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Have I found a missing link?

July 20, 2012


My maths students really struggled in semester one this year. Whether it was to do with a new curriculum we’ve recently implemented, or maybe it was some aspect of my teaching, or their feelings about maths as a subject in general, or just life events happening outside the classroom. For whatever reason, things just didn’t go so well for us in the first semester.

When other teachers told me that their students were also struggling, I felt a little better…but only a little.

So I decided to change my approach.

The Email List

After marking all my semester one maths exams and reflecting upon the results, I sat down and started ringing parents – every single one of them, whether their child had passed or failed. I invited them to join an email list, so I could send them class work and homework, plus any helpful attachments like textbook pages or links to video tutorials.

When I did this, I learned something: parents in general are on my side. They are on our side. They want to know what’s going on. They love the idea of being informed about homework, because their kids are always saying, “I don’t have any.”  They want to be involved, and they love the open line of communication between themselves and the teacher. Accordingly, they were thrilled to come on board.

I confess, there was a time when I didn’t realise this. I’m an introvert by nature and very shy about ringing people I don’t know. Whenever I had to ring a parent, especially in my earlier years as a teacher, my face would turn white and my stomach would churn. This was not helped by the fact that it was usually something negative that I had to call them about.

But now that I’ve started emailing, it’s a whole different ball game. I much prefer writing to speaking. Having to stand up in front of a big group of people and talk every day is decidedly not my preferred way of doing things. I love writing though, and I love that I can write to the parents.

The first thing I noted after doing this was an immediate improvement in both behaviour and homework throughout the whole class. It especially warmed my heart when one student, who was notorious for not getting his homework done, showed me three pages of volume and surface area equations that his dad had made him do over the weekend. Another student told me, in an ever-so-slightly disconcerted tone, that her mother had started talking to her about Pythagoras over breakfast.

Those who hadn’t completed their homework had not done so, not out of laziness or forgetfulness, but because they didn’t understand it, but at least they’d given it a shot. Either that, or I received an email from the parents to say they hadn’t had time because of some other circumstance.

But not a single dog has eaten so much as a page of homework since the parents came on board.

Virtual Classrooms

This is something I experimented with in music over the past couple of years, but it didn’t work quite as well as I’d hoped. I’m trying it again with maths, and it’s working a treat. I’m getting such positive feedback that I’m planning to get my music classes back online.

You may be familiar which a virtual classroom. Basically, it’s an online learning environment, and there are lots of different platforms that run it. The ones I run are on Blackboard, but there’s also Moodle and many others.

What I do for each lesson is write a dot-point list for class work and homework, attaching a pdf of the relevant pages from the textbook. I also hunt around for videos from YouTube which explain the concept we’re working on. I’ll generally try to get at least two or three different ones that will explain the same concept. That way, I figure that if the students don’t get it when I explain it, maybe someone else’s explanation might work. Links to other websites get put in as well, so I end up with a bit of a library much like the one one this blog.

My class has had the virtual classroom (VCR) for nearly two weeks, and today they were proudly showing me their books. Nearly three quarters of the class said they’ve done more maths since our work went online, than they had done in the entire first semester. What it really enables them to do is work at their own pace. If they know how to do the work, they can just go ahead while I explain it to the rest of the class. They can go back and forth as much as they need.

But the most important thing for me is the fact that, not only are they working more, they’re enjoying maths more. They’re more engaged. One student in particular has done a complete 180-degree about-face in his attitude. Last semester, he and I would be at loggerheads every other week. These days, he’s still as talkative as ever, but he’s doing the work. Others are getting the work done so fast that I sometimes have a hard time keeping up.

My thoughts so far…

So far, there has been a definite improvement in behaviour, homework and general engagement with the subject. I will be very interested to see how that translates into assessment results.

I think the VCR is a huge help, because students can just open up their laptops and away they go. For those who don’t have the laptops, there are hard copies of the textbook and the set work is also written up on the board. They seem to do fine as well. It appears to be the general culture of the classroom that has changed for the better, with regards to getting the work done.

