Sunday, January 23, 2011


Picture this: I'm sitting in a chair (somewhat comfortable, with black cushy stuff on my butt... but that's not really the point. Or is it? THE CHAIR IS TECHNOLOGY!!! But I digress...). From my quasi-comfortable perch on this chair, I'm watching a young student (13ish years old) being reduced to tears because he's having trouble with his bass drum foot. Yes, I'm teaching this lil' youngster drums, and for whatever reason he finds the pedal on the bass drum to be an insurmountable obstacle. So there I sit, with my padded butt, trying to decide how to best calm this little guy down. I figure we should do some foot exercises to build up his skills... so I grabbed a snare drum exercise book, my double kick bass drum pedal, and a can of Pepsi for good measure. We did snare drum exercises with our feet (I say "we", but really it was all him) until we had rebuilt some confidence. The student then asked me a curious question: "do professionals do this stuff too"?

Here's where the technology bit comes in. There was a time (not long ago) when I would say "yes" and that would be it. The student would have to take me at my word, with no proof whatsoever. In this case however, it was Dr. iPod to the rescue. I connected to the wireless connection in my house, pulled up YouTube, searched a gent named "Grant Collins" (who happens to be one of the most fantastic foot-artists behind the drums that I know of) and there he was on the screen, doing EXACTLY what we were doing. The video is of Collins performing a rudimental snare solo written by Wilcoxon (complete with rolls, drags, ornamentation, etc) ON HIS FEET! My student was blown away. Seeing as we had an extra 5 minutes left in our lesson, I pulled up another one of my favourite drummers. Akira Jimbo is an absolutely phenomenal musician who not only plays drum kit, but also has electronic triggers placed around his kit programmed to play different sounds. He programs these triggers to play different notes from the melodies of famous tunes (Mission Impossible and the James Bond theme are the two he performed on this particular video) and plays the whole darn thing - drums and all. Long story short, it's incredible. My student went home super inspired and excited. I can't wait to see what he comes back with next week (part of his "practice" was to find a drum video he thought was cool, and show me).

YouTube is a fantastic resource. You can pull up a visual example of virtually anything, at any time. Not only can you find professionals "doing their thing", but you can also find students who have posted videos of their own performances. This means that my students have access to both professional, and more "age appropriate" role models for their development. Often when I use a YouTube video of an amateur musician in my lessons, my student gets all fired up and committed to playing whatever it is better than the student they just saw. Healthy competition is fun to watch - and with serious performers it usually yields good results. Projectors in the band room provide teachers with an opportunity to get the best role models, from anywhere, doing virtually anything (playing instruments, orchestral performance, conductors, etc), at anytime, for free. People used to pay big bucks to get a group of professionals to perform in the school - now you can get them in your classroom on demand without spending a dime, provided we ignore the cost of the technology itself. Virtually everything we need for teaching is at our fingertips... we just need to know where to look.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

This is not a test...

Well, not to jump on the "remember that test?" train, but does anyone remember that test from last week? Yikes. For the uninitiated followers of our lovely blog experience, we received a test last week that really drove the following point home: tests can be seriously pointless. Actually, to take that one step further, a test is always an imperfect instrument. That is to say, there will ALWAYS be problems with any given test. If not for one student, then definitely for another. Even the wording on written assessments can be tricky. Last week on 92 CITI FM, they had a contest in the morning for Moose tickets. The DJ said that 72.something percent of the time, men controlled the TV remote, and asked if "it was higher or lower". Sorry DJ, I must have misheard you. Is WHAT higher or lower? The actual number? The number you just said? Depending on how you understand the question, the answer could be completely different. As it turns out, this phraseology caused so much confusion that the DJ ended up just giving the tickets away to the caller, rather than carry on.

This brings up the whole idea of "student driven learning". For example, the idea of "student learning projects" is an excellent one in terms of encouraging students to construct their own knowledge, and make meaning about something important and relevant to them. This idea also works well for assessment, as the student has the choice to demonstrate their learning in several ways, and as such is not restricted to an "cookie cutter" testing approach. The more I thought about this point over the last few days, the more I realized that technology can be an excellent tool for providing differentiation, accommodation, modification, adaptation, etc. Computers can read passages aloud, can allow people who are visually impaired a larger keyboard with which to type, and students who had difficulty speaking/handwriting to communicate their ideas just as effectively as their classmates.

If there's one thing we've had drilled into our heads, it's that "one-size-fits-all" is an excellent concept for hats and toques... not so much for teaching kids. A test like the one we experienced provides little or no room for differentiation, accommodation, modification, adaptation, or anything else that students might need in order to appropriately and reasonably display their learning, and operate at their full potential.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011


Technical challenges in the classroom... they're everywhere. If we didn't know that before our last class, we know now. Granted, it was a lot of fun watching such terrible, terrible presentations. Unfortunately, the reality is that students sometimes misuse technology in the course of their academic career. I have three personal "pet peeves" when it comes to technology use in the classroom:
  • technology that does nothing to add to the presentation/task at hand
  • students that fail to test their technology before they need it
  • students that choose to go for "flash" over a quality project
If the best method of delivery is a simple pen and paper, then that's what the student should use. It's annoying watching students type out their notes, and then format them to look and "feel" like they've been handwritten. Or when they use "handwritten" fonts. If you want it to be handwritten, then hand write it. It's like using a synthesizer instead of the actual acoustic instrument. If you've got the instrument available, and you play the instrument, and it's easier AND sounds better to play the actual instrument, why wouldn't you?

Absolutely nothing is more irritating than watching someone fiddle with technology, fail miserably, and then proceed to duff the remainder of their presentation or project. If your entire presentation depends on a working piece of technology, my suggestion would be to ensure that the technology is working properly. Would you attempt to write an exam with a pen that was out of ink? Doubtful. Would you go into a performance with a broken instrument? Also doubtful.

Finally, technology comes with many inherent benefits. Unfortunately, some students choose to exploit these benefits for all they're worth... even to the detriment of the assignment. I don't usually assign marks based on how many fonts I can see on the page, or how cool the "word art" is on the title page. I also don't usually give a grade based on the number and frequency of sound effects, slide transitions, flying letters, or flashing backgrounds. Quality over quantity, and brevity is the essence of wit. I am always more interested in what the student KNOWS and UNDERSTANDS, rather than what the student can DO with technology.

Technology can be a powerful tool in the classroom, and like every other tool available to our students, is best used to exemplify depth of thought and quality of expression. Technology is not designed to be a "smoke screen" to hide inferior work, nor is it a good idea to use technology at the expense of efficiency. Technology has great potential to assist students in making meaning and constructing knowledge, and should always be used with this in mind.