Tag Archives: supply teaching

Gamify Your Classroom #1: calmCounter

I’m constantly looking for ways to turn learning and classroom behaviour into a game for students. This enhances their sense of autonomy by distracting them from the fact that they are doing what I want them to do. Plus they get a real kick out of it. Here’s part one of my series on classroom gamification.

Teacher Ears: An Endangered Species
For some reason, most classrooms in London have the acoustics of a reverberation chamber. On top of that, today’s younglings rarely acknowledge the need to pause between raising their hand and voicing their opinion. Many have done away with the hand raise altogether. Trapped between reverberant rooms and exuberant hoons, teacher ears everywhere are battling extinction. But I am not willing to forfeit mine just yet. Yesterday, after an exhaustive search for free online volume monitor programs that actually work, I hit the jackpot with calmCounter.

Setting up calmCounter is simple if you know your way around a computer. Before using it, you need to:

  • make sure your microphone is active and turned up to its maximum
  • turn off your webcam
  • turn off your speakers

These things are all easily done via Control Panel (PC) or System Preferences (Mac). If you get stuck at this stage hit me up in the comments and I’ll go into further detail.

Once up and running, the volume input can be adjusted via the “microphone sensitivity” bar. Since my students were doing an art lesson, I tweaked it to a level where a low level of general chat was tolerated, but a full-classroom chatfest launched the indicator into the red zone.

At the commencement of the lesson, I displayed calmCounter on the interactive whiteboard for all to see. The kids were immediately drawn in by the playful-looking interface, and predictably set about the task of maxing out the meter using poorly-disguised coughs and yelps. I had anticipated this, and allowed them a couple of minutes to play around with it before calling an end to the tomfoolery and defining the purpose of the experiment: to keep our classroom noise down.


I’d soon discover that using calmCounter in this way is an effective gamification because it provides the students with a common goal. Their fusion was palpable. Initially my TA and I had to keep reminding the class when noise was rising, and reproaching the class when the volume entered the dreaded red zone. Gradually they became more aware of the device, and the fact that the best way to avoid the red zone was to focus on their work. A few hands were even raised! After about twenty minutes, I (cruelly) added a new rule to the game. Every time the volume hit red, I would deduct one minute from the next day’s break time.

You’ve got to love the risk-taking attitude of a few boys who then decided to try and get the sound meter as close to red as possible without crossing over into the red zone. Unfortunately for them, the calmCounter algorithm seems to operate on “vocal inertia”. Sharp, sporadic bursts of noise barely register, but consistent sound, even at a fairly low volume, will eventually cause the meter to steadily creep up and keep going until a few seconds after the sound has stopped. This dynamic works beautifully in the classroom, and my risk-takers soon found out that it’s not easy to rig.

In future I will reward them for each five-minute blocks where they don’t go above red, as it’s important to have positive incentives as well as negative consequences.

Overall, the students enjoyed the experiment and both my ears and those of the TA relished the unusually quiet hour. CalmCounter is available at http://www.ictgames.com/calmCounter.html. Get in while it’s free!

Why Size Matters (and What You Can Do About It)

There once was a man with incredibly large genitals. His sex life was spectacular – but for one problem.

Once upon a time, there was a woman who was known across the land as “Slippery Sybil”. The reasons for her nickname were many, but all of them related in some way or another to her enormous…

This is a story about the most impressive erection in the history of mankind: the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.

How did you respond to these story openings?

My guess is:

  • shock after reading the first line;
  • confusion in the second paragraph because it doesn’t flow naturally from the first;
  • frustration, annoyance or apathy in the third because none of this crass garbage fits together.

So what’s my point?

I have been thinking lately that full-time teaching is like writing a novel. Both undertakings can be incredibly daunting. Each requires resilience and countless hours of unacknowledged effort. For the teacher, every year-long class is filled with highs and lows, and similarly, authors experience some days when words gush in a torrent onto the page, and other days when they daren’t go within 45m of their computer for fear of keyboard poisoning. Despite the challenges, successful teachers and novelists give their hearts and souls until the final bell, and those with talent are rewarded with a wonderful story.

If we take this analogy a step further, then the frustrating series of false starts that you experienced at the beginning of this article is analogous to the lot of the humble supply teacher.

