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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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Stars are spinning around my head

February 29, 2012


That’s the image of me which you should have in your head right now. We’re just over halfway through the first term, and the workload has been massive. This has been my first opportunity to poke my head out of the water and say “hi”.

So, hi. 🙂

It has been an exhausting first half of term one. I’ve been asking colleagues whether they’ve been feeling the pinch as well, just to make sure it’s not my imagination, and they confirm: the last five weeks have hit us all like a freight train.

One of the (several) new things going on lately has been the recent roll-out of laptops for students in years 9 and 10. For those year levels, we have therefore been in the process of adapting to the delivery of a 1:1 curriculum. Some of us are finding it easier than others.

Oddly enough, I find myself being extremely conservative and cautious at this initial stage. So far, I have had only one lesson where I have allowed my students to use their laptops, and that was on a day where I was absent and I set some work online. That was for a music class. For maths, I haven’t allowed it yet at all.

It’s not that I’m against 1:1. Are you kidding? I’m a total geek and I love working with technology. I really look forward to using laptops in lessons when I feel that I’ve laid enough of the proper groundwork. But I don’t want them to totally take over and be used indiscriminately, as a be-all-and-end-all.

Part of the problem is the fact that it’s early days. We’ve never had this before, so it’s all still novel. As far as many students are concerned, we’ve just handed each of them one more way to “plug in” and feed their addiction. Getting some of them to think of a laptop as a learning tool and not just a mobile entertainment unit can be quite a trick.

So I’ve been working on instilling this expectation in my students: have the laptops there, ready and available, but only for exercises and tasks which I specifically set. Part of that process has been to require students to have their laptops with them but closed, for whole lessons at a time.

So what’s the use of having them there? Plenty, but I want my students to have the habit of not expecting to stare at a screen all lesson.

Working with laptops seems to be much like working with glockenspiels. Anyone who has ever tried to teach with thirty glockenspiels can attest to this fact: as long as you’re talking to the class, those things need to be closed. Not “there and open”. Closed. They get opened and played only on direct instructions.

Laptops are also extremely noisy, though not precisely in the same way. In fact, the very nature of laptops means that they can each be fifty times as noisy as fifty glockenspiels put together, yet not make a single sound. They are capable of creating all kinds of mental – and emotional – noise, which makes it next to impossible for a student to concentrate on anything you might wish for them to learn.

So my exercise with them lately has been to start by filtering out a bit of the noise. I guess what I’m trying to teach them at this early stage – while it’s all still a novelty – is a measure of self-discipline. I have students who sit down and automatically open their laptops, and they are told very firmly to close them up.

They must find that frustrating, to say the least. The addictive nature of technology for those who are susceptible has been documented, and statistically there’s a good possibility that at least one or two of them must feel like they’re breaking out into a cold sweat.

So be it.

Not that I don’t sympathize. Skyrim is my personal fix at the moment. There are times when I really do have to grab myself by the scruff of the neck and force myself to turn the game off so I can get lessons prepared for tomorrow, or just so I can get a good night’s sleep. It can be hard to do: slaying dragons and defeating deathlord draugrs feels so much better than marking test papers or doing laundry. I feel way more powerful when I can fire ice spikes or balls of flame from my bare hands to kill a frost troll. Somehow wielding a red pen just doesn’t feel quite so…cool.

As far as laptops in the classroom are concerned, I still feel the need to prepare myself further for 1:1 delivery before I let students go ahead. If laptops are going to be used, the purpose needs to be clear, and the content needs to be specifically created for delivery through technology in its original form – not just a “digital version” of something I can find readily available elsewhere.

I’m waiting with bated breath for Musescore, Staff Wars, and Acid Xpress to be installed on them all. I’m looking through my links library and putting together a suite of web resources which don’t cause too much hassle for the school’s network filter and download speed. I’m also nosing around for some good maths and logic games and tools for my maths class (if you know any good ones, please pass them on!).

Once these are in place, hopefully together with some expectation on the part of the students for purposeful, balanced and discriminate use, we can open up the laptops.

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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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Professional Reflection = Professional Development

June 4, 2011


Probably the most useful tool for professional development, I have found, is reflection. This is one of the reasons why I find blogging to be such a rewarding exercise, as I’ve pointed out in a previous post: 10 Reasons Why Teachers Should Blog and Tweet.

In my first couple of years as a teacher, I made a professional practice journal, which incorporated a set of structured reflection tools to help me organise my thinking (which needed all the organisation help it could get).

