Launching Pre-K Education Into a New Frontier
A group of three and four year-olds wearing navy blue space uniforms and soft felt “helmets” stand in a semicircle around a model rocket under a bright, south Texas sun. “5. 4. 3. 2. 1. Lift Off!” The rocket launches into the sky as the tiny astronauts clap their hands. One little boy spins around on his right foot. “We did it!” he says. Later, in the classroom, a girl with braided hair and sparkling brown eyes smiles at the camera. “I’m an electrical engineer,” she says, explaining her role on the project. The little boy sitting to her left leans into frame. “I’m a botanist,” he says. The students are hard at work, putting wheels onto their Mars Rover unit and completing electrical circuits to make different systems light up. If this doesn’t sound like a typical Pre-K program, that’s because it isn’t. It’s Weslaco ISD.
“Our teachers love the panels.… They’re using them to start their mornings with music or mini-lessons about the days of the week.… The panels free the teachers up at the beginning of the day to interact with their students one-on-one and build rapport..”
— Janie Pena
A Forward Thinking School District
Weslaco is an independent school district located in south central Hidalgo County, just eight miles north of the Texas-Mexico border. The 54-square-mile district serves around 19,000 students and employs just over 2,000 people. In 2012, Weslaco ISD adopted the 21st Century Learners Initiative, committing to integrate more technology and innovative learning practices into the existing curriculum at all grade levels. “When I first met with Weslaco ISD to talk to them about Clear Touch™, I was stunned by the technology and the learning initiatives they already had in place, especially for their Pre-K programs,” said Frank Diaz, the Clear Touch™ Account Manager for the state of Texas who partnered with Weslaco to bring interactive panels to their Pre-K classrooms. “I mean, they had this Mission To Mars project-based learning program through the E.L.F. Academy. I watched three and four year olds collaborating on complex tasks, using tools, and planning and successfully completing missions. It was incredible to see.”
Finding the Right Technology for Pre-K Programs
As part of the 21st Century Learners Initiative, Janie Pena, the Executive Director of Curriculum and Instruction for Weslaco ISD, has been focusing her efforts on early childhood and Pre-K initiatives for the past few years. “There was this grant available. A two-year grant established under House Bill 4 that was specifically designated for improving Pre-K so that all districts could provide high-quality early childhood education and school readiness programs,” Janie said. “Some districts chose to hire more people, but we were fully staffed.
We had a superintendent who was very progressive, very into STEM programs, project-based learning, and technology, so I knew that I wanted to incorporate technology and blended learning into my grant. I knew that I wanted Chromebooks, software for Pre-K, and some kind of panel—but I had no idea where to start.” “Frank came and presented a demo for the district—all grade levels, department heads, the career technology program,” said Janie. “As soon as I saw what the Clear Touch™ panel could do, I knew that I’d found the solution for my Pre-K initiative. With this one product, I’d get a mobile panel that teachers can move around the classroom, share between classrooms, and easily convert into an interactive table. With the adjustable and convertible stands, the Clear Touch™ displays can get lower to the ground than any of the other models I’d looked at, which makes them ideal for the younger learners. Plus, I could use the Pre-K software I’d found. It looked like a seamless, win-win solution to me.”
Implementing the Interactive Displays
After completing her grant and securing the funding, Janie Pena initially ordered 40 interactive displays from Clear Touch™ along with optional onboard computers and convertible mobile stands to turn the panels into interactive tables.
“The response so far has been amazing,” said Janie. “The displays are so intuitive and the training and set-up is so easy. Our teachers love the panels and took to them right away; they’re using them to start their mornings with music or mini lessons about the days of the week. Or to establish a routine where the students sign in when they enter the classroom. The panels free the teachers up at the beginning of the day to interact with their students one on-one and build rapport. Any teacher who works with young children understands what a blessing this extra time can be.”
The Clear Touch Interactive® displays are also reaching and having an impact on young children who aren’t registered in a Pre-K program through Weslaco ISD. “Every campus in the district has at least one panel to share between classrooms, but we also have a partner initiative where we send certified district teachers to daycare centers and Head Start programs in the area,” Janie said. “We have been sharing our interactive displays with these programs as wel —and many daycare and Head Start directors have now purchased their own Clear Touch™ displays. In many cases, these daycare centers serve disadvantaged students from low socioeconomic backgrounds or single-parent households. Kids who, otherwise, might not have a way to get prepared for Kindergarten. This is all part of the grant.”
The Results for Students & Teachers
So far, Pre-K teachers in the Weslaco district have been using the panels since about March or April of this school year. The response has been so positive that Clear Touch will be updating the panels to our new 6000 Series, shipping an additional 110 of the 6075U interactive displays with PC modules and convertible mobile stands and now have 150 total panels.
In the first months of using the interactive displays in the classrooms, the teachers are also reporting impressive results they’re noticing with their students.
“Most educators I talk to think of technology and interactive displays as something useful for the older grades, but I think the displays are even better for young learners. Sure, high school students get a lot of value out of interactive panels, but they aren’t going to stand there and engage and react to an interactive story the way my little kids do. The Pre-K students are absolutely enthralled and engaged. They are naturally fascinated by technology. And they want to touch everything— they want to get out of their seats, move around, explore and interact with everything that they see. These panels aren’t just big TV’s. They encourage exactly the kind of active, mobile classroom and exactly the kind of interaction that these young students need.”
