With egg-shaped devices in hand, a group of 11 fourth graders at John M. Marshall Elementary School recently sat through a social studies lesson about New York State history.
But before the formal lesson could begin, Jeff Thompson, one of their two teachers, administered a quick pre-quiz to assess what they knew already.
“Why did the British pass the Navigation Acts?” he read aloud from a digitized whiteboard at the front of the room known as the Promethean board.
He then read through the possible answers:
“A. To make it easier to sail across the Atlantic Ocean.”
“B. To allow them to attack Spanish, French, and Dutch ships trying to trade with its colony.”
“C. To help ships navigate New York Harbor.”
“D. To allow Spanish, French, and Dutch ships to trade with the British colony.”
But rather than raising their hands to call out the answer, students instead plugged their responses into the orange-and grey handheld devices. These student response systems, called ActiVote, encourage whole-class participation while helping to administer periodic assessments.
Currently, the devices are being used in two fifth-grade classrooms and three fourth-grade rooms, with a rollout to additional grades coming in September.
Across the East Hampton School District, despite the need for $1 million in cuts, school board members are weighing potential increases to the technology inventory. During a budget workshop last month, the board seemed to lean toward purchasing 180 more Chromebooks, which would allow for 60 devices at each of the district’s three schools. Each Chromebook costs $330, for a total investment of nearly $60,000.
An additional concern in future years are online assessments, which the state plans to require of students in grades 3 to 8. These assessments were to have started by the 2015-16 school year, but were recently put on hold following widespread difficulties in implementing the so-called Common Core standards. Online assessments remain an inevitability, however, and districts must invest accordingly.
During the John Marshall quiz, each response flashed on the right of the whiteboard screen, with an anonymous configuration of letters and numbers assigned to each student. Mr. Thompson revealed later in the lesson that about one-third of the class had selected B, the correct answer.
Mr. Thompson, who is in his 10th year at John Marshall, discovered the devices last September in the back of a supply cabinet, where they lay gathering dust. Their utility quickly became evident.
“We get immediate feedback,” he said. “Right away, you can see who needs support. And if the whole class is struggling with a concept, you can hit the brakes and re-teach the whole group.”
Beth Doyle, John Marshall’s principal, is a convert. “They provide this great in-the-moment feedback so they can adjust their lesson right then and there and not move on until their students have mastered it,” said Ms. Doyle. “If a couple of kids didn’t get it, the teachers can pull them aside and do a quick review.”
For Mr. Thompson and his co-teacher, Erin Abran, who co-teaches the “inclusion” class, one of ActiVote’s most useful features is its anonymity. A handful of the children are classified as special education.
“The kids don’t know who answered what,” said Ms. Abran.
The devices are used for other subjects besides social studies, among them math and science. “There’s 100-percent participation, and you can’t hide. It forces them to take risks,” she said.
The students seem equally enamored.
“I don’t have to raise my hand,” said Stacy Pizarro, 10. “I just press a button.”
“It’s a lot easier to just press a button and get it over with,” said Madeleine Brown, 9. “It’s fun and if you got it wrong, you also don’t have to erase.”
“It’s quick and fast and I don’t get bored,” said Joshua Vazquez, 10.
Amy Falkenhan said she hasn’t touched a piece of chalk since she began teaching four years ago.
“I used to have to collect papers, grade them, and get it back to them,” said Ms. Falkenhan, who teaches fourth grade. “Now, I can see who’s having trouble right away.” After conducting an assessment, she pulls aside small groups of students still having problems for a quick review. “They know if they get it wrong they will get support that same day.”
Since using ActiVote, said Ms. Falkenhan, she sees students engaged from the minute a lesson starts to when it ends, knowing they can be wrong without being laughed at. She called them digital natives, a generation of young people coming of age during an era when technology is omnipresent.
“Everything kids do these days involves electronics,” she said. “When they come into the classroom, you have to be able to teach with what they’re using in their everyday lives. If I went up to the front of the room with a piece of chalk, I guarantee you I would lose almost all of them.”