Writing on Chalkboards Fading?

Matthew Jacobi, left, and Andrew McConnell, both 9, use a SMART Board at Mountain View Elementary School.
Matthew Jacobi, left, and Andrew McConnell, both 9, use a SMART Board at Mountain View Elementary School. (By Tracy A. Woodward -- The Washington Post)

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By Delphine Schrank
Washington Post Staff Write
Thursday, August 30, 2007

With the continuing rollout of interactive electronic whiteboards in schools across Loudoun County, the digital age is spreading its wings and the ancient world of the chalkboard is crumbling like, well, a stick of chalk.

The SMART Boards look much like their unplugged whiteboard counterparts, but they have a touch-sensitive display connected to a computer and a projector.

Loudoun school officials have set a goal of putting a SMART Board in every classroom by 2010, and each Loudoun school already has at least a handful of them -- one of the reasons the school system was honored by the National School Boards Association last year for its efforts to use new technology to enhance student achievement.

For Elizabeth "Betty" Korte, head of mathematics at Stone Bridge High School in Ashburn, the boards are nothing less than the dawn of the future. Korte's department was one of the first in the county to use them. Two years ago, she purchased several with a stipend she earned from a teaching award and matching funds from her husband's employer. The boards were $1,400 apiece at the time, Korte said.

In the past two years, the technology has improved and prices have dropped by about half, said Michael Williams, principal of Sterling Middle School, which also started using the boards two years ago and now has them in 13 classrooms. "It's a very valuable thing," Williams said.

Korte said the possibilities for instruction are endless. "In my mind, the boards let me turn the math classroom into a lab. I can introduce things like color, detailed diagrams, animated Java applets that change before the kids' eyes."

Other teachers agreed that one of the board's chief benefits is providing visual tools to illustrate the abstract, making concepts seem more real.

Probability can be demonstrated with a throw of dice. Graph lines can tantalize with a line of stars instead of points. And with different software, "you can be a million different colors," Korte said. "All kinds of crazy things."

Because the boards digitally record notes scrawled across them with a finger, they can be recalled a day later if lessons end too soon, Williams added.

Korte said she typically posts notes onto her Web site so that struggling students can relive a class in full, and students with heavy loads from other classes can catch up later.

After Korte purchased the first set of SMART Boards, the other math teachers in her department -- as well as three special education teachers -- soon caught on, she said, and their use "just mushroomed."

But Williams cautions that the extent of a student's engagement depends somewhat on the teacher's versatility with the board, which can vary based on experience with the technology. Teachers typically get a day and a half of training, Williams said.

In short, not everyone is quite the "virtuoso," a word used by Loudoun schools spokesman Wayde B. Byard to describe Korte.

"I pretty much use the SMART Board and its associated software as the center of my lesson," Korte said. "It's not just a pretty show-and-tell. The more of that we do, the better off we'll be."

Moreover, for the students, she said, "they are so used to technology and all the bells and whistles that this just fits into their world." The software gizmos "absolutely" grab their attention, and every day, she said, is a new adventure.

And what of the time-tested technique of grabbing the attention of unruly students with the screeching of nail on chalkboard? Has Korte any nostalgia for the chalkboard?

"Me?" she said. "Nooooo."


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