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Using Technology To Enhance Learning

Forest Edge principal introduces tools for visual learners.

This is the third in a series of articles about the Best of Reston Award winners.

Principal Frank Bensinger is a popular man in the hallways of Forest Edge Elementary School. Students hug him, current staff exchange jokes with him and former staff come to visit him.

"It's been fun," said Bensinger of his 17-year stint as the principal at Forest Edge. "You'd have to have been here in the beginning to see how much has changed," he said.

Bensinger, who started his career as an educator in 1973 in Wilmington, Del., said he always believed in multiple modes of teaching students, as they each have different approaches to learning. "Schools tend to teach the left side of the brain," so most instruction tends to be teachers talking to a student, he said. "The other side is every bit as important," said Bensinger, adding that Forest Edge is now a rich place for a student who is a visual learner.

To help each student learn better, Bensinger created a pilot program for Fairfax County schools, turning Forest Edge into a technology-oriented school. The school has a 72-inch smart board in each of its rooms, which allows students to use computers to do their work and project the results onto a board for everyone to see. That work on the smart board could be saved in one classroom, then accessed from a server and displayed onto a smart board in another classroom.

The smart board is also a tool for the teachers. For example, an art teacher can demonstrate how to construct a certain part of a project to all of the students at once. The teacher places a camera over his or her hands, and whatever the teacher is doing is transmitted onto the smart board for all of the students to see. "It brings [the lesson] alive," said Bensinger.

Lesson plans can be saved, and teachers can do work at home on their county-issued laptops, plug them into the laptop connection in the classroom and have the work displayed on the smart board.

"I can't live without it," said music teacher Ellyn Sillick. Bensinger and his tech support staff train all of the teachers to use the system.

WHILE BENSINGER believes technology is an important teaching tool, he recognizes that it does not replace conventional methods of teaching. Rather, he said, it enhances teaching. The students still use textbooks and regular notebooks, and the teachers still lecture in front of the class. The introduction of the smart boards, he said, transformed Forest Edge into a more interactive school. The interactive environment is a reflection of the Reston community, said Bensinger.

"Interactivity is what makes this school special," he said.

Although their teaching methods are different, the schools in the South Lakes High School pyramid — schools whose students eventually attend South Lakes — work together to improve the learning environment. "As a team we work very close together," said Bensinger about the other principals in the pyramid. Bensinger maintains the pyramid's Blackboard web site, which allows students, parents and teachers to access homework assignments and lesson plans through the internet.

"[Bensinger] has been supportive since the first time I've met with him," said Linda Hajj, a first-year principal at Lake Anne Elementary School. She said Bensinger is always trying to stay interactive, and always encourages the other teachers to do so.

South Lakes Principal Bruce Butler said Bensinger offers more than his technological knowledge in the discussions. "More than that he is a kind gentleman and very easy to work with. He has lots of good ideas," said Butler. He added that Bensinger is supportive of other principals and schools, and that he is an advocate for students from all walks of life. "He is tireless about it," said Butler. "He is a great resource and he is experienced," added Butler.

AS TECHNOLOGY gets cheaper and easier to access, Bensinger hopes more school systems will integrate it into their teaching methods. Bensinger is married to Molly Bensinger-Lacy, the principal of Graham Road Elementary School in Falls Church, and is a father of three and a grandfather of four. He does not have any plans to retire soon.

While Forest Edge students learn from computers as well as textbooks, they are also involved in fund-raising activities for people in need. Last year they raised money for children affected by Hurricane Katrina.

"Reaching out is the legacy of this school," said Bensinger.

He said he is thrilled to be a recipient of the Best of Reston Award, and that the people in the community think so highly of him. His advice for younger principals is to honor the uniqueness of children. He pledges to mentor other principals to accomplish that task. "It's a principal's job to replace themselves," said Bensinger. He added that he is a man who has always wanted to make a difference.

"The purpose in life is to help people, no matter who they are, and make a difference," said Bensinger about his decision to become an educator. "Also, who can discount having fun with kids."