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The Overhead Projector: Don't Overlook It (Part 1)

A key to keeping students on task is closing their window of opportunity to get off task. And never is that window more wide open than when you turn your back to write on the board. Case in point, my first-year classroom, where the antics kids pulled as I wrote on the board included fighting, rubbing gum into classmates' hair, sneaking out of class (looks like I'm not the only one--check out the empty desks in the photo! Teacher Writing on Board.jpg), throwing things--backpacks, hats, keys, jackets, shoes--out the window, and yes, flinging books at me.

Even if your students are less rowdy or daring than mine were, they aren't going to face forward with their hands folded, mouths shut, and eyes open as you write on the board. They're going to pass notes or talk or rest their heads on their desks. Each time you finish writing, you must therefore regain students' attention before resuming your lesson. In the process, you've lost everything: time, momentum, enthusiasm, patience, and the more you go through this, your voice.

Fortunately, there's an easy way to prevent the disorder and inefficiency associated with writing on the board: don't write on the board. Instead, use a projector (ideally an LCD--with or without an interactive whiteboard--but otherwise an old-fashioned overhead will do), guaranteed to provide a more orderly and, in turn, effective classroom--provided, of course, you use your projector to its full potential, which I'll be addressing in a follow-up post. But let's focus first on why the projector is more effective than the board.

One reason students are likely to act out when you write on the board is that they can get away with it. (I never did find out who threw those books at me!) Another is that they need to wait for you to finish writing and get out of their way before they can copy your notes. You might address this by reading aloud as you write, but your voice tends to be muffled when you're facing the board, adding to the commotion, with students yelling at you to repeat yourself or asking each other what you said. A projector prevents these problems by letting you face students at all times, and by letting students see your presentation as you're presenting it.

Still, using a projector won't eliminate all temptations for kids to act out. But it will let you detect and nip misconduct without losing instructional time. Say, for instance, you're presenting at the projector when you notice John's eyes shifting back and forth between Cathy to his left and Darrell to his right. John has a history of swiping stuff off classmates' desks--when you're not looking, of course--so what he's doing is obvious: stalking his next prey, Cathy's eraser or Darrell's notebook. But since you see what's going on, and John realizes it, he keeps his hands to himself. And if John is undaunted, or unaware that you're onto him, you can walk toward his desk and stand beside him, all the while continuing your presentation. Now you're sure to thwart him, since few kids are bold enough to act out while being staked out. In either case, a potential interruption averted.

But the reasons for using a projector go beyond deterring misconduct. In fact, from both instructional and classroom management standpoints, the projector offers several other advantages over the board:

  1. You're more mobile. By transferring your notes onto transparencies (or leaving them on the computer if you use an LCD projector) ahead of time instead of writing them on the board during class, you can roam the room without delaying your lessons. This not only lets you stake out would-be troublemakers, but makes for a stronger style, with students more engaged when you stroll down the aisles or around the perimeter of the room than when you plant yourself at the front. (You could also gain mobility by pre-recording notes on the board, but space is limited, making it hard to fit all your notes--especially if you teach more than one subject. And the more notes you squeeze onto the board, the more likely you are to distract or confuse students.)
  2. Students are more easily captivated. As much time as kids spend in front of TV, video games, and computers, it stands to reason that they would be more drawn to a bright overhead screen than to a dull chalkboard or even a whiteboard. Indeed, there's no quicker--or quieter--way to captivate students than simply turning on the projector. Even when my students entered class keyed up about an upcoming party or last night's game, they settled down once I turned on the projector.
  3. Notes are more visible and legible. It's much easier for students to see and read notes projected onto an overhead screen than those scrawled onto the board. Except, that is, when you inadvertently block the screen. But after students bring this to your attention a few times--"you're not made of glass"--you'll stop doing it.
  4. Student participation increases. I've consistently noticed students more willing to present work in front of the class when they can do so using a projector rather than the board. Why the rise in participation? It's hard to say for sure, but judging from students' enthusiasm as they address the class from the projector, it appears that they feel "cooler" using a projector than they do writing on the board. And why blow a chance for students to feel cool through constructive behavior?
  5. Notes can be recycled. You can store and reuse lessons prepared on transparencies (or the computer), sparing the hassle of erasing and rewriting notes on the board from year to year or, even more inefficient, one class period to the next.

The ultimate reason, of course, to use a projector is its effect on learning. And in my experience, students take more and better notes, ask more questions, and comprehend more material when teachers use a projector than when they rely on the board. In short, there's no overstating the power of the overhead to maximize classroom management and teaching effectiveness.


Image by Ankevanwyk, provided by Dreamstime license

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