New lab at school allows teachers to tape, review their techniques

New lab at school allows teachers to tape, review their techniques

URBANA – Nick Stillwell had eyes in the back of his head on a recent morning.

And so will more and more teachers at Urbana High School.

Thanks to a new instructional lab in the school, several teachers have begun videotaping lessons in the specialized classroom.

"It allows you to have more of a visual record of how you do something," Stillwell said, adding that the room helps him examine his technique. "When you present something, even the speech pattern you may not notice. For instance, if my rate of speech is too fast."

The room includes a one-way mirror through which observers can watch the class without distracting students, and a SMART Board, a giant digital blackboard that can display computer files as well as be written on and erased.

It also includes a whole window of opportunity.

"On any given day, any teacher ... can easily pop into a classroom, teach their lesson, and get instant (feedback) of themselves," said UHS Assistant Principal Greg Johnson. "We've never had this before."

In Stillwell's Algebra I class, students paid little attention to the mirror on the north wall (masking the observation room on its other side), but the SMART Board was a big hit. Students jockeyed to go to the board, where they'd cross-multiply fractions. If one made a mistake, click!, and his writing erased, the fractions surrounded by a clean slate to try again.

"It keeps you attracted to the lesson," said 10th-grader Niko Fleming.

"It's kind of like a game," said ninth-grader Josh Erhardt. "It helps more students actually learn."

Erhardt's all for the observation. "That really helps them know what they need to help us," he said.

Another perk of the room, Johnson said, is that it allows teachers to observe each others' classrooms after the fact, so teachers don't need to get substitutes to cover classes while they help their colleagues.

As well, Johnson said, they could pause the video and talk about points in the lesson and student responses, evaluating different factors with each viewing.

In the future, Johnson would like to create a video library of teachers giving lessons, a tool other educators could use when planning their own classes. "We're not at that point now," he said, "but this lab makes that point possible."

Stillwell would like that.

"I could see having a library of that being very beneficial," he said, "especially for younger teachers who may not have that experience."

Money for the room renovation and equipment, which Johnson estimated cost $4,000, came partly from a donation from Jeff Facer of Area-Wide Technologies in Champaign.

The other part, he said, "we scraped together the little bits of money left in traditional funds."

In addition to more frequent regular classroom observations, Johnson said the instructional lab is part of a large push on the part of the district and the high school administrators to improve teaching within the school.

By the end of the school year, he said, the majority of teachers will have had training on how to use the lab.

"We know that if we're really going to improve student achievement throughout the district, it's going to be through instruction," he said. "The instructional lab is one way to do that.

"It's only one tool, but it's a pretty flexible tool."

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