However, while the VCR is great, I think the thing that’s really been helping my students the most is the extra push that they’re now getting from home. I’m coming to realise that the parents are really the most important link, and I now wonder why I didn’t do this ten years ago. It has given me a great opportunity to build relationships with them, and to let them be really involved.

It does take a lot of work to set up and put into place. Also, I sense that others’ expectations of me as a teacher may be raised dramatically. Parents will now expect to hear from me regularly. Students will expect the work to be uploaded on time, and they will expect that their parents will know about it. I have a feeling, however, that this could be an ounce of prevention that is worth several pounds of cure.

Having said that, I won’t sugar-coat it and tell you that it’s necessarily an easy undertaking. On the contrary, it can be a daunting task. For one class, it took me two weeks to contact every parent. In the first week of the new term, my workload also increased tenfold; I went to bed every night at 3am.

The good news is that this initial period does settle down, once you get the ball rolling. I am now back to going to bed at a reasonable hour. I also know that it won’t be so difficult or take quite so long the next time around, because I’ve done it before.

One of the best things for me personally, is that the email list and the VCR both work to an important strength of mine: I’m a writer, and I write far better than I speak. Writing is how I think. If I don’t write about something, I can’t think about it quite as clearly.

Since I’m a writer, I think the students get to see a different aspect of my personality when I write to them on the VCR. Certainly, I feel like my rapport with them has been immensely improved by the fact that I write to them. I feel like they can know me better. Big groups are not my thing, and writing has really helped me feel more comfortable, which makes me less stressed, which makes for a more pleasant maths teacher.

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The Secondary Schools Choral Festival…and counting sleeps!

July 19, 2012


Why am I counting sleeps? Because come August 13, my other half and I are on long-service leave and we’re heading off to France! This has been a life-long dream for me, so I’m very excited that it’s finally happening.

In the meantime, I apologize for altogether disappearing from the radar for the last few months. It has been stupidly busy, and to be honest, I kind of lost the habit of blogging. I am resolved to turn back from the dark side, though, as I really do much better at things when I write about them.

Secondary Schools Choral Festival

For the second year in a row, my choir had the privilege of working with renowned choral director David Lawrence. They had a one and a half hour workshop, then a rehearsal together with students of four other school choirs. All of them performed together that night for the Secondary Schools Choral Festival in Mackay last Friday night.

I was particularly excited because the song which my choir performed was actually written by one of the students. She wrote it two years ago when she was in grade ten. It impressed me so much that I was resolved to arrange it for the choir. This year I did just that, and it was performed to a very impressed audience.

I have a MuseScore file of her song in the choral arrangement, which I will post on this blog when I get a few moments to polish it up (with her permission).

The night before that performance, I attended a workshop which David Lawrence also held, this one for choral conductors. I hadn’t attended one of these in a long time, so I was really excited. Many years ago I studied choral conducting at the Brisbane Conservatorium with Dr John Nickson, which was one of my favourite classes. I spent the evening trying to reconnect with those concepts I’d learned back then, under David’s helpful guidance. It was one of the best workshops I’ve attended in a long time and I found myself wishing I could attend conducting classes.

I was especially glad because there had been a week-long choral conducting workshop in Brisbane over the recent holidays, but I had been unable to attend.

After the workshop, we all went out for dinner, during which I introduced David to Twitter and telling him why he should tweet. Who knows? Perhaps I’ll have another new follower soon…and then I’ll have to introduce him to all of you guys.


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Two months since MTEC 2011: An Update

June 11, 2011


Two months ago, I attended MTEC 2011 in Sydney. Two months later, so many things have changed for me professionally, that I barely recognise myself. So I’m taking a moment to pause and reflect on all the changes, and how well they’re working so far.

The first thing, and probably the biggest thing, has really been this blog. Not only has it been a great way for me to reflect on my teaching practice and gather up a whole stack of teaching resources into one place, it has enabled me to get in touch with other music teachers and share it all with them.

