In Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools, technology helps transform instructional practice

Published: October 6th, 2021

When Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools started looking to replace its aging hodgepodge of outdated equipment and non-standard platforms several years ago, they weren’t merely interested in technology for technology’s sake. Instead, Marty Creech, director of Digital Teaching and Learning, explained, the ultimate goal was to help transform instructional practice, so teachers could meet students’ individual needs in a dynamic, flexible, way.

Some classrooms had basic TV screens, others had overhead projectors, and some had older interactive displays, but most of it was beginning to fail. Hampered by dim bulbs and too-small displays, students struggled to simply see the material. The maintenance department felt the burden, too, working to maintain about 10 different types of classroom equipment.

Shopping around for a solution that would meet both technological and instructional demands, the district knew it wanted large screens, high-resolution displays, and mobile stands, so teachers could easily move the display and reconfigure their classroom. It had to be Wi-Fi-enabled with screen sharing capabilities — “a tetherless scenario, with just one plug,” Creech said. And of course it had to be interactive.

Five years after the 2016 passage of a bond measure allowed the district to outfit its 4,200 classrooms with Promethean ActivPanels, Creech said, teachers from K-12 have embraced the opportunity, moving away from the traditional front-of-classroom model and offering students a variety of ways to learn and process the day’s lessons.

“The Promethean board isn’t the focus of the classroom,” Creech says, “but it’s a critical piece in facilitating student engagement as teachers can move the ActivPanel around the room, using it for smaller, teacher-led lectures or for collaborative group projects.”

Administrators ultimately chose Promethean based on two key factors: price point and dedicated training services. Intent on meeting the needs of teachers who were uncomfortable with new technology, administrators wanted to ensure there would be ongoing support. Promethean Education Consultants were available for both group training sessions and individualized sessions to help get teachers comfortable and excited about using the ActivPanel, continuing as-needed.

“The trainers were absolutely amazing,” Creech said.

Shifting instructional practice

As a middle-school-science-teacher-turned-instructional-technologist, Creech also knew that learning to operate the new ActivPanels would be the easy part. The hard part—and the goal—was helping the entire staff see the myriad ways it could truly serve students. For some, it was a mindset shift from traditional front-of-the-classroom teaching to a more modern instructional practice with personalized learning.

“If you don’t shift your instructional practice, then the technology we’re spending money on is going to be just a waste,” Creech said. “If we’re going to do the same thing as a textbook, why not just buy textbooks?”

They began rolling out the new ActivPanels, classroom-by-classroom, in 2017 and will complete the rollout in October 2021. Some teachers saw the possibilities immediately.

AP calculus teacher, Jill Branoff, at her ActivPanel
AP calculus teacher, Jill Branoff, at her ActivPanel

Jill Branoff, an AP calculus teacher, said “I used to feel the technology didn’t progress in a user-friendly way for math teachers or students. But today, that’s changed.” For instance, she can snap a smartphone photo of a derivative graph in the calculus textbook, share it to the ActivPanel and write on the graph for an immediate visual. Plus, it can add fun to math. Branoff recalls how the interactive display helped make one lesson, involving the work of 17th century mathematicians Sir Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz, relevant to 21st century life. She showed a clip from the TV show “The Big Bang Theory,” where one of the main characters, Sheldon, was talking about the two men. “It just livened up the lesson immediately,” she said.

To some extent, the pandemic accelerated the transformational process, essentially forcing everyone—teachers and students alike—to become comfortable with new technology and new instructional realities, all on-the-fly, while operating remotely.

While doing remote schooling, teachers created a daily playlist, or learning target, that included not only how they were going to teach the content—say, a lecture or a video—but how the students could process it and demonstrate understanding. Some students might learn best by creating a thinking map; others might draw a picture or create a slideshow, or even be assigned to explain it to their parents. The experience opened both teachers’ and students’ eyes to the possibilities.

Back in the classroom full-time as of August 2021, the district realized that despite the very real hardship and loss of the pandemic, they could build off of the positive learnings from the experience.

“Students have gained technology skills. They’ve learned how to be independent in their learning, how to advocate for themselves, and how to manage themselves in an obscure manner” Creech said. “If we go back into the classroom and just do the same thing we did before the pandemic, those skills will be lost. We want to build on the skills our students learned and allow them to be self-directed learners.”

By learning from data and evaluating the individual needs of each student, the district is creating a blended educational environment that supports cooperative and collaborative learning, building on non-technical and technical skills that students have learned.

So many possibilities

Today, teachers have found many ways to use their devices. It’s common for teachers to use the ActivPanel to introduce a new concept, then divide the class into small groups, allowing more flexibility to meet individual student’s needs and preferences. One group might collaborate on solving a problem and another might gather at the panel to collaborate on an interactive video while other students get personalized instruction from the teacher. Still others might learn best at their own pace.

With their ActivPanel untethered on a mobile stand, teachers have the flexibility to re-imagine their classroom’s layout, even with the same day – changing the focus of the room for each subject or lesson.

“It untethers me and allows me to set it up in different ways that are more engaging for the students,” Nicholas Sebesta, a sixth-grade social studies teacher, said of the ActivPanels. Rather than being tied to the blackboard, “we can move toward more of a 360-degree classroom.”

He’s taken students on “field trips” to the Great Wall of China and the middle of the ocean using Google Expeditions and other apps on the ActivPanel.

“It brings our lessons to life, crystal-clear,” said Sebesta. He’s also a fan of Promethean Screen Share, a mirroring solution that allows students to share what’s on their device with the ActivPanel, and in turn, the entire class.

With just one standard platform of interactive display district-wide—not a hodgepodge—teachers can easily share lessons with colleagues. An easy recording feature lets students return to difficult concepts simply by re-watching the teacher’s explanation.

The district’s new Department of Personalized Learning will take the individualized instruction model even further by building a learner profile for each student that includes test scores, personal interests, and learning type to create individualized learning environments. The teacher can then, say, put the soccer fans in a small group working on a project to design a new field, using the interactive panel and their own laptops to collaborate on sketches and problem-solve. Creech envisions students interested in technology writing code for a robot, then sharing it onto the ActivPanel and letting other students press “play” to see what the robot does.

With Promethean hardware and software plus Chromebooks, the district has up-to-date technology in place. Adding in Promethean professional development, along with teachers willing to take advantage of technology and adapt their teaching practices, Creech feels the district has the right ingredients for blended, personalized instruction.

“There are so many possibilities,” he said. “I feel like we’re now on this rockin’ and rollin’ path. I’m excited, because now every teacher and student in our district has a baseline of technology that can pivot the course of instruction, facilitating creativity for teachers and giving students the choice of how best to learn.”

Read about other school districts that have deployed Promethean technology.