Replacing the Teacher(‘s voice)

One. that’s all it takes. One cheeky New Year’s Eve cigar (well I’ve got to have *some* fun) and the consequences are pretty disastrous: laid out for a week with tonsillitis, the exact week you’ve planned to do all that marking and planning that piled up last term in fact; slipping into the jetlagged time stream of the insomniac by waking up every five minutes hacking and coughing and hot-flushing and cold-sweating, so much so you think you’ll sleep through the first-day-back-at-work-alarm; and then you lose your voice on the first day…

I’ve just done my second day of teaching this term, but entirely without a voice. Yesterday, I had felt a lot better, and made sure I kept hydrated and ate a lot of throat sweets alongside the penicillin prescription. It was the first day back, because of the early Easter we were skipping the usual ease-you-in-gentility of the normal no-student training day and getting straight to teaching, and I felt brilliant because of two things. First, my decision to ensure I’d be up in time to get ready for school by not actually going to bed (not entirely a conscious decision: I did try to sleep, but having barely slept and having woken up past 2pm the day before meant the lag was too great) and in fact working all night to plan enough so that all I’d have to do in the week ahead was marking. The second was a momentous thing: my first day included the Classics Teacher Triumvirate, lessons on The Iliad, The Aeneid, and The Odyssey, all three major epics. I’d never done this before, but, having taken on 4th Year Civ, this was my chance and I was really quite ridiculously excited. I did a lot of talking. A lot. Perhaps because of both of these things, I woke up this morning, having slept beautifully and risen on time, feeling marvellous but having completely lost my voice.

I don’t know if you’ve ever lost your voice so badly that you simply cannot speak? When you open your lips and enunciate, and nothing comes out but some padded air, it takes some getting used to to remember that’s the case, and you end up surprising yourself each time you go to reply to a colleague in passing or tell a student to tuck their shirt in. They look at you, wondering why you’re doing a dumb-show at them, or recoil slightly at the unexpected odd squeak and hiss that escape on easier syllables. Living alone in the week, I didn’t actually realise I’d turned into Silent Bob until I got to work and started miming at the first person I met. It reminded me of the Buffy The Vampire Episode ‘Hush’ where silent, nightmarish men steal everyone’s voices so no one can hear their victims scream when they cut their hearts out. It is clearly not a good situation for a teacher. Yet, aside from getting lots of sympathy, it has another perk: it requires you to think.

The first problem: how to deliver your material.
Set cover and go home? Pfft. youre not actually ill. So, at the very least you need a direct method of telling students the problem, without playing Charades, but you also need a way to communicate with your class, allowing every child access to the learning you’re still offering. It’s all very well handing them a sheet of instructions to get on with if you’re going to be missing a lesson due to planned, one-off absence, but that doesn’t deal with you being in the room with the students who need basic help, the question that’s so good or important that you need to give the answer to the whole class, or the students who never read the instructions but who at least vaguely process the sound of your voice. You also need a way to make it FUN for goodness sake. I don’t go to work to be bored, and I don’t go to bore others (and I don’t seem go home when I don’t have a voice because I’m a bit of an idiot.) So,

1) I went to Maths and asked (with difficulty) to borrow a mini- whiteboard.

I wonder where that idea came from?

I wrote the problem on one side, and ‘yes/no’ on the other. A short-term solution though, as you can’t possibly teach just by getting the kids to ask you yes/no questions.

2) I found a Text-to-Speech Emulator website.

My students were disappointed that my robot voice sounded nothing like the classic Hawking.

Immediately my tutor group suggested Google Translate, which can speak the words you type in English so you can hear, I assume, just how odd English sounds to non-speakers. However, it was blocked, I imagine to stop pupils cheating in MFL. Google search was still permitted however, and only a few seconds later I had found and started using http://text-to-speech.imtranslator.net/ . It can do up to 1000 characters in one go, only takes about 30 seconds to do that, and has a variety of accents so words you type in in another language sound authentic (or your own words sound very silly.) I quickly decided in the male English voice as the female voice sounded uncannily like she was a bit of a bitch.
I sent myself emails containing the URL and phrases I thought I’d need to give the class ready-typed, with an introduction like this:

Dear [yeargroup] year. I have lost my voice. It has gone completely!

Please make sure that you look at the board so you know what to do.

When you hear the bell,

Make sure you stop talking and look.

[Insert chattiest child in class’ name here], we’re all waiting for you.

with the lesson instructions, so I could access them quickly from any of the computer-linked classrooms I was due to teach in that day.

The second problem: class control /emergencies. It would be completely remiss to go into a class of twenty-seven students and have no way of alerting them to any sudden situations, problems, or the fact that you’re just waiting for them to be quiet. Luckily, I have a bell.

Ding-ding.

