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Stars are spinning around my head

February 29, 2012

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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. ūüôā

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

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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 box.net 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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When the all the whiz-bang technology lets you down…

May 26, 2011

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"OMG!!! FRUSTRATED!!" by Jonathan Robison

You’ve planned your lesson perfectly, made all the right preparations, and then suddenly…

…the power goes out.

…or the data projector overheats.

…or the computer crashes.

It’ll happen sooner or later, most likely sooner. I had all my ducks in a row: assignment sheets printed off, spare earphones handy, research space allocated, notebooks organised. All my students sat with their laptops in front of them, ready to get into their composition assignment – the first one I’d ever set where the use of music creation software was a central requirement.

One by one, my students raised their hands and told me they couldn’t log on. We tried everything I could think of before I gave up and called for the computer tech, but he was busy in another computer lab trying to solve exactly the same problem.¬†One false circuit in something, somewhere, had brought down the whole network.

Resigned, I got my students to pack the notebooks away into the recharge trolley and head back over to the classroom.

Rule No.1: when planning a technology lesson, always have a Plan B.

Rule No.2: memorise Rule No.1.

Since I have access to the musical instruments and a stock of practical lessons up my sleeve, technical hiccups like this aren’t a major drama.

I do feel for those colleagues whose subject matter absolutely depends upon a working computer, like IT Studies and the like. It must be incredibly frustrating when the network isn’t functioning, and I wonder how they manage it. How many Plan B’s can you have for a subject like that?

Those reticent about technology would seem to have a point: why go to all the trouble of decking ourselves out in all this whiz-bang technology when a: talk and chalk does just fine, and b: we can’t rely on all those gadgets and gizmos to work?

However, as Chris Betcher points out, staying up-to-date with technology and use it as fully as possible in the classroom is all part of the job, pretty much whether we like it or not.

Our students see all this technology around them every day: they should be able to expect that their teachers know how to utilise it. Age and the idea that they are “digital natives” whereas we ourselves may not be, doesn’t really make a difference: they go through exactly the same process of learning how to use something as we do. If they do it younger, so what?

Failing technology isn’t an excuse to neglect it: it’s a reason to make sure it gets continual improvement, and to invest in quality professional development so teachers have more strategies and technical know-how for when things go haywire.

In the meantime, have a Plan B. Always.

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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