on state tests, but it’s up to the schools to decide how much weight to give it.

What should we do about it?

Not much, in my opinion. The New York ELA test seems to address standard skills directly enough that you don’t need to waste much time and energy on test prep. My focus in test preparation is just to let students know what to expect so they don’t get confused and intimidated when opening the test booklet. What this looks like:

  • At the beginning of the year and throughout: Read the state standards so you know what students are expected to know. It won’t tell you exactly what to teach but will give you a general idea of what skill areas to look at.
  • All year: Give a couple of test-style multiple choice questions on each reading assignment. Weave in strategies such as reading all the choices and using the process of elimination.
  •  All year: Integrate language-arts words into your vocabulary, and make sure that students understand them. Use phrases like “character traits” and “theme,” for example.
  • All year: Consider accommodations. The day of the test is too late to arrange for extra time, directions read aloud, or such. Notice when kids are struggling in regular classroom tests and alert your school’s special needs coordinator.
  • Before the test: Do a couple of sample essays with your students. The test essays follow very specific formats, so you can easily coach your students on what is expected of them (more on that in some future post if desired)
  • About a week before the test: Print out a sample test and spend a period or so familiarizing your students with the directions and layout, which change very little (if at all) from year to year.

Note that until the month of the test if not later, my recommendations don’t really change your teaching much at all. Beyond that, there’s nothing you can really do to cram language skills.

What about the math ELA?

Now that you know ELA stands for English Language Arts, you can figure that there is no math, science, or history ELA. Trick question, but one that I’m asked all the time! However, there are state assessments in other subjects, my recommendations for those are similar though I don’t care for the tests as much, and this post is long enough without going into it! Until next time, then!

November 2, 2011 at 5:11 pm 2 comments


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