Scholastic Administrator

Get On With The Show
Five ways to turn boring classrooms into tech-enabled, interactive theater

By Pamela Wheaton Shorr

Remember back when everyone talked about technology as the new paradigm that would transform the American classroom? Away with all pencils and paper, out with teachers and textbooks! Technology can and will replace all of these old, traditional techniques!

That didn’t happen, of course. At first glance, things don’t look all that different in most classrooms than they did 10 years ago, except that alongside the pencil boxes, math manipulatives, and early readers are graphing calculators, science probes, and laptops.

Most agree that the use of a No. 2 pencil isn’t going to make or break a school and neither will the use of PowerPoint. No doubt about it—technology is a great tool for instruction. But to really transform education, experts say there needs to be a perfect storm of factors: a school system with crystal-clear educational goals and a plan to achieve them, teachers who are smart enough to differentiate both instruction and the tools at hand to motivate their students, and a tech plan that covers all the possibilities in between. Here are five schools that seem to understand that equation and prove the rule.


For 15 years, Lynda Nichol, M.Ed., has been the director of technology at Shawnee Public Schools in Shawnee, Oklahoma, a low-income district with a large number of Native-American students. Three years ago, Nichol and fellow Shawnee administrators were so concerned about the dropout rate in their district that they decided to try an entirely new approach to teaching and learning. With the help of a $200,000-plus federal grant, Shawnee High School purchased enough Palm handhelds for the entire freshman class of 2003.

“We were very concerned about engaging students in learning,” Nichol says. “With the handhelds we saw a big improvement in attitude and attendance.”

The idea of a low-cost one-to-one computing solution didn’t look all that appealing to Nichol when it was first proposed. “We didn’t buy into it right away,” she says, mainly because there were very few educational programs available for the Palm at the time. But nearby Putnam City Schools had already purchased handhelds for its students, and administrators were very encouraging. In addition, software manufacturer GoKnow and the University of Michigan were hard at work on new programs. So Shawnee jumped into the fray.

To succeed, Nichol reasoned, she would have to get everyone to feel comfortable with the technology right from the get-go. Nichol gave every teacher and student a unit to play around with for two weeks. The student package consisted of a palmOne handheld, padded case, keyboard, and ImagiMath, ImagiCalculator, and DocsToGo programs. The unit could also be attached to science probes and digital cameras, although Nichol opted not to include too many bells and whistles or too much memory to support games in the base package. “We told the kids they could put anything they wanted on it during that [experimentation] period,” she says, laughing. “But we warned them that it all had to come off at the end of two weeks. It gave them the chance to see what it could do.”

Meanwhile, Nichol put a Palm OS Artifact and Assessment Manager (PAAM) in place. PAAM acts as a data management system, allowing teachers to receive, store, and disseminate student work. Students can “beam” assignments to teachers, who can then pull up the file, comment on it, and send it back. “The kids got so much more involved,” she says. “They loved beaming their work to teachers.” She is astounded at the variety of ways the units are being used. Health classes learn about the transmittal of diseases with a program called Cooties. The drama club uses Sketchy to figure out where actors will stand during a scene, and the debate team uses PicoMap for concept mapping of ideas. And teachers are now clamoring for eBooks to share with their students.

“Kids we thought were falling through the cracks say learning is fun now,” Nichol notes. And that was the whole point.

Spencer Moody, executive director of Woodland Hills Academy for pregnant teens in Salem, Utah, has had his grip on reality loosened for three years now. And that’s just the way he likes it. Students at Woodland Hills use a software program called 3D Learn as their virtual schoolhouse, figuratively entering the building every day via an avatar—a stand-in, online persona that moves around within the 3D world and interacts with others. 3D Learn students work with certified teachers in pods of about 12 students. Students are immersed in a constructivist learning environment. If they’re studying paleontology, for instance, they must build a dinosaur habitat online and invite their classmates into the habitat to demonstrate what they’ve learned. Student avatars chat back and forth, ask questions and offer suggestions—just as they would in a real classroom.

“The best thing about 3D Learn is that students develop higher-level thinking,” says Moody. He says the creativity of developing projects and worlds online—to say nothing of creating a whole new online persona—really keeps kids excited. Moody also likes the fact that once his students have left his school, they can continue with their studies from home. That makes the program a potential plus for schools that have kids on long-term suspension or for parents of troubled kids who want to keep their children away from old friends.