For the supply teacher, every day is another new beginning. Names and faces come and go, and real progress, in the form of sustained student development, is never observed. It’s a fate similar to that of Bill Murray’s character Phil Connors in Groundhog Day, except that in Connors’s surreal nightmare each day was identical to the last, enabling him to easily anticipate events. In the life of a supply teacher, a day of intellectual wrestling with pre-pubescent Year 7s can be sandwiched between a day minding three-year-olds in Nursery and a day teaching religion to Year 4s in an Islamic school for boys. Sometimes it feels like stepping into a series of Oz-like parallel universes, where the unfamiliar and unexpected are commonplace.

That’s certainly how I’ve felt at times in the past few weeks, and I know from personal conversations that many other supply teachers also see their job as a demoralising series of non-sequiturs. But need it be this way?

To return to the literary analogy, not all stories are novels. There are plenty of smaller-sized stories to be found and enjoyed. Novellas and short stories are the obvious examples, but even shorter genres exist. The fifty-word story has risen as a genre in recent years, but that seems like a giant in comparison to the true midget of the story family; the six-word story.

Legend has it that this genre was born the day Ernest Hemingway accepted a challenge to write a story in six words. Fascinatingly, Hemingway is said to have regarded the resulting story as his finest work. It went, “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

Since that fateful day, the six-word story has developed into a genre of its own. Creative writing lecturers often encourage students to practice writing six-word stories on the basis that this practice hones a student’s sense of storytelling by forcing conciseness. Every word must count.

In the hands of talented writers, six-word stories can be romantic (Ships fire; princess weeps, between stars. – Charles Stross), grotesque (Kirby had never eaten toes before. – Kevin Smith), philosophical (It cost too much, staying human. – Bruce Sterling),political (Bush told the truth. Hell froze. – William Gibson), haunting (I’m dead. I’ve missed you. Kiss … ? – Neil Gaiman) or humorous (Longed for him. Got him. Shit. – Margaret Atwood).

The key to writing a good six-word story is to manage expectations. If you are expecting to write a novel in six words, you are setting yourself up for frustration. But writing six-word stories can be incredibly fulfilling, as Hemingway’s experience shows, if you focus purely on getting the most out of those six words.

Similarly, if a supply teacher arrives at work every day expecting to develop a deep educational narrative with their students, they are setting themselves up for disappointment. But if they arrive ready to accept the challenge of showcasing their teaching talents in one day, they may go home satisfied.

In my case, when I made this adjustment I found that each new beginning suddenly transformed into a fresh opportunity to change my teaching approach completely, a practice that would have seemed too inconsistent in a full-time role. For someone like me, who is intent on developing his teaching skills through continued reflective practice, it could be argued that this is the ideal situation. Why slog away at the same story and be constantly held back by your early mistakes when you can pump out five stories a week, generating new, better ideas each time?

There are plenty of other benefits to the “bite-sized teaching” mindset. The challenge of learning a new set of names every day is excellent brain exercise. Those first moments with a new class are fantastic opportunities to rehearse the art of “hooking”, a crucial skill as the old proverb “first impressions last” reminds us. And on a broader scale, the range of different classrooms and schools provides a rich pedagogical sampling ground.

I don’t know much about genitals, or erections, or whatever Slippery Sybil had that was so captivatingly massive. But I do know that when it comes to supply teachers’s expectations, size matters. The supply teachers who learn this lesson are far more likely to sympathise with the Wizard of Oz’s protagonist in Steven Meretzky’s twisted six-word story, below.

Dorothy: “Fuck it, I’ll stay here.”


Wired Magazine, 2006, Issue 14.11, Very Short Stories viewed 25 June 2013, http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/14.11/sixwords.html

Frenzy Prevails Again, but Schoolman Gallant in Defeat

Almost all student names in this article are fictional.

June 14, Hackney

Colourful name-tags gave the Schoolman an early lead and enabled him to wrestle back the momentum several times over the day.

Colourful name-tags gave the Schoolman an early lead and enabled him to wrestle back the momentum several times over the day.

The Learning London Schoolman was today defeated by arch-rivals the Fourth Grade Frenzy for the second time this week.

However, in a much-improved display, the Schoolman enjoyed several periods of dominance to offer his fans at least a glimmer of hope.

The Schoolman leapt out of the blocks, greeting several members of the Frenzy in the playground and reeling off their names from memory. In the ensuing procession into the classroom, the Schoolman’s decision to set up online behaviour management tool Classdojo on the interactive whiteboard led to another goal. After conducting the register, the Schoolman added a third goal by producing a bunch of sticky labels, bringing up some graffiti-style fonts on the whiteboard and instructing the students to spend the next fifteen minutes create their own personalised name-tags.

