Rev. Dr. Graeme MacNeil

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Rev. Dr. Graeme MacNeil's Testimonial, Contributed 11/27/2005

From the MathLab at Home!


There are few things in life which stand out as having a major impact on a person or those around them. Having searched for many years for new and interesting ways to engage my students in math, I had come to a stand-still. There are many interesting things, but not too many interesting ways - a one-off activity may be great or a certain piece of software may be entertaining, but I wanted more - more from me and more from my students. How is that possible? Well I wondered this too until a chanced email opened my eyes and paved the way for one, rather, the most amazing journey.


I had written to a certain Professor Tim Fahlberg about his excellent tutorials on dynamic questions for ExamView. Admittedly I didn't expect a response, I had written to others before and heard nothing back. Well I was wrong - his response was quick, friendly and informative. I hadn't realized it yet, but I had just received a letter from the person who would very soon change the way that I not only teach math and interact with my students, but also the way my students would interact with each other and the world.


Tim directed me to what he called Whiteboard Math Movies - needless to say, as soon as I saw these I was more than a little intrigued. How did he do that? More correspondence, some reasonably inexpensive software, Camtasia Studio (never heard of that before), a generous gift of a SchoolPad (hadn't seen those before) and I felt like - Well this is it! Watch out Mel Gibson! (Mind you, Mel went one better with the Passion.)


So on with it - What has it done for me as a teacher of math? This is a difficult question to sum up the answer for because Tim's original idea and concept reaches so much further than you first think. You may ask, how can something like this make such a difference? Answer - It is different! I have been teaching math for the past twenty-two years and have always had a great passion for the subject and in some ways I thought myself to be innovative in the way I taught math. I no longer think of the way I used to teach as innovative - this is innovative. With WMs, my explanations are no longer static (on the board or paper), they become as interactive as I want them to be. I can make recordings for different types of questions, I can produce these as movies for the internet, intranet, CD, DVD, palmOne, thumb-drives - almost any media so that students can have access to ways and methods of solving problems. They make me think more carefully about my delivery now, with greater enthusiasm. I don't need to rely on worked examples in a text for my students at school or home, they can watch and listen to me, their teacher explain the question as I would in the classroom and they are able to access them in almost any way.


As for assessments or grading, I can use these movies to analyze the student's work in more detail because they are thinking out loud. This is something you don't get from a pen and paper examination - their thinking. Of course, students need to practice this but it doesn't take them long to get the technique down to an art form.


For my students, WMs have been the greatest. These young minds do not need a great deal of prompting and because they are different, they are easily made and they're performed and produced by them. Students love to show what they can do and my students are no different. They want to show me, other teachers, their parents and their friends what they can do. By far, one of the greatest aspects of WMs I've found for students is self correction in that they learn from their mistakes. They make a movie: they can review it and see exactly what they are doing - right or wrong. They pick up the errors because it is a lot easier to critically analyze their own work. They hear what they are saying so they can correct the terminology or the grammar. In short, they can teach themselves how to do the problem correctly.


Not all movies are for my use. Some are for practice and some are just plain fun! But now we are going that little bit further - I have students teaching other students how to make these movies and I now have students creating movies as teaching exercises for poorer students of math - living tutorials. Some of my students will borrow a writing tablet and produce some assignment work or homework questions using the same method - it engages them and what better way to have student enjoying their homework and math. As an added bonus their movies can be easily incorporated into digital portfolios which clearly show their development over time.


Most days, my students ask about movies! Sometimes, we just can't make them due to the unavailbility of computers, but many times we can. I am a little remiss for not posting the on the website, but I'll get to it.


Recently, the math department has invested in ten Wacom Tablets for students to take home to use and make movies - they think it's great. They create the movies and bring them to school on USB thumb-drives and I convert them to Flash using Camtasia Studio ... then we sit back and watch them on the 'big screen' (and I secretly watch the faces of my students as they view their work - now that's something!). Next year, we are purchasing another twenty and hope to continue this for the next few years.


My dear friend Tim has not only introduced me to whiteboard movies, but he so generously sent me a set of keypads (34 to be exact) from his own pocket so that my students could experience the fun of CPS (Classroom Performance System from eInstruction). Well needless to say, this has been a hit! Who would have though that taking a test could be so much fun? Or even the revision of what used to be boring concepts like tables.


Until you have tried these methods, until you have seen the look on their faces, you are missing out on possibly the greatest experience you could have as a classroom teacher. It's been about a year and a half since I met Tim and it is during this time that I have enjoyed teaching the most because it's something both teacher and student can work with and with each other - I have told Tim more than once, that he saved my teaching career - I needed something different. 'Ask, and it shall be given you: seek and you shall find: knock, and it shall be opened to you' - Tim's generosity and time has been unbounded, WMs, CPS and ExamView ... my teaching style and methods received a complete overhaul.


So, what have your students done today? Get connected, and I'll show you what mine can do!


This letter was written some months ago, prior to the NECC conference in Philadelphia. I have added to it in some places.


Finishing this letter, I have to say that the novelty has not worn off, because these techniques are by no means just something to amuse the students. They engage them and make them better students - they make me a better teacher. These tools and my association and friendship with Tim are why I'm still teaching ... and will continue teaching!


Technology is not the be-all and end-all, but many students love the technology and some do not, but even those who do not really like technology still enjoy making movies and using CPS - no-one needs to be an expert or proficient, you just need to know your work and press a button - How easy it that!


As for teachers ... If you are not using these tools ... You are the ones who are behind the times and missing out on just how well your students can perform. As a teacher ... Why are you teaching? I would like to think that it was because of your students. Afterall, I don't really teach anymore. I gave that up years ago - and my friendship with Tim has reinforced this ... I guide my students! I show them what they can do ... and then sit back and watch!


May our God bless you all!


Rev. Dr. Graeme MacNeil


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