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Tech Savvy: Not bored by SMART boards

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Lowell Elementary School students Audrey Hastings (left) and Maliyan Nater use a SMART board for their math assignment in Mary Schlangen’s fourth-grade classroom. Steve Kohls/ Brainerd Dispatch 2 / 2

The new boards in Brainerd Public Schools elementary classrooms are smarter than your average whiteboard or chalkboard.

A SMART board can be thought of like a giant touchscreen surface, which students write on using their fingers or a stylus. The board is connected to a computer and projector, which projects an image onto the board. The board acts like an interactive touchscreen monitor for the computer.

In Mary Schlangen's fourth-grade classroom at Lowell Elementary School, the SMART board plays a central role in instruction. Rows of desks are set up facing the board, in the classic classroom arrangement.

Students spent time one Tuesday morning working on their multiplication skills using different exercises. They moved boxes around the board to work on square numbers and paired solutions with problems in a game featuring a dragon and knight. Every hand shot up when Schlangen asked for volunteers to come to the board and play the game.

Schlangen has had a SMART board in her classroom all 12 years she's been teaching, but it took a few years for her to fully integrate it into her classroom.

"My goal was every year, to use it for more minutes throughout the day," Schlangen said. "And now, as you can tell, I don't have a whiteboard."

In the beginning, Schlangen used the SMART board like a digital whiteboard, using it mainly as something to write on. Now, she uses the tools in the software to manipulate the board to do what she wants it to do. Schlangen's fourth-graders have used a SMART board at Lowell since kindergarten, so they're comfortable using it.

"The kids know how to use those types of tools, I don't have to sit and explain it," Schlangen said.

It's easy to pull resources from the internet and use them on the SMART board, Schlangen said. The SMART Notebook website is like a Pinterest for SMART board programs, she said, with users posting a huge variety of content to use on the board. She can link to YouTube videos or play the "Jeopardy" theme tune during a game.

The SMART board works for pretty much every subject, Schlangen said, and works great for writing, math and science. She uses maps and layers during social studies lessons, to show the terrain of an area.

Schlangen encourages her students to use the SMART board with their fingers and not a stylus.

"When kids move things and change things, it gives them a different aspect than just me talking," Schlangen said.

In the beginning, it was tough to teach kids to use their fingers, and not a stylus, to write on the SMART board, Schlangen said. It went against what they were taught about writing with a pen or pencil.

"I want them to realize that their fingers became the tools," Schlangen said. "And not necessarily another pen."

The SMART board is used a bit differently in Stefanie DeVries' early childhood education classroom at the Brainerd Learning Center. The board is mounted much closer to the ground, so the preschoolers can reach it easier. During circle time, DeVries played a YouTube video featuring a singalong for the days of the week. A game emphasized the letter of the week and students got the chance to write the first letter of their name on the board using a stylus.

The SMART board holds a student's attention much more than a whiteboard, DeVries said, because it's interactive and allows students to get up and move around. There's a program that ties in with books read in the classroom, called Bookflix, which provides animations and sounds during story time.

"It's been helpful, especially for those kids who, sitting at a circle time for more than 5 minutes can be tricky sometimes," DeVries said.

Most of the kids understand how to use the SMART board from the beginning, DeVries said. It's great to have them start using the board in preschool, so they're introduced to it before using it more in later grades. A common instruction in DeVries' classroom is to keep one hand on the hip when using the board. It keeps students from touching the board with both hands, which negates any writing or movement.

"We've seen too, a lot of them are already so familiar with tablets and other technology, smartphones and everything," DeVries said. "They catch on pretty quick."

This is the fifth year of teaching for DeVries and the second year using a SMART board. It was pretty easy to learn how to use the board, she said, and it was nice to rely on other teachers in the building to share tips and programs.

Megan Christenson, second-grade teacher at Riverside Elementary School, used a SMART board first during student teaching. The board helps teachers customize lessons to increase student participation and engagement, she said.

"I don't want to stand up there and just spew (information) at them, I want them to get up and interact and show their knowledge," Christenson said.

Christenson uses the SMART board most with math, because it engages the students more and challenges them. She uses the board for the majority of the day, either as a presentation system or as a more engaging tool for students.

"They just learn so much better from each other," Christenson said.

Students are extremely quick to learn how to use the SMART board, Christenson said, as with any piece of technology the pick up. They can easily troubleshoot many issues they run into, she said, because they're used to using technology at home.

"It's super user-friendly and that's the best part," Christenson said. "Kids can literally just go up and touch it and play with it."

Tech talk

Interactive displays from SMART, or SMART boards, are in every district elementary classroom, said Sarah Porisch, district technology director. Generic interactive displays have been prevalent for a while, she said, from a variety of different brands. Porisch is in her third year as district technology director.

"Prior to me being here, it was kind of a hodgepodge of all the different kinds of boards," Porisch said. "The problem with that is it makes it really difficult to collaborate and to share materials."

The district last summer was able to outfit each classroom, from early childhood to fourth grade, with a SMART board and SMART Notebook software on the computer, Porisch said. The district went with SMART because of the company's staying power in the interactive display market, she said. A lot of the district's curriculum also contains SMART components.

"It just made sense to go with the SMART board at those levels," Porisch said.

SMART boards require projectors, Porisch said, and the district is still figuring out which projector model to use across the district. Each teacher has a Toshiba laptop with a widescreen display, which doesn't fit with some older projectors, which use standard-sized displays, she said. All the new SMART boards have widescreen displays, which work with the Toshiba laptops.

In grades 5-12, the district uses digital displays, Porisch said, so teachers can be mobile and not tied down by wires. The digital displays are essentially big-screen TVs, she said, and wirelessly connect with the Toshiba laptops teachers use.

The district goal for interactive displays is to get kids in front of the classroom interacting with the displays, Porisch said. The focus is more on students using the boards for presentations, rather than the teachers. Problem solving and public speaking skills are emphasized, she said.

"Our students are expected to get up and explain their thought process, explain how they figured things out," Porisch said.

A SMART board and projector costs about $2,000, Porisch said. The hardware lasts about 10 years, she said, which might be pushing its limits. The district anticipates the software will keep receiving regular updates.

The Toshiba laptops are on a four-year replacement cycle, Porisch said, while projector bulbs are on a two-year replacement cycle. The district will begin replacing projectors by school next year, she said.

The district offers SMART board training sessions for teachers throughout the year, Porisch said. She's available to help teachers one-on-one during prep time, she said, and integrationists in each building are available each day to help teachers.

"Those are people who kind of wear lots of hats," Porisch said. "But one of their hats are to help teachers integrate these into their classrooms."

Classroom technology is a component of the district's comprehensive long-range facilities plan, Porisch said. The planning process has shown having standardized technology systems is important for teachers, she said. As large as the district is, it's key for technology to be consistent at each grade level, she said.

"A student would go from Lowell to Riverside and it may be a completely different technology experience," Porisch said. "Where we want it to be fluid throughout the district."

Some teachers have SMART boards deeply integrated into their classrooms, Porisch said, and have students using them frequently. Other teachers don't integrate the SMART board as much, she said, and use it more like a presentation system. Porisch and other technology staff members frequently check in with these teachers and show them ways to integrate the board more in their classrooms.

"Once we can light the fire with some of those teachers who really like to jump in," Porisch said. "It's really fun to kind of watch that spread throughout the buildings."

Spenser Bickett

Spenser Bickett covers the Brainerd City Council and education. A native of the Twin Cities, Bickett attended the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, where he majored in journalism with a minor in political science. After graduation, he worked for the International Falls Journal as a staff writer before coming to Brainerd.

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