That networking has worked wonders for my whole outlook on teaching, which I found quite lonely before. Being the only classroom music teacher in a smaller rural school, it’s easy to feel a bit cut off from everyone else in my field. I no longer feel that way.

In terms of resources, MuseScoreand O-Generator have both been installed over the whole school network. The students have responded very positively to the new software on the whole. My first composition assessment task for O-Generator (which my year 8s especially are finding “totally sick” – I think that means good) has just been completed this week.

MuseScore has been wonderful for teaching music theory, and a small number of students are engaging with it quite enthusiastically and using it to compose, even preferring it to O-Generator. We’re all wondering how I’d never heard of it before two months ago.

I finally have a full midi station set up in our classroom, with Pro Tools, M-Box, and an Avid KeyStudio. This PC also has Sibelius 5, Acid Music Studio, O-Generator and MuseScore all installed. Acid seems to be the most popular choice at the moment with the students so far.

Acid Xpress has experienced a few technical snags and we haven’t managed to install that one on the school laptops yet, but we’re working on it. If only we could get this one past the networking glitch, we’d be home and hosed.

There’s also some starter hiccups going on with Pro Tools: the keyboard will talk to the M-Box, the M-box will talk to the PC, the PC will talk to Pro Tools, but Pro Tools won’t talk to the speakers or headphones, so no sound comes out, even though everything else seems to be working. Hmmm.

Jing has been a useful little tool. I found out about this in one of Katie Wardrobe’s workshops on making video tutorials. Jing is a great software application for capturing images and screen shots, and making little 5-minute screen-capture films, very handy for “how-to” videos. I haven’t made any of those yet, but I have been able to make a “how-to” worksheet in next to no time, using image-capture.

Creative Commons has been a focal point in my teaching over the last two months. My 9s and 10s are just finishing up a composition task, part of which includes licensing their work under Creative Commons. I am also endeavouring to increase my students’ awareness of fair use and best practice as far as copyright is concerned.

I haven’t yet been using ipods as much as I would like, mainly due to a policy which restricts their use by students during the course of the school day. I’m working on that one. In the meantime, I use my ipad a fair bit in my senior class, most often for YouTube.

Two things I was already using proficiently before the conference, were an interactive whiteboard (not Smartboard or Prometheus, unfortunately) and an online virtual classroom (VCR) for my senior class. With the addition of resources since the conference, I’ve been able to get the students actively involved in using the IWB, and I’m looking at ways to extend the VCR to include my junior students as well.

The main thing which has restricted the VCR to my seniors so far has been the time it takes to set one up and manage it thereafter. I’m hoping that the added resources, plus practice, will shorten the time factor and increase my ability to run a set of VCRs more efficiently.

One of my quirks is that I tend to go through phases of intense concentration on a particular thing, for days at a time. My latest “thing” has been Acrobat X, and I’ve been spending long hours making interactive pdfs in the last week or two.

So far, I’ve made the reflection tools I mentioned in my last post, and some lesson and unit planners. These incorporate Essential Learnings and the Senior Music Syllabus (2004) from the Queensland Studies Authority, and the Dimensions of Learning framework developed by Robert Marzano et al. I’ve uploaded them on for interested Qld music teachers and pre-service teachers (and anyone else who wants them) to download if you like. You can find the link under “Professional Practice – Planning Tools” on my Resources page.

The biggest change for me since the conference by far, has been my self-confidence. Daily online contact with other teachers in my field, constant new discoveries in resources and teaching strategies, and regular reflection through blogging, have literally helped me become a different teacher.

Last year I was studying with a view to leaving the profession. Now I’m thinking of redirecting my studies to further my teaching qualifications. I’m excited about teaching again and more confident in my abilities to make a real contribution. All of that has been thanks to the MTEC 2011 conference and all the contacts I have made since then. That, dear reader, includes you.

