On the blog On The Tenure Track, Benjamin Baxter asks in a recent post:
Why the hell would you want a SmartBoard in a classroom? What ways could you use a SmartBoard in ways that don’t make it an expensive distraction?
But, in fact, I agree with most of what Baxter says about technology:
Who cares about LCD projectors if students have just as much trouble remembering how the Balkan Wars and The Great War are related, or have just as much trouble remembering why the powderkeg that was Europe at the turn of the 20th century is important historically, and in our own lives?
Technology adds many desirable things, but these benefits will only be felt once it’s in good hands. That should be our priority
I certainly am not on the “let’s explore new technologies in the classroom and then figure out what we’re doing with them” cart-before-the-horse bandwagon. I also don’t think that foisting technology on teachers works well. (You shouldn’t force a teacher who has been successfully teaching with a chalkboard and worksheets to switch to SmartBoard just “because it’s technology.” That’s doing students and the teacher a grave disservice.)
My opinion — surely held and written by others — is to support teachers who want to pick up technology and figure out an effective way to use it. Then other teachers get others on board because they want to be, because they’re inspired by the possibilities of applying it to their own teaching, because they see how it can enhance their students’ understanding.  That’s the way to have a technological culture shift at a school. Don’t force, do inspire.
When I say effective above, I will be explicit: it will have to enhance student understanding in some way. (We get the horse before the cart.) So students would have to come away knowing how the Balkan Wars and the Great War are related better than if they had learned it without the technology.
Now onto to my paean to the Smartboard in my classroom, at my school. (Where every classroom has a SmartBoard, and every student has a laptop.)
At worst, the Smartboard in my classroom is a replacement for a whiteboard, but a whiteboard where the markers are multicolored and never stolen or dry. At best, the smartboard provides me the opportunity to create better lesson plans by making me think more carefully about flow, allows me to have a design aesthetic and put up graphics up that I never would be able to draw by hand, gives me a lot of time in class where my back isn’t to my students writing a problem or definition down, and provides an archive of notes for students who need that extra help at home.
I’ll elaborate. (I’ve been anticipating counterarguments to each of these [how one could achieve these same effects with an overhead projector, scanner, more experience as a teacher, etc.], but in the spirit of being non-defensive, I’ll just write.)
When I started designing lesson plans before SmartBoard, I did an okay job. I had the general topic I wanted to present, some sample problems, and I would go in and talk. But using the SmartBoard did something great for my lesson planning skills: it got me to think like a student. A good presentation won’t have 18 ideas on a slide. In my math class, I try to keep it limited to 1 math idea per screen. But being forced to break down every idea into it’s most basic components led me to think in depth about each step of what I was showing them. (And doing this let me realize: oh, here’s where a student will make a mistake. And then I’ll make a big text slide saying: DON’T DO THIS!) The flow and thoughtfulness of my lessons has improved, big time.
In my math classes, also, we do a lot of graphing. Having SmartBoard, with the ability to have blank graph paper up there, or to show a virtual TI-83+ calculator, helps a bunch. Also, I like to throw up some random images to keep things fresh and keep their attention piqued. So they’ll see a picture of Sanjaya (from American Idol) every so often. A 5 second Sanjaya distraction will get them back to the task at hand. Continuing on with the idea of the visual aspect of it: if the slides are designed right, the student can be presented with the information in a way that’s infinitely more effective than if I were up there writing on the whiteboard.
Because of the SmartBoard, I’m spending a lot less time writing at the board. I’ll often throw an easy problem up there and have students solve it as a quick way for me to see if they’re getting it. I don’t need to spend time drawing a graph or writing out an equation.
Lastly, the ability to save SmartBoard files is a godsend in terms of archiving. I save a blank copy of my lesson, for me to draw from next year. But I also post a copy of the SmartBoard that we marked up in class for the students to access online. This is useful for kids who are absent, obviously. But it’s also useful for kids who didn’t quite get it all the first time around, or who missed something, or who spaced out. They just open the pdf and look at the steps we went through. It’s a good resource for me. In one of my classes, I have 16 students. About 5-6 of them look at the smartboard each night. (Often times not the same 5-6.)
How do I know it’s working for my students? I asked them for an anonymous narrative evaluation about my teaching at the end of the first semester. I wanted to know about my teaching, but I also asked them to write a paragraph about SmartBoard. I honestly wanted to know, because I spend a lot of time creating the SmartBoard presentations for class, and if my students weren’t getting a lot out of it, I would have stopped using it and cut my lesson planning time in half. (I remember thinking that if they weren’t positively glowing about SmartBoard, if they were “it’s okay,” I would have stopped.) But my students did have glowing things to say about it.
So yeah, I’ll be the first to praise SmartBoard. I’ll also be the first to admit that if I didn’t have SmartBoard handed to me on a silver platter at my school, I probably would have found ways to do things just as well as I do them now. But when it comes down to it, SmartBoard is helping me become a better teacher, and it’s helped my students with the material. So for me it’s definitely not an “expensive distraction.”
PDFs of some of my Algebra II Smartboards here:
 Recently I presented a project I had my Algebra II students work on (to be blogged about in a future post) to the other tenth grade advisers. A few came up to me afterwards and told me that they were really excited by the project and saw how it could fit in with their curricula — whether it be art or English — with some adaptation.
UPDATE: Turned off comments. For some reason this page was getting a lot of spam comments, everyday. Yeesh.