The Schoolman was clearly relishing his lead, and spent the next few minutes cheerfully dishing out positive reinforcement via Classdojo. Before long, the students were called to the mat to have their next lesson explained. Frenzy superstars Scorsese and Mohammed eventually sat down, but not before they had wasted valuable minutes. The Frenzy was on the board at last, and began to play in a more relaxed fashion. Scorsese and Bwpfrqx added two quick goals by showcasing an impressive array of combative quips that left the Schoolman with no choice but to have them sent from the field.

A short time later the new activity was under way, and despite some strong over-the-shoulder marking, the Schoolman was visibly rattled.

The Frenzy's winning margin would have been far greater if not for the engaging behaviour management system, ClassDojo.

The Frenzy’s winning margin would have been far greater if not for the engaging behaviour management system, ClassDojo.

His morning break could not come quick enough. As Frenzy pairs began to finish their work, the Schoolman made a costly error by delivering ambiguous instructions to the early finishers to “read until break”. Within moments of being granted this freedom, the Frenzy had spiralled into an orgy of mass hysteria and Frenzy goals flowed like the Thames. Scorsese and Bwpfrqx had returned to the field and were once again in the thick of things, burrowing under desks, hurling pencils, sweeping books from the shelves onto the floor and palming off teacher interventions in performances reminiscent of the great Jonah Lomu. By the time the break had arrived the room was in disarray, so the Schoolman attempted to wrest back control by docking five minutes from the Frenzy’s break. However, in a cruelly ironic twist, the only students who noticed were the poor, obedient souls who actually were listening.

Realising this, the Schoolman released the whole class except for the five most disruptive offenders; Scorsese, Mohammed, Penbe, Luol and Bwpfrqx. In a telling passage of play, Mohammed told the Schoolman that he “needed to be more strict” to which the perplexed Schoolman replied “B..b..but… what do you think I’m trying to do right now?”

While this exchange was going on, Scorsese slipped out the door. The Schoolman called after him that it was a funny stunt but he’d better come back, but Scorsese chose not to heed this warning so the Schoolman referred to the third umpire, Headteacher Susan. The third umpire immediately confirmed that Scorsese would sit the next class in the “behaviour room”, affording the Schoolman some much-needed breathing space.

But by now the Frenzy had all the momentum, and the second session commenced the way the previous one had ended. For the first five minutes after the bell, half of the Frenzy team galloped around the playground, blissfully oblivious to the wavering bleats of the Schoolman and his assistants. Fifteen minutes later the class was sitting upon the mat before an unusually dark and veiny Schoolman, receiving instructions on how to write a persuasive advertisement. The shorter session worked to the Schoolman’s favour, and the Frenzy made pleasing progress on its task. By the time the Schoolman had pegged a few goals back by quashing the off-task behaviour of a few Frenzy players with some adroit Classdojo use, it was time for lunch.

The Schoolman utilised the break to buy a sandwich filled with a disgusting pink meat paste, whilst the Frenzy regrouped for an afternoon onslaught.

The Frenzy's afternoon scoring spree produced the first grey hairs on the Schoolman's head.

The Frenzy’s afternoon scoring spree produced the first grey hairs on the Schoolman’s head.

As lunch time came to a close, the Frenzy resorted to its earlier dirty tactics by completely ignoring the bell. However this time the entire team ran rampant, side-stepping countless Schoolman pleas and rebukes. After ten minutes a still-only-half-lined-up Frenzy could smell victory. A deflated Schoolman lead the slovenly formation up to the classroom, where the Frenzy continued its assault on the scoreboard with five more minutes of rowdiness. Had an ally of the Schoolman not intervened with some biased refereeing, it could easily have been ten or twenty minutes. The Frenzy was led back down to the playground to “practice lining up”, and after another five minutes was finally sitting down receiving instructions for the afternoon Science lesson.

Under the watchful eye of his ally, the Schoolman was able to finish the day with a scoring streak as the majority of students turned in impressive work and demonstrated respectful classroom behaviour. But it was too little too late, and Headteacher Susan removed any doubt as to the result with a last-minute visit to the field to inform the Frenzy that they had all but lost the right to attend the upcoming sports carnival.

Scorsese was again best on ground with a blistering display of disrespectful and impulsive behaviour, while Pepe, Joshua and the female Frenzy members had shockingly well-behaved days.