Gadgets, ‘Gizmos,’ and grants: Mississippi ACTIVATEs teaching and learning in Gulfport

[pull quote: “School has changed over the past two decades–from posters and models to gadgets and Gizmos. In Gulfport, Project ACTIVATE has changed what we do in school and how we do it.” –Technology Director Terri Burnham]

“Change the cat; change the cat!”
“Lock ‘em down!”

These are comments by students in classrooms participating in Gulfport School District’s Project ACTIVATE (Assisting Children Through Inclusion in Vigorous Activities with Technology Everyday). In what was once an environment typified by teacher lectures, information output, and passive listening, classrooms in the Gulfport School District have transformed and are now rich with student engagement.


Following Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, teachers, students, and staff of the Gulfport School District were traumatized. Thousands of families and a third of the teaching staff were displaced from their homes. Preparing for state assessments while living in temporary dwellings made the school year intensely difficult for everyone. However, at the end of the 2005-06 school year, results from the state assessments indicated that the Herculean efforts of our teachers were an astonishing success.

In the summer of 2006, areas exhibiting the greatest achievement gaps were identified and shared with school-based design teams and the district’s technology committee. Through much collaboration, teams identified research-based instructional strategies and current technologies they believed would generate the most enthusiasm among teachers and increase student engagement. That’s when the district launched Project ACTIVATE, a long-range plan to incorporate the use of interactive whiteboards and student response devices into every classroom in the district.

Phase 1

The initial phase of Project ACTIVATE began in the summer of 2006, less than a year after Hurricane Katrina. Based on analysis and disaggregation of local and state assessment data, the first group of classrooms was identified for participation in Phase I of the project. Using a combination of local and federal funds, the district purchased and installed Promethean Activclassroom systems in these 31 classrooms. The initial group included all fifth grade classrooms, four sixth grade classrooms, one high school English classroom, and five classrooms at the district’s alternative education school.

To ensure teachers were comfortable with the new equipment, the district planned and implemented a comprehensive professional development model. First, district technology trainers were certified by Promethean to offer training. Then, in the summer, trainers offered a five-day ActivInstitute to help teachers learn to use the new hardware, software, tools, manipulatives, and online resources. Training sessions also were offered throughout the school year and on Saturdays. In addition, trainers provided ongoing guidance and coaching for teachers.

The gadgets

The Activclassroom system included an interactive whiteboard (Activboard), a video projector, a wireless control device for the teacher (Activslate), one interactive classroom response device for each student (Activotes), and the Activstudio lesson development software. Additionally, each teacher could access thousands of online lessons (flip charts) designed by other teachers and educational experts. Teachers can choose flip charts based on the performance standard, lesson topic, grade level, and/or subject area they desire.  For teachers to use interactive multimedia, streaming video, audio, and high-resolution graphics, they needed computers with faster processors, more RAM, and larger hard drives. Thus, each classroom also received a new computer.

In one recent lesson, algebra teacher Angie Estrada asked the students to use the Activotes (or “eggs,” as they call them) to predict the correct response to a question following initial instruction. A graph immediately displayed the results. “Egg-cellent!” the students exclaimed. Immediately after they were polled, Angie asked the students, “Should we give anyone a second chance?”  Students answered with, “Lock ‘em down, Ms. Estrada.” The class then discussed the number of students who chose each answer, elaborating as to why each choice was right or wrong.

After the lesson, Terri Burnham, the district’s technology director, interviewed some of the students. When asked why they enjoyed using the Activotes, one student responded, “It helps me know right away if my thinking is right or wrong, and I can ask my teacher right then and there if I have questions. That way, I don’t have to try to remember later what it was I was going to ask.”

The grants

In classroom observations during Phase I of the project, administrators noticed a steady increase in the amount of student engagement in participating classrooms. In fact, teachers from all grade levels and subject areas across the district began making requests to participate in the project.  Teacher surveys indicated increased motivation for teaching. Parents were reporting that their children were talking about using the interactive boards and “eggs” at home, creating interest among the entire learning community.

To capitalize on the momentum of Phase I of Project ACTIVATE, district officials began seeking new ways to fund additional phases of the project. Then Chevron invited the Gulfport School District to participate in the Energy for Learning program–an $18 million initiative to support school districts affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Through funds provided by the grant, the district was able to implement two additional phases of the project, placing the Activclassroom systems in elementary gifted classrooms, business and technology courses, and in the remaining sixth grade classrooms and high school English classes. 

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