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10 Reasons Why Teachers Should Blog and Tweet

May 19, 2011


I’ve been blogging and tweeting in the Music Education world for a month now, and doing so has dramatically changed my whole perspective about many aspects of my work. I now consider blogging and tweeting to be essential professional tools. Here are ten reasons why:

1. Networking

This is the most obvious reason, and for me, it’s a big one. I’m the only general classroom music teacher at my school, which is in a rural area, and it’s all too easy to be isolated from others in the same field. If you’re a cave-dwelling hermit crab like me, it’s even easier. Twitter has enabled me to stay in touch with other music teachers from all over the world on a daily basis. Following their blogs has introduced me to a lot of new ideas in a very little time.

2. The Global Staffroom

This extends from the first reason. In a really weird way, I no longer feel like my staffroom is limited to the four walls around me at school. My horizons have widened, and now I feel like the music teacher in Iceland I spoke with yesterday is just over there by the window.

The global staffroom shifts your perspective. Suddenly, the small daily-grind-type problems and challenges you face every day are not the only ones that exist, nor are they even the biggest ones. Suddenly there are more people around who can help you if you get stuck, like the colleague just across the room in Iceland, or the one two desks away in Arizona.

This may also be especially helpful if you happen to be in what I call a “toxic staffroom”. It’s a sad fact that workplace bullying does exist in the teaching profession, and if you are unfortunate enough to find yourself in that situation, seeking support through online networking (even if you do so anonymously) can be a great first step to dealing with the problem.

P.S.: There are a couple of links to sites which deal with workplace bullying on my “Cyberbullying” page.

3. A Different Drum

If the other teachers at your own school are the only ones you ever see or speak to for an extended period of time, it can be impossible to avoid getting “bogged down” in the culture of that particular location. There’s a collective dynamic which means that people think a certain way, act a certain way, work a certain way, and it can be difficult to walk to the beat of your own drum.

This has been the case in both the best schools and the worst schools I’ve ever worked in, the supportive ones and the not-so-supportive ones. It’s neither good or bad; it’s just a thing that happens when people work together in the same place for a long time.

Blogging and tweeting have had a profound effect on the way that I think with regards to this. It has enabled me to stand outside the status quo and look in, more objectively. The daily contact with other colleagues worldwide, keeps me constantly exposed to different points of view and ways of working.

As far as I’m concerned, this can only benefit both me and and the school I work in, because it allows me to be a real contributor in ways I couldn’t before. I can bring new ideas to the table and add positive energy to the process of growth and change, because that energy is coming in from outside, from the global staffroom.

4. Professional Development

That kind of ongoing exposure to new ideas has meant that I’ve been able to undertake at least an hour or two of professional development almost every single day since I started networking online.

Five minutes on Twitter is all it takes to find dozens of blog posts, articles and news on whatever field happens to interest you. You can also participate in ongoing discussions with colleagues from all over the world in professional network forums like MusicPLN.

5. Reflection

Writing your reflections in a diary enables you to see and record new insights about your professional practice. Writing them in a blog enables you to share them with other like-minded professionals at the same time. This opens the door for them to give you feedback, and also for both you and they to learn from your experiences.

6. Communication

The blog is a public platform, and you are essentially writing for an audience. To blog well, you need to get your ideas across as clearly and succinctly as possible, to engage your readers and keep them interested. The process of writing your thoughts and ideas every day, in such a way that it gets across easily, increases your ability to communicate with others both online and off.

Your blog may also become a vehicle for presenting your thoughts and ideas not only to your online contacts, but also to colleagues closer to home, as well as to students, parents, and members of the public.

7. Motivation

I went to the MTEC conference in January of 2009, and it was brilliant. I arrived at school that year, brimming over with new ideas about how I was going to incorporate music technology into my classroom, enthusiastic about getting into teaching, and excited about sharing what I’d learned with my students and colleagues.

But then the budget was too short, the marking piled up, the paperwork and administrivia took on their usual overarching importance, and my ideas and my motivation went by the wayside. Very little changed for my students that year.

