Saturday, January 5, 2008

Losing My Voice

Last week, I taught for an entire day without having the use of my voice. On Wednesday, December 19th, I could feel myself losing my ability to speak as the school day ended. Within a few hours, I could talk no louder than a whisper.

I did not want to miss a day of school. The week was almost over, and the Winter holidays rapidly approaching. To stay home sick would, in the end, mean more work for me, as my lesson plans would be disrupted and I would need to create activities for a substitute teacher. I decided to forge into class and do my best without my voice.

Thankfully, Thursday, December 20th was a "B" day. On "B" days, I have my smallest class load, teaching only three of my seven periods. My first class was my SRA class, which involves one on one instruction. I made it through that class easily. As I sat next to my students to assist them, I whispered. They could still hear me and the class essentially proceeded as usual. The day did not turn interesting until my freshmen classes came in later in the day.

In my freshmen English 1 CP classes, we were reading the end of Act III of Romeo & Juliet. I like to have the class read the scenes together, out loud. I stop them periodically to check for understanding and to stress certain important elements of each scene. Sometimes, the class and I will work together to put the "actors" into proper positions for the specific situation. These methods all help the students to visualize what would otherwise be a difficult text to understand. They are also all useless without a voice. I had to think of something else.

When class began, I wrote notes to the class on the blackboard, mainly about my temporary disability. They asked me questions and I answered in writing. I wrote that we would attempt to run the class as normally as we could. They rose to the challenge. I had zero discipline issues that day. I don't normally have many of those problems, but they really acted as the most mature first year high school students in the world. They took complete control of the class and made sure it flowed smoothly.

We read our scenes from Romeo & Juliet as usual. Instead of asking them questions, I wrote them down on a piece of paper. They discussed the answers, and I gave occasional feedback in the form of a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down. This worked well for review and simple understanding. However, when the scene finished, they still did not understand some of the nuances of the scene. Somehow, they needed to have a stronger visual sense of what was happening.

After we finished reading, I asked the students to summarize the scene in their own words. During this time, I wrote out paraphrased dialogue from the play onto blank sheets of paper. I was going to perform a silent movie. First, I had them read their summaries. Then, I went into action, playing all of the characters from the scene. I used various props to illustrate different characters (pens, water bottles, my winter hat, etc.) and I held up the dialogue sheets at appropriate times. The plan worked. By the end of the class, the students understood what happened in the scenes and why those events were important to the overall story. Needless to say, I was very proud of them.

Teaching without a voice was one of the hardest things I have done. But, it was also exhilarating. I viewed this issue as a challenge, one that I could certainly overcome. So, I put much effort into achieving that goal. The idea to perform the silent movie made me excited in a way that only the best spontaneous ideas can. The students laughed along, but they also really understood what was happening.

In some ways, the loss of my voice has also become a bonding experience with the students. Every day since we've been back from the Holiday break, at least one of my students asks me if I have my voice. I always say yes and smile. I think that they enjoyed the unusual circumstances and unique class as much as I appreciated the ability to overcome an obstacle that probably would have seemed overwhelming earlier in my teaching career.

Written: 1/5/08

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