I found these tools to be extremely useful, so I have now reformatted them and uploaded them to share.

There are four different forms in this set, which you can download as interactive pdf files. (Thankyou to Anne Wisdom from MTEC 2011 for teaching me how to do that!) You can fill in the fields and save under the date or whatever name you like.

All the reflection tools in the set are published under a Creative Commons NonCommercial Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 Unported licence.

1: Professional Practice 1 – Reflection

This is a very simple reflection tool for the end of an ordinary class lesson. There are three sections which ask about teaching and behaviour management strategies: what worked, what didn’t, and changes to make.

There’s a list down the bottom called “Professional and Interpersonal Goals”. It was created so I could keep to the forefront of my mind a number of little things which I was consistently having trouble with: things like raising my voice (which I was doing much too often), following through on behaviour management, refraining from getting into arguments with students, and trusting myself.

That list now contains a set of blank fields for you to fill out as you like, each with a checkbox to indicate whether that goal was achieved or not during the lesson.

2. Professional Practice 2 – What the hell was THAT?!!

We all have occasional lessons where everything just falls apart. This reflection tool was created after one of those lessons, where I wanted to analyse what happened in real depth so I could get to the bottom of what went wrong.

The sections are as follows:

  • What happened
  • Strategies I attempted
  • Did they work? (Yes/No/Sort of)
  • What I need to do or change
  • General Comments

There’s also a section down the bottom for a more detailed evaluation of “Professional and Interpersonal Goals” as listed on the original Reflection form. This was made so I could see whether any of those niggling issues may have been a contributing factor in the event of a lesson going wrong, by making me grade how well I achieved each goal on an A-E scale.

3. Professional Practice 3 – Think I might be in for a difficult day?

I can’t tell you how many times this one saved my neck. I’m not a morning person so my brain takes a long time to wake up. This reflection tool is for the times when I’m worried that it won’t.

Whether it’s because I didn’t sleep properly the night before, had a bad lesson the day before, have a difficult class coming up, or a conflict with a student or colleague on my mind, or even that I just haven’t had time to have my coffee yet, this form has helped me on numerous occasions when I found the thought of the day ahead just a bit too overwhelming.

On a more personal note, this reflection tool was created in the midst of a long and painful struggle with depression and anxiety, which I faced every day for many years. It really helped me to “get out of my head” and focus specifically on the practical tasks of the day.

It includes the following sections:

  • How I’m feeling right now
    • This makes me precisely identify my physical, emotional, and mental state: tired, angry, stressed out, ill, or whatever.
  • What’s on my mind right now
    • This gives me a chance to get whatever is going on “off my chest”. Writing it down also has a way of making the issue smaller and bringing it into perspective.
  • Is there anything concerning me specifically about today?
    • This focuses my attention to the current day ahead, as well as any worries or concerns about what might be coming up
  • Classes for today
    • After getting concerns and worries off my chest, this brings my mind to practical matters, by making me list all the sessions immediately ahead.
  • Tasks, strategies and goals to get through the day
    • A list of everything that needs to be done that day, with checkboxes for ticking them off.

If you also struggle with anxiety and depression, I know what it is that you face every day, and I can tell you that you are not alone. My heart goes out to you, and I really hope that this reflection tool can be of some help.

4. Professional Practice 4 – Teaching and Behaviour Management Strategies Quick List

Filling out the Reflection form day after day helped me to get a comprehensive list of effective and ineffective teaching and behaviour management strategies. This table is a tool for getting all those strategies listed in one place for easy reference.

Final Comments

I really recommend these reflection tools for pre-service and early-career teachers, since they were created when I was in that stage myself, and I shaped them specifically to situations I was meeting at the time. However, they are also a good honing tool for me even today, so I can recommend them to more experienced teachers as well.

When I first created them, I used them after every single lesson for about a fortnight. After a while, I found that I only needed to fill them out once a day, and then a little later once a week, as reflection became more automatic.

Generally, my pattern nowadays is a doing a detailed reflection a couple of times a fortnight or once or twice a month. Every so often I have a “reflection blitz” where I might have a week of going through every lesson again, just to refocus, which is also useful. There’s really no set pattern: you can use them in whatever way works for you.

To download the Reflection Tools, click here to go to, where they are hosted. I will also be adding them to my Resources page.

Creative Commons License
This article by Gabrielle Deschamps is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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