Moreover, says Janet Hale, the founder and director of 3D Learn Interactive Academy, because socialization is purposefully built into the curriculum, children who have a hard time interacting with others face to face can practice in a virtual world. She thinks there are huge applications for both general-education and special needs children.

Many American schools have spent the past few years developing a literacy curriculum that makes all teachers part of language arts. Not so when it comes to numeracy. If a student can’t read, it’s a travesty. Can’t add? Oh, well, there’s always a calculator around somewhere.

At least that’s how Nancy Foote, a 20-year veteran of teaching math and science, sees it—and she’s having none of it. Now a teacher on assignment for curriculum and staff development in the Higley (AZ) Unified School District, Foote believes it’s her mission to mathematize the world for her students, she says. And she’ll use just about any tool to do it, including the boob tube.

Well, not just any old TV show. Foote’s got a thing for the CBS series Numb3rs, a program in which a math whiz named Charlie helps his FBI-agent brother solve crime using math and science equations. “I’m always looking for ways to hook kids,” Foote explains, “and Numb3rs is a great hook.”

In the first year, Foote simply watched the show and made up her own lessons based on what she had seen. Now Texas Instruments has started creating lesson plans for math and science teachers, and Foote can simply poke around on the web site until she finds what she wants for the grade and course she’s teaching. So far about 13,000 teachers have signed up to walk their students through lessons.

After 34 years in education, instructional technology coordinator Julia Vadersen of the Virginia Beach City Public Schools in Virginia Beach, Virginia, says that she has found the technology that she hopes will be her legacy to the school system. When you hear what it is, you might just say it’s “déjà vu all over again”—because the tech that Vadersen finds particularly exciting these days is the projector.

Of course, these projectors aren’t the old filmstrip or overhead models of yore. Vadersen and colleagues have collaboratively designed a ceiling-mounted projector solution that is being replicated in classrooms throughout the schools in her district whenever a remodel or new construction arises.

It includes Hitachi’s ceiling-mounted digital projectors, eight-foot screens, and speakers. The projector in the computer lab is attached to a StarBoard Panel, designed to allow the teacher to face the class while the presentation is projected onto the large screen display behind her. The district uses United Streaming, which gives teachers access to thousands of video clips that can be pulled up onscreen. Teachers are also able to use document cameras and visual presenters to take snapshots of everything from student papers to science experiments and present them on the big screen for all to see. “It’s like going to a movie theater,” Vadersen explains, who believes the systems have already made a “major change in our schools.”

Once the software is installed, the StarBoard Panel units are portable and will work with any of the overhead projectors and computers. That’s great, because unlike interactive whiteboards, they don’t need recalibration when moved from room to room. One enthusiastic fifth-grade teacher confided in Vadersen recently that the projector has completely changed her teaching. While working with students on a unit on Jefferson and Monticello, the teacher noted, she suddenly realized that she could actually show her kids what she was talking about. “She told me that the kids were totally engaged in learning with the projector,” Vadersen explains. What’s more, so are the teachers. Two weeks after introductory training on the use of the unit, Vadersen brought
a group of teachers back together and asked for their honest assessment of the tool.

“Their faces just lit up,” she recalls. “It was awesome.”

For Steve Wharton, principal of the Woodmoor Elementary School in Bothell, Washington, teaching every child with a balanced reading approach is his highest priority. But how to go about it?

Wharton presides over a diverse K–6 school that houses about 850 students who run the gamut from the gifted to those with severe disabilities. For Wharton and staff, it was simple: create an equally diverse teaching strategy and use every tool you can find. “Ten years ago, there was only one experience for all kids in schools,” Wharton asserts, “and about half could do it. Today, we are striving to provide a reading experience at just the right level for all our kids.”

At Woodmoor, for instance, most classrooms are equipped with document cameras and overhead projectors, which allow teachers to grab writing samples from students to share with the class or to highlight important pieces of text for group discussion.

In addition to leveled-reading books, children use a host of reading software, such as Earobics, to help develop skills. Special needs students visit the library not only to take books out but also to get a lesson on phonics. As students watch, the librarian pulls up a list of rhyming words such as cat, rat, and bat on the interactive whiteboard. Simply moving the first letter of each word around the screen gives these visual learners a powerful way to absorb a critical reading concept.

Pamela Wheaton Shorr is a contributing editor for Scholastic Administr@tor.