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 Article of Interest - What Works in the Classroom...

Hearing better: Teacher is wired for sound, and results are spectacular
by Twila Van Leer, Deseret News, April 15, 2003
Original URL:,1249,480035915,00.html
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All that stands between the teacher at the front of the room and that disinterested little boy on the back row is a lot of ambient noise: electricity humming, foot-shuffling, air whistling through ducts, paper rustling, classmates breathing and wiggling, traffic passing outside and the dozen other sounds that don't necessarily register, but affect hearing.

Now, was that spelling word the teacher just said "pond," "pawned" or even "upon"?

For the teacher, the alternative is to raise the volume, sometimes at the risk of stressing the vocal cords.
"I was ready to quit," said Shauna Starr, a fourth-grade teacher at Pioneer Elementary in Granite District. "When I started losing my voice, it frightened me. I was going down fast. I teach with enthusiasm and by the end of the day, I was wiped. This way, I'm not."

"This way" is an acoustical enhancement project Pioneer has fostered. Teachers are wired for sound, speakers distribute the sound equally in the room and the results, Starr said, are spectacular.
On this particular day, her students are working on a math concept, creating charts and graphs by sorting little piles of colored candies and comparing the colors they have drawn with the proportions the candy company says are put into each bag.

In Steven's bag, for instance, 27 percent of the candies are brown and 17 percent yellow, while the M & M's people say the usual proportion is 30 percent brown and 20 percent yellow. Obviously, Steven's tan, red and green candies will also be out of proportion.

"Think about yours and write about the differences," Starr tells her students. In the middle of the room with children on all sides, she speaks in a normal tone of voice. A small wireless microphone picks up the sound and an infrared signal sends it to multiple speakers mounted in the acoustical tiles of the classroom ceiling.

Her directions about counting and charting obviously are getting through not only to those at her sides but to those in the front and back of the room. They are all participating and following instructions.

"This is miles above what happened in my old classroom," said Starr. "It just makes sense. It's a no-brainer. I haven't changed what I am doing as a teacher, but my students are more engaged. It has enhanced what I am trying to do. It should be happening in all our schools."

Next door, fellow fourth-grade teacher Laura Pickering is equally enthused. "My students' attention is a lot better," she said. "I had lots of parents requesting that their child be closer to the front, now it isn't an issue. I don't repeat as much."

Acoustical enhancement is a simple concept that has made a big difference in his school, said principal Paul J. McCarty. As students hear better, they are performing better as well. "Never have I seen reading and math growth in such a short period of time," he wrote in an article for an education publication. His school has many Title I students who come from low-income homes, including many whose primary language is not English. Meeting new federal No Child Left Behind standards had loomed as a significant challenge.
McCarty believes the classroom audio improvements have contributed to better grades and better behavior in his students. The school had used a number of approaches to improve student achievement, including new reading and math curriculums and texts, use of specialists, staff training and purchase of educational software, he said, but with minimal effects.

"We faced the reality that we were not going to show the necessary yearly accountability gains required by (the federal guidelines)." In 2001, the first year audio enhancement used in Pioneer, students showed 10 to 15 percent gains in reading and math, based on annual test scores. In the second year, the same gains were manifest. The greatest progress has come with the English as a second language students, he said.

"Our greatest student test score improvement came from our ESL students, with an average gain of 16 percent as measured by our state's Criterion Reference Test," said McCarty.

And Pioneer students are liking school better.

"The sound is more louder. I can hear my teacher better," said Destiny Simpson, who was working with a group to analyze their candy numbers and write about them.

"I could hear at the back but not as well as this," agreed Heather Lavender, as she and Cristina Luangaphay prepared to knuckle down to the work.

"Parents have reported how much their students love coming to school," said McCarty. Failure to hear well in the classroom has been identified as a factor in students losing interest and for some, ultimately dropping out, McCarty said..

He was led to try acoustical tinkering on one of those "days that strike fear in every principal." One of his teachers came to his office weeping and announced she was resigning on advice of her doctor, who had diagnosed severe vocal cord deterioration that threatened permanent loss of her voice.

"I did not want to lose her. I searched for alternatives," said McCarty. His research turned up the increasing use of audio enhancement in classrooms across the country. That growing body of research suggests that children may be at more risk in an acoustically challenged setting than adults, because they listen differently. Their auditory neurological networks are not fully developed until they reach the mid-teens.

Enhancing the auditory effectiveness of the classroom is a relatively simple and inexpensive remedy, McCarty said. He is convinced that it is an approach that could help more schools meet the challenging new standards set by the government. He also is contributing his own experience to the body of research growing up around audio enhancement.

Pioneer has met the $1,600-per-classroom cost of audio equipment and installation by using the school's Trust Lands money. Each school in the state receives a small amount of no-strings money from the trust each year, and a school committee determines how it will be used.

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