WASHINGTON – Montgomery County Public Schools are doing more than tolerating back talk in classrooms — they’re encouraging it, as long as it’s from the system’s new interactive learning devices.
An estimated 65 percent of middle- and high-school classrooms and 24 elementary schools will be fitted with computer-activated touch screen whiteboards, projectors, student response indicators, speakers and computer software by December. All of the technology was purchased from Promethean, a learning technology company started in the United Kingdom.
The county received $3.3 million for the upgrades from the Federal eRate program, a Federal Communications Commission initiative to ensure schools and libraries have the latest technology.
One of the program’s highest profile devices is in use at Lakelands Park Middle School in Gaithersburg. The school received 35 of the county’s planned 2,600 Promethean Activboards, which are the size of a chalkboard, connect to the teacher’s computer and can be activated by a pen.
Sabita Raman, a reading and special education English and social studies teacher at the school, said the best features of the boards go beyond simply writing with the pen.
For example, the board has a tickertape feature which allows a message like ‘homework due tomorrow’ to scroll along the bottom of the screen while a lesson is in progress.
“It’s like subliminal messaging while you’re teaching,” Raman said.
Her favorite feature is the clock, which can be programmed to countdown until an assignment or test is due and then sound an alarm. Raman said it makes students more aware of their work.
“There are too many kids trying to write on the board,” Raman said, raising her hand and waving it frantically in imitation of her students and their new interest in answering questions.
During class, Raman projects a slide with a bright green background onto the board. At the top of the slide is the question, in pale yellow, ‘What is your favorite part of the board?’ Hands go up, anxious to get a chance to write inside the pink outlined box on the screen.
Overwhelmingly, the response in all three of Raman’s class periods was “writing on the board.” But there are other favorites, including “graphics,” “colors,” “sound,” “it’s bigger” and “it’s a touch screen.”
One student simply wrote, “It’s better than the whiteboard.”
A second slide appears on the board, this time with a maroon background and light pink writing, ‘Do you pay more attention in class because of the board?’ She can hide all but the question with a black curtain, that she drags away to reveal a split ‘yes’ or ‘no’ box chosen from a bank of graphics.
Three students in each of her class periods put a checkmark on the no side, totaling 47-to-9 students who say they pay more attention with the board.
Raman said she’s even heard of kids bragging about the boards to students at schools without the technology.
“The kids don’t even look at the whiteboard anymore. They all feel ownership of the board,” Raman said. “There was a substitute one Friday and the students made sure she knew she shouldn’t touch or write on it.”
Parents are also seeing the effect of the new technology with their children. PTA president of Lakelands Park Middle School, Jennifer Palmiere, says her son talks about the new technology frequently.
“It was a great surprise to all of us when the kids got back to school,” said Palmiere. “The boards are incredible for a number of reasons. It’s a lot more effective.”
Palmiere is most appreciative of Activotes, egg-shaped grey and orange handheld devices that allow students to anonymously respond to multiple choice questions by clicking one of six letter choices. The student responses can be projected immediately onto the Activboards or straight to the teacher’s computer.
“Teachers will know immediately what kids thought and which ones didn’t understand,” Palmiere said. “There’s timeliness in the feedback.”
For Palmiere’s seventh-grade son, who she says is normally apprehensive about asking questions in class, Activotes gives him an anonymous way to show the teacher he may be having trouble understanding.
“To him, it’s more interesting because they are involved in the teaching process,” Palmiere said. “He says it’s not as boring because he can see it up on the screen and can use the clicker to answer questions.”
The boards also give teachers a new technique in engaging the students, Palmiere said.
“There are more dynamic teachers than others.” she said. “It keeps it an even playing field for those teachers who many not be as dynamic.”
Even veteran teachers are favoring the boards as a teaching method instead of relying on worksheets and piles of papers, Raman said.
“It’s more visual than giving them a diagram on a little piece of paper,” Raman said. Plus, the teachers are having fun with it, she adds.
“This has become my pastime, I do lesson plans while watching my CSI,” she said. “I self-learn a lot. It is work, it takes about 45 minutes to plan a lesson, but I like graphics.”
Teachers at Lakelands Park Middle School are given Promethean training every Wednesday and the county offers monthly training courses as well.
Students, on the other hand, are already more adept at using the boards than their teachers.
“The kids are always saying Ms. Raman you have to click the pen, Ms. Raman you have to do this,” Raman said. “They come in and tell me stories about what their other teachers did wrong that day.”