Saturday, July 22, 2006

What’s working for me at school? My teaching revolution.

I’ve been teaching for a lifetime now, and many things remain constant. Where I teach, students are still of mixed ability and, when they come to us in year 7, most can invariably write reams of poorly spelled text without using a full stop. Somehow, it is part of my role as a teacher of Year 7 English, to eliminate the run-on sentence. I’m wondering if when I die it won’t matter any more. Perhaps I should just roll with it; let the language regress to some unpunctuated past; get over myself. Students seem to communicate efficiently on MSN in their abbreviated codes. I’ve almost capitulated to ‘quote’ being used as a noun. It even appears thus in respected VCE English texts. Has the world ended? Am I an old fart for caring? Possibly not. After all, Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves has been a best seller.

Back to my teaching revolution. About three years ago, I made the tentative decision to bring technology into my senior English classes.

How did this happen? Initially, I’d decided to reduce the number of handouts I gave to all my years seven to twelve students. I didn’t think these printed notes were enhancing teaching and learning. (I wasn’t even thinking of the trees.) The handouts contained what I considered to be invaluable information, whatever it was, that I wanted students to absorb and use, and indeed some students did value these resources. However, just as many students tuned out during the lessons; failed to engage. Many handouts were surreptitiously folded into paper aeroplanes which flew a few times around the room or were jettisoned into the rubbish bin on the way out. Other handouts met their crumpled end amongst the detritus accumulated in the bottoms of school bags. Consequently, many students returned to the next lesson having lost the handout and thus needing a replacement. Somehow, the prepared, photocopied notes were ‘too much information’ for the average student. As long as I was preparing notes for my classes, most students weren’t actually thinking or writing much. I’m not talking about mindless copying of boards full of notes. I suppose I’m talking about note-making based on students’ contributions; writing down ideas; plans; vocabulary; definitions – material that can be remembered, revised and used in extended pieces of writing. I wanted to engage students more in contributing to discussions; force them to think. And it does bother me that students in Years 11 and 12, who at our school are required to hand-write their School Assessed Coursework essays under exam conditions, often struggle with the task, in some part due to their use of computer word processors.

So how did this lead to my teaching revolution?

For a few years now, I’ve taught two Year 12 English classes both of which require the same curriculum. And when other teachers are sharing your classroom, it’s a bit selfish to cover an entire whiteboard wall with terrific notes that you’d love to use with your other class and write PLEASE LEAVE! at the top. Every time I erasedthese notes it seemed like such a waste.

I toyed with the idea of using an interactive whiteboard. We do have one – yes one – in our school of 900 students. However, I felt this would lead to more photocopied notes and back to base one.

Instead, I decided to use a data projector – we have three of those! - and my lap top computer. This would have two advantages, I thought. I’d be able to re-use those wonderful student-discussion inspired notes and I’d be able to efficiently store my class materials and be rid of some of those arch files. However, I was unaware of how brilliantly the technology would work, once I got the hang of it.

After being ‘in-serviced’ by an IT support person, I trialled the set up with my Year 11s. The first lesson was hysterical. The students were mischievously delighted with the idea of me using the data projector. I couldn’t get the projection the right size on the whiteboard. I was fumbling, publicly and hilariously, as far as I could gauge from the laughter, with my toolbars, trying to enlarge the image. I’d foolishly used the Inspiration software thinking I’d be doing these brilliant Venn diagrams and concept maps – as I’d seen one of my colleagues do - while my students’ heads expanded with all the learning they were absorbing. Well, the students – a great bunch of people – didn’t learn much that lesson. But we had a few side-splitting laughs, so it wasn’t a total waste.

At this stage, I might have given up, but I didn’t. I kept practising. I decided instead to project a Word document onto the whiteboard. This worked very effectively once I got the font to the right size. Easily done.

There have been unexpected advantages. First, you know that when you turn to write on the whiteboard you lose a little – sometimes a lot – of your connection with your class. On many occasions when I turn to write on the whiteboard the class erupts into irrelevant talk. Or projectiles fly just outside one’s peripheral vision. “Hello?” I’ll say. “I’m still here; haven’t left the building. Back to work.” I turn back to the whiteboard and it starts again. Unless you’re one of those people who can face the class and write legibly on the board – and I’ve recently seen a brilliant presenter with this skill – or one of those teachers who terrifies students into submission – and happily I’m not one of those - like me, you probably get frustrated that your students disconnect when your back is turned and you have to waste a bit of your precious teaching time getting them back on track. Well, using your typing skills, your laptop and your data projector, this doesn’t happen!

And there’s more. I can sit down occasionally - hurrah - and direct class discussion more effectively. Somehow, it seems more civilised and much more educational. No more problems with the illegibility of my handwriting. Given I can touch-type quickly, my note making can keep pace with the discussion. If students are absent I can easily print, or email them notes from the lessons they’ve missed. It’s easier for students to keep track of discussion and to make notes; good for those visual learners. Furthermore, it helps me to keep track of my progress with a class, or a text I’m teaching.

With the addition of a couple of speakers, it’s great for film viewing too. Anything you can see on your screen can be projected onto a whiteboard.

Young techno-savvy teachers will not see this as revolutionary. However, I know that many of my colleagues - some not so old - are shy of technology. But I’ve proved that you only have to start using technology to develop your skills and become comfortable with the equipment and experience your own teaching revolution.

What’s the downside? Well, I teach in a battered portable classroom with no blinds. The sun blazing into my early morning classroom has me scurrying for the whiteboard marker. Another problem? There are only three data projectors in the school for which several teachers must compete. One has to book ahead and can be occasionally caught short when a teacher fails to return a projector to the resource centre after use. The inevitable five to ten minute round trip to the resource centre to collect the data projector is a pain when one is teaching a ‘full-on’ day. But, that’s life in an under-resourced state school. (And there was the time when my computer crashed, mid-lesson. School IT gurus to the rescue and my files were saved. Don’t forget to back up your files.)

I used to suffer from a condition that I called ‘whiteboard – formerly blackboard - arm syndrome’ – a chronic ache in my upper right arm. No more.


Jo McLeay said...

I really like this reflection. It is something that I will try as well, having not even thought of it before. As far as blogging goes, you believe in quality not quantity, I think?

happychyck said...

Congrats on your revolution! I'm always looking for streamlined ways to do things, and ways to engage the students that aren't work intensive to me. BTW, Inspiration is so easy to use, yet I fumble with it in front of the classroom.

Nat said...

This sounds fabulous. I'm a young (although not very techno-savvy) teacher, and you have inspired me.

By the way, I looked up quote and quotation in the dictionary recently, since the argument was raised in a "what questions will we put on the Macbeth SAC?" meeting. Turns out that the 7th definition of quote is quotation. So these days, even Mr Webster reckons quote can be used as a noun. We won't use the "But he's American, what would he know?" argument.

Jane said...

you rock, sis.
empathy running deep. three cheers for the schoolhols (a dozen cleanskins pleeze)!