Apr 17 2008

Changing Habits

Get your teachers to incorporate these techniques into their lesson plans to boost students' attention.

Get your teachers to incorporate these techniques into their lesson plans to boost students’ attention.

From introducing streaming videos and blogging to the curriculum to successfully implementing interactive whiteboards and wireless “clickers” in the classroom, technology directors around the country have been busy on the cutting edge. Four of them share the practices that have worked recently in their districts.

Streaming Video

As teenagers grow accustomed to viewing YouTube on their home computers, most school districts have begun to block the popular streaming video site. Yet at Pennsylvania’s School District of Jenkintown, the site is part of the curriculum.

In this small K–12 district outside of Philadelphia — a recent recipient of a state Classrooms for the Future grant — the notebooks at the high school outnumber the students 400 to 300, and technology director James Cummins encourages teachers to make the most of appropriate YouTube videos that illustrate the concepts they are teaching.

“We have a course teaching comedy, and one of the assignments is to find a two-minute video clip that shows the core principles of comedy that the teacher is trying to get across,” Cummins notes. After finding relevant video clips, the students then write essays on that topic.

A special-education teacher at the school also uses YouTube to illustrate points about the principles of government. “[YouTube is] able to give the students, who are primarily visual learners, an ‘Aha!’ moment,” Cummins explains. The district also pays for a streaming-video service that brings in content from the Discovery Channel and is used widely in science classes.

As for YouTube videos, which the Jenkintown district filters through Internet controls, “Do it with a watchful eye,” Cummins cautions. “To date, we haven’t had any kids download inappropriate videos because our teachers are doing their job.”

YouTube assignments also work best in smaller classes, he notes, because the teacher is always nearby. And it helps to bolster any safety provisions with a clearly written acceptable-use policy, he adds.

Cummins also has answers for a major technological concern. “A lot of my colleagues in other districts won’t let YouTube in the classroom because it will drag down bandwidth,” he says. Instead, he urges Jenkintown teachers not to stream videos but to download them in advance.

Blog Away

For the past three years, Tracy Weeks, the director of information technology for the Chapel Hill–Carrboro City Schools in North Carolina, has prompted teachers to use blogs with their classes. Math teachers have responded by posing inquiry-based problems and asking students for their ideas on solving them. Social studies teachers have asked their students to analyze political debates.

For starters, Weeks suggests using Web management software that has blogging capability built in. She also notes that a summer workshop for interested teachers gave them a head start, and tech specialists at the school helped develop blogs to suit upcoming classroom projects.

In the absence of a tech specialist in the building, “Encourage groups of teachers — either by grade level or subject area — to think collectively on how to use blogs effectively in their curriculum,” Weeks says. Have them start small, testing out a blog for a single unit, she adds.

Search the Web to see how other teachers use blogs and use them for your own administrative tasks. “The more administrators understand how they can be used, the more they’ll be looking for it in classrooms and asking teachers whether they are using it,” she says.

When Learning Clicks

For the past two years, the Great Neck (N.Y.) Public Schools has piloted wireless audience-response devices called clickers — to assess student learning on the fly. Students respond to teachers’ true/false, yes/no or multiple-choice questions by pushing the appropriate button. Teachers instantly see the results on their own handheld devices and decide whether the class is ready to proceed to new topics.

“For us it holds tremendous potential,” explains Marc Epstein, the district’s technology director. “It fills a niche not currently being filled by any other technological solution: assessing students in real time.”

All nine of Great Neck’s schools have deployed the clickers, following a trial deployment at just one school last year. “Use an incremental approach that allows for teachers to see a new technology like this modeled by other teachers,” Epstein recommends.

“Get teachers to think about how they could specifically integrate this technology into the classroom,” he adds. “Make sure they have time to meet and discuss when they would use the device and what data they could collect.”

Also take into account the varied styles of teachers, Epstein says, particularly the difference between those who prefer to plan questions in advance and those who invent questions based on how students have answered their last question.

And, Epstein stresses, resist the games that often come pre- installed. “I would focus initially on using the clicker to evaluate the kids,” he says. “Don’t get sucked into games as a primary approach. You don’t want the technology you bring into the school to be viewed as a game.”

Seeing White

At the Urban School of San Francisco, an independent high school in the heart of the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, foreign-language and math teachers have been having a field day with their interactive whiteboards.

“They were a technology item that the teachers wanted,” says Howard Levin, the school’s director of technology. “It wasn’t a case of the technology department pushing them,” although the spread of the devices has occurred gradually, he stresses.

“Avoid installing them throughout the school or a department before you have faculty buy-in. Remember that they represent a significant change in how teachers go about board work,” Levin notes, adding that the best trainers are teachers who are already using the interactive whiteboards successfully.

What has appealed to Urban School’s teachers most — and a big selling point for getting teacher buy-in — Levin says, is that board work can be archived by using the whiteboards. “What we’re just starting to realize is the power of a class reviewing work done earlier, and any teacher spending a lot of time creating board work will save a lot of time.”

Levin adds that by thinking ahead, teachers can make optimum use of the ability to manipulate or add items to the interactive whiteboard, from algebraic equations and geometric forms to words and phrases in foreign languages.

“Both teachers and students can anticipate how they can manipulate the board in the next class,” he says. “With some forethought, you can actually alter the expectations for homework.”

The Pew Internet & American Life Project estimates that 12 million U.S. adults blog, which represents about 8 percent of adult Internet users. By comparison, 57 million people in the United States read blogs, almost 40 percent of all adults who use the Internet.

On Demand Web 2.0

In just over three years, YouTube has made a major impact. Consider the following:

  • Oprah Winfrey opened a channel on YouTube in November 2007.
  • The band Journey found its new lead singer when a band member combed through the site to listen to amateur singers.
  • Apple hired an 18-year-old British student to create an iPod commercial after seeing a clip he posted on YouTube.
  • With CNN, YouTube hosted a Democratic presidential debate in 2007; people posted 1,300 video questions.

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