I mostly use it in Drama Club to ‘ding’ people out of games when it’s time to swap. In class today it was a simple way of getting the attention I’d normally get with a countdown or my ‘teacher’ words (the ones you use repeatedly in class when it’s time to move on, a signal that they start responding to without realising it.) Had there been any problems, repeatedly hitting it would probably have got even more attention.

So, how did it work?

I had my lesson powerpoints up on the board as the students came in, then stood in my normal ‘waiting for you to come in so we can start’ position, then played them the ‘I’ve got no voice’ message in my robot voice. The immediate reaction was pretty much the same in every class: a mixture of amusement, excitement and genuine pity and concern.

The kids sat down and started the work. The ones who normally didn’t read the instructions on the board still didn’t read the instructions on the board, but the instructions in my robot voice had the same effect of getting them on task as my normal voice. Ringing the bell got every head up and looking at the board a lot faster than my normal counting down. Typing the message, putting it into the emulator then ringing the bell allowed the working chat to die down just before the robot voice spoke. Simply tapping on the title on the board whilst making eye contact with the whole class got it written by everyone, including those that normally forgot. I had yes/no answers ready on the mini-whiteboard (yes, a headshake or nod would suffice, but that’s not as fun as flipping a board and showing a smiley face – and getting one back in return).Thumbs up were given to each student doing well. My classic ‘funny look’ was given to those who made a joke, and ‘funny look’ modified with ‘pointy finger’ at those getting chatty. My everyday classroom persona is pretend-grumpy with a sharp sense of humour and I tend to use a lot of gesture or ‘looks’ rather than verbals in my classroom control anyway, so I was able to keep much of my normal non-verbal behaviour in play. And, there was comedy to reward good working with in the novel form of testing the computer with difficult words, like ‘metempsychosis’, or delivering a (delayed) witty retort in what the computer professed was a ‘Japanese’ accent, not the usual fare.

What I don’t normally have to think too much about is condensing my delivery into short, easy-to-load phrases. This was a fun challenge: what words would sufficiently push the pupils towards the answers without being too closed? What words was the emulator likely to mispronounce? How could I keep my reputation for wit when my response time was increased from one second to nearly thirty? (answer: type ‘Delayed reaction’ at the end.) There are certainly things I realise now I can do to make myself more concise.

It was tiring though, understandably, all that swapping between powerpoint and freezing the board to cut and paste into the emulator, dashing to the front to hit the bell, change slides, go round the class extra times to check work is still being completed without the usual one-to-one verbal input. As an experiment, it was interesting. As a novelty, it was a lot of fun for everyone involved.

It’s possible to teach without a voice, but I think only really if you’ve got an established system already. I really, really hope my voice comes back tomorrow.

Here’s my end-of-the-day 6th form prepared phrases for the robot voice to teach Book 6 of the Aeneid: approaching the pageant of future Romans. They’re the type of delightful kids who wear Prof. Andrew Wallace-Hadrill masks to class and email everyone things like this because they know it’s hilarious. They were genuinely upset that I couldn’t speak. Hope you enjoy:

Dear 6th form. I have lost my voice. It has gone completely! Seriously, I can’t speak, though it is funny listening to me try.
I have been teaching like this all day.
I say,
Please make sure that you look at the board so you know what to do.
When you hear the bell,
Make sure you stop talking and look.

It’s actually working really, really well. I should teach all of my lessons like this.

Don’t pity me.

So, you are going to read today. I know how much you love that.

I will ring the bell and then squeak at you when I want you to write something down.

We should hopefully finish book 6 today. We will be dealing with Metempsychosis.
That’s right. Metempsychosis.

Metempsychosis. Metempsychosis. Metempsychosis.
It’s fun to say.

What does Metempsychosis mean?
It means the transmigration of the soul to another body. That is what the unborn souls in the underworld are going to do to become the historical figures that Anchises is explaining to Aeneas.

We are up to page 133.

The story of creation here is particularly interesting. It seems to be talking about the sins of the flesh, the purgation of sin from the body so that the soul can be pure. This is like the idea of religious pollution, miasma, which means the body must be purified. It is also like the Christian idea of confessing sins to obtain forgiveness, which is basically purification, so that you can go to heaven after you die, instead of hell.

Caspian, miasma is spelled m i a s m a and it means religious pollution that must be purified from the body. It is mostly an ancient Greek concept. You could get it from doing a crime, being near a dead body, being near a newborn baby, or having sex. That spelling again is m I a s m a.

Virgil presents Aeneas’ future, which is Virgil’s own past, as souls before metempsychosis.
The names mentioned would have been well-known to Virgil’s contemporary readership, and remind the readers of Rome’s (mostly) illustrious past, whilst continuing to establish ‘historical fact’.
The characters are given an Appendix on p.291. Have it open at the back.
When you see a name that needs explaining using the appendix, ring the bell! If it’s not in the back, lose a life! Go!

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