I went to MTEC 2011 jut over a month ago, and was inspired by James Humberstone to start a music teaching blog. I also joined Twitter. Since then, O-Generator has been installed on the school computers, my students have had their first computer-lab lessons ever for composition, I’ve seen to the installation of Pro Tools and Acid Music Studio on the classroom computer and now it’s being used nearly every lesson, instead of just sitting there.

Tomorrow I’m going to be running a demonstration to our beginning teachers on how to use the IWB and Interwrite Workspace software, I’ve just written my first year 8 music assignment which requires using music software to compose, and I’m planning lessons on music apps for ipad and iphone/ipod touch. My students have also been looking at Aviary Roc and SoundJunction, and their homework has been to check out YouTube videos on O-Generator and other music stuff.

I’ve begun to occasionally use the school email as another professional networking tool, emailing links to interesting sites and articles I’ve found to the rest of the staff, like the one on Spaced Learning.

I have been motivated every day since the conference to make these changes, and my momentum hasn’t slowed. The reason is because of this blog and my Twitter networking. It’s almost like MTEC 2011 hasn’t actually finished yet. Being around motivated people all the time is infectious, and when you come into contact with them every day through online activity, it has a way of keeping you going, and of giving you the determination to find solutions to problems which have gotten in the way before.

8. Passion

I have not always found my job fulfilling or rewarding. There have been a couple of difficult phases where my heart has been all but kicked out of teaching. Now, I find my passion as a teacher being brought back to life. I’m coming into my own in self-confidence, and rediscovering why I joined this profession in the first place.

The reason is again because of the ongoing contact I have with colleagues online. I love the exchange of ideas, the dialogue between like minds and not-so-like minds, the constant awareness of different insights. That kind of interaction with ideas always recharges my batteries and fires me up like nothing else can. With online networking, I can have that interaction as often as I like.

9. Sharing Your Expertise

It doesn’t matter if you’re a pre-service teacher or someone who’s been teaching for decades. You can always learn something new from someone, and someone else can always learn from you. You have something to contribute to the professional community. Go for it!

10. Support

If you network wisely, you can have dozens, if not hundreds, of like-minded, sympathetic colleagues in your list of contacts. When you’re in a bind, someone, somewhere, can help you out. If someone else is having difficulty, maybe you’re the person with just the knowledge they need, just the right link or website, or maybe just the right words of wisdom after a rough day in the classroom.

Sometimes teaching can be a really lonely job. It can be a relief to read a blog post about someone else’s struggles with a difficult class or an unfamiliar subject area, and know that you’re not the only one going through it. It can be liberating to find that there’s a totally different way of seeing a situation that’s been bugging you for months. It’s exciting to find new ways of thinking and new ways of working, new solutions to old problems.

I also find it really affirming as a professional, when I can help others out, when I can contribute to the discussion, and when it turns out that yes, I really do know what I’m doing. That kind of feedback only comes from having a good professional network.

Final Thoughts

The job of teaching doesn’t just start at nine and finish at three. If we could all clock in our “overtime” and get paid for it, we’d be earning two or three times as much as we do now. It’s not like teaching leaves us with a whole lot of time on our hands. I have particular admiration for those who manage to also be parents at the same time. I just shake my head and wonder how you guys do it.

Under those circumstances, the idea of starting a blog and finding the time to maintain it can be daunting, and maybe it’s just not for you. But it is very well worth taking a few minutes out of the day or the week to have a look at some of the blogs that are out there. I’ve got a library of links to get you started. I also cannot recommend highly enough, creating a professional account for Twitter and getting in touch with colleagues worldwide.

Participating in the online conversation about music teaching has been more fruitful for me in the last month than years of trying to reinvent the wheel on my own. In the long run, online networking can actually save a whole lot more time than it takes.

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10 Reasons Why Teachers Should Blog and Tweet by Gabrielle Deschamps is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available by contacting me.

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