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Whiteboards for Dummies

Go beyond the same six tricks to maximize whiteboard use.

John Mein, a sixth-grade language arts teacher in Kerrville, Texas, used to prepare students for vocabulary tests by having them make flash cards. Then he got an interactive whiteboard.

Now a typical vocab lesson starts with animated spiders dropping down from web strings. Next, pumpkins roll on-screen, and then witches and ghosts fly in. Mein’s class breaks into teams, and students take turns chucking Koosh balls and firing Nerf darts at the board. When one of them hits a spooky image, a question page pops up. If one team gets the wrong answer, the next team can swoop in to steal the points.

After class, Mein posts videos of the games to his blog and to YouTube so students can use them to study. “They love it,” Mein says. “They get on me if I don’t post the video.”

Meanwhile, some teachers in Mein’s district use their interactive whiteboards—which can cost up to thousands of dollars—as a place to hang posters. They’re not alone. A representative from a major interactive whiteboard manufacturer tells of the time she came into a school and found a board with student work stapled all over it. James Hollis, a former teacher who now trains educators on how to use interactive whiteboards, became acquainted with the technology when he found one of the boards sitting unused in a supply closet.

Even teachers who use the boards often don’t realize their full potential. They’re  content to simply scan in worksheets or show slides without incorporating the technology into lessons.

At their best, interactive whiteboards can get students out of their seats to lead their own learning. But, like all technology, the boards are only as good as the people using them. And the people using them are only as good as their training. There are ways to ensure that you’re giving your staff the tools they need to make the most out of your district’s investment.

Identify Your “Early Adopters”
“I’m a nerd,” says Hollis. “looking at how to use something new—doing the research and learning the software, that’s my bread and butter.”

Mein is the same way. “I absolutely love technology, so I’m one of those who will click on things. I’m not afraid to make a mistake, so I can learn what to do and what not to do.”

As an administrator, you can’t replicate that attitude in your other teachers, but you can leverage it. Before becoming an independent technology consultant, Hollis wrote grants to get more interactive whiteboards into his district and then trained other teachers on how to use them. Mein’s district sent him to get advanced training, and now he leads the district’s whiteboard PD sessions.

“I attend every one I can,” says Anita Kunz, a teacher in Mein’s district. “We don’t have much time as teachers to learn new techniques. Someone showing you something is so much faster than reading through pages and pages of information.”
Kunz says she was intimidated by her whiteboard at first. Without Mein’s guidance, she would only use the technology “minimally.” Now she raves about it.

“This will be my 30th year coming up, and we can get stale,” Kunz says. “It’s opened up a whole new ball game for me. I feel like I’ve done as much learning as the kids. It’s a great tool.”

“You’ll always find a core set of teachers who are really excited about the board and go out and find resources right away,” says Hollis. “You let other teachers see what they’re doing. That’s huge.”

And don’t forget that your district’s students may be more tech-savvy than their teachers. Shannon Kula, a consultant for whiteboard maker Promethean, says some districts assign teachers a “buddy” student to bring with them to PD sessions. “The students always remember the training,” she says.

Make It Relevant
No matter how much training you provide for teachers, it won’t sink in unless it meets them on their level and gives them information they can use in their classrooms right away.

“Just like we differentiate for kids in the classroom, you have to differentiate for teachers,” says Debra Mayfield, who oversees consultants for Mimio, a company that makes devices that turn any surface into an interactive board.

In Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where new schools come equipped with an interactive whiteboard in every classroom, administrators offer a variety of workshops at a two-day summer conference dubbed Camp Inspire.

“Nobody likes to sit through something that they already know,” says Marlo Gaddis, director of instructional technology for the district. “You go to the sessions that apply to what you need at that time. It keeps teachers engaged, and then we see a higher level of implementation in the classroom.”

Tracy Tishion, who leads teacher technology training for the Brookfield, Connecticut, public schools, says there are essentially three broad levels of competency teachers can achieve on interactive whiteboards. On the first level, teachers are learning how the devices work. On the second level, teachers use the technology to plan lessons, and on the third, they’re able to make those lessons interactive and engaging.

Sometimes, Tishion says, teachers are satisfied with staying at one of the lower levels—until they see how students can spring to life during truly interactive lessons. “Once they see the benefits and the excitement of learning from their kids, there’s no holding them back.”

But teachers need to see what the boards can do, rather than just being told, says Hollis, the technology consultant. “You can tell them it’s easy, but until they do it, they’re not going to feel comfortable,” he says. “You have them look for something they can use next week, and without fail, if you give them 10 minutes to search around, they find something and get excited about. But somebody’s got to make them search for it once.”

Know the Goal (and the Technology)
“You really have to know what it is you want and why you’re doing this. Are you getting the interactive whiteboard because everybody else is?” says Michael Ceglinski, director of secondary instruction for McCracken County Schools in Paducah, Kentucky. “Why do you need it? For us, it was student engagement. If it’s meeting a need, great; if not, it’s just another shiny little toy.”

“The goal should be student-centered instruction, moving past using it as a glorified overhead projector,” says Shayla Rexrode, a manager of education solutions for interactive whiteboard maker SMART Technologies.

Rexrode, a former teacher, says she wasn’t always sure what she was supposed to do with new technology in her classroom. “We were excited, but there was a gap between our receiving it and understanding what the objectives were. If administrators want to see more higher-order thinking skills, they need to be very clear with their staff: These are our expectations; these are our goals.”

These objectives should be integral to observations and informal feedback, Rexrode says, so teachers know what’s expected of them and what they can do better. But even more important, she says, administrators should use the whiteboards themselves to model what they hope to see in classrooms.

“In the schools where I’ve seen the greatest success with the product, it’s a central part of their staff meetings,” says Rexrode. “They use the technology.”

—Late Fall 2012—

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