— Denise Carmago
Doraly Hernandez, a Pre-K 3 and 4 teacher who travels to teach at several local daycares centers agrees. “There are so many things I can do with these panels that I simply couldn’t accomplish with pencils and paper. Every day, I’m finding more and more uses for the interactive displays in my classroom,” Doraly said. “Applications you might not think of. The stylus is nice and big, so it’s great for younger students practicing their grip, their fine motor skills, and learning to write. My students stand side-by side in front of the panel and trace letters, arrange words and pictures into categories, follow along doing hand motions with songs, and even form simple sentences by dragging words into the correct order. They get to stand and use their whole bodies as they learn. When I use the panel, I can hit every major learning style at once—visual, aural, verbal, kinesthetic.”
The Summer Readiness Program
In addition to the impact the Clear Touch Interactive® displays have made during the regular school year, Weslaco ISD has also integrated the panels into their Pre-K Summer Readiness programs. This summer, there are eight classrooms and eight displays helping young children in the district become educationally and socially prepared for school.
“The Summer Readiness classes are already a lot of fun, and the Clear Touch™ displays make them even more fun” said Olivia Hernandez, a Pre-K 3 and 4 teacher who is using the panel in her summer classroom. “I love the convertible feature; it’s fast and easy to turn my panel into an interactive table or learning station where four students can work at once. I can rearrange my classroom at the touch of a button, and I have no discipline problems because the students are actually transfixed watching the panel lower to the ground and switch over. I begin each day by reading one physical book and one online, interactive book. Speakaboos is a great site for interactive books, and the panels integrate smoothly with all of the software and the different websites I’ve tried—no glitches or downtime. I also reward my students by letting them have a fun song on the panel or by letting them work independently at the interactive table. It feels like play.”
Many of the teachers in the Summer Readiness Program have commented on how much their students are retaining as well as the confidence boost they’ve noticed in their classrooms, which Executive Director Janie Pena confirms. “We’ve had digital projectors in the classroom before now, but all the students could do was view the material,” Janie explained. “I have parents coming to me saying: ‘My daughter is singing her ABC’s constantly when she gets home from your program.’ or ‘My son is already recognizing words.’ The students are retaining so much because they’re learning in multiple ways, engaging multiple senses, engaging their whole bodies. I’ve also seen the confidence shoot up among our students. With projectors, the students can’t interact with or manipulate the material, so you lose all that value. Now, the students feel more in control of the material. They know that they can do it rather than watching their teacher do it—they can make the sentence work or drag pictures into the correct categories or click on a link to see what’s next—and their confidence just soars.”
Denise Camargo elaborates, “I think it’s so important to let the students search and examine the material themselves because it mirrors the Internet, the world they are going to enter in a few short years,” Denise said. She continued, laughing: “When we had the projectors, I actually used to pretend the students were doing it—I would sit at my desk while the students touched the projection and use my computer to make them think they had moved the object or opened the link. Now, I can stand anywhere in the classroom and the students can touch, pinch, swipe and have a blast.”
“I can’t believe how quickly I understood the technology—by day two I felt like a pro.”
— Brittany Gaona
Brittany Gaona is a first-grade teacher who doesn’t have an interactive display in her classroom during the school year but was able to test one out during her three weeks teaching in the Summer Readiness Program. “I can’t believe how quickly I understood the technology—by day two I felt like a pro,” Brittany said. “The only problem I see with the panel is that I don’t have one for my first graders. I don’t know how I’m going to go back to a projector and a more traditional classroom arrangement after working with the Pre-K program this summer.”
INTEGRATING WITH THE CURRICULUM
Conquering the Cosmos
Of course, the purpose of the 21st Century Learners Initiative was not merely to buy technology but to think of innovative ways to incorporate new technology with the existing curriculum. Perhaps the most successful example of using the Clear Touch Interactive® displays to enhance a program that was already in place is the project based Mission to Mars module—now called Conquering the Cosmos.
“Conquering the Cosmos was an already-amazing program that really benefited from the Clear Touch™ panels,” said Brittany, who was instrumental in pioneering the program through the Early Learning Foundations (E.L.F.) Academy. “Before, we had this active, engaging, hands-on curriculum where students were building a Mars Rover, assembling a model rocket, creating electrical circuits—even working with plants and botany, since you’ve got to have something to eat on Mars. But then, to learn the material in a more formal way, we had to slow everything down and pause to go to a worksheet. With the interactive displays, the students are able to watch a real rocket launch, put pictures of the planets in order by dragging them into place, sing planet songs and practice saying the names out loud. We can stay active in the classroom and still learn the material. Best of all, we created the online curriculum using the DisplayNote software, so it’s all together in one place for next year.”
“Clear Touch™ makes it so much easier to share content between teachers, so we decided to make this exciting program a part of our core curriculum during the school year,” said Janie. “I really can’t wait to get the cameras— the students will be able to see themselves do the work, and I can think of all sorts of applications for the video conferencing feature in our classrooms, especially with the Conquering the Cosmos module.”
All in all, Frank Diaz believes that Weslaco ISD has been completely successful using the panels to support classroom learning. “I’m so thrilled that I got to be a part of what Janie and her team are doing,” Frank said. “Weslaco ISD is absolutely a model for using technology effectively with younger students—and, more importantly, of investing in technology, not just so you can say that you have it, but to really rethink and rework how classroom learning takes place, creating more meaningful interactions between teachers and students.”