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February 19, 2016

Creating new methods of teaching music with Surface

I’ve been teaching Instrumental music at Franklin Classical Middle School for 12 years. Over my first decade of teaching, one of the biggest challenges was having an efficient method of showing instructional visuals to my students. But then I got my hands on a Surface – and my classroom has never been the same.

My music classroom is a converted PE room, so my classroom space isn’t really designed to accommodate the typical music ensemble seating setup. For many years I did my best using the available resources, such as my uncentered little wall-mounted whiteboard. At the same time, I was trying out other methods such as an overhead projector. Neither of these methods really ever worked, and there were many instances where my students would mention they couldn’t see what I was writing on the whiteboard or overhead.

It was a struggle, but it was important for me to provide visuals to my students. A majority of the students attending Franklin are English Language Learners (ELLs), and providing a visual representation of the music theory concepts I’m teaching are important for their learning. Thankfully, those challenging days are gone.

A few years ago I watched Microsoft announce a new computer called Surface. It included an integrated digital pen, and I was immediately intrigued and inspired so much that I bought it when it became available. My classroom has never been the same.

Using a Surface immediately changed my pedagogical practices, my professional practices, and my creative output. Because it blends powerful features into one single device, it’s my one-stop, versatile do-it-all device for everything. How can that be? Let me explain.

It’s a full blown computer. There aren’t any sacrifices in this tablet. It has a full-size USB port for file transfers, an SD card slot for storage expansion, enough RAM for video editing, and hard drive space for local and all my cloud service files. It handles the workload for my profession, my graduate work, and my personal projects.

Its form factor. No matter where I am I can comfortably use my Surface to type, write, and create. Whether it’s at the coffee shop, my work desk, the front of the classroom, sitting with my trumpet section, at a meeting, in another teacher’s classroom, laying down on the couch, or on an airplane, it’s a tablet when I need it to be a tablet, and a laptop when I need it to be a laptop. It’s thin and light, making it a breeze to hold in my hand, use at my meetings, set down on my podium, and use at my concerts.

Andrew Fitzgerald using Surface to plan his music classes.

The digital pen. As a teacher, drawing and writing is one of my most important go-to tools for instruction. In the past teachers have used the chalkboard, the whiteboard, the overhead, and now we’re using document cameras in the classroom. Nothing else is as quick and easy for us than drawing a diagram, a picture, or text for our students to see. With the Surface Pen, I get that and more. Precise and fluid inking, a variety of colors, thickness variability, an eraser, a lasso, and never having to ask anyone ever again for a marker.

Most important of all, I have a record. I have a history. I have every word, every picture, every diagram I have ever written for classroom instruction, meetings, or notes in a graduate class for the last two years. In the past I had to erase my whiteboard after every class, losing all the teachable moment magic that would occur during those days. Because I use digital ink, now I can do a quick search to see how I taught eighth notes to my beginners last year, how I taught chords to my advanced students last week, how far along we were in the method book two years ago. I don’t need to go digging in a file cabinet or through an old lesson planner for this information. It’s in the cloud, it’s on my Surface, and I can find it fast.

It’s wireless. Surface has Miracast built in, which lets it connect to a projector or TV without the need for wires or an existing WiFi network. Miracast also transmits both the video and audio signals simultaneously from my Surface, allowing my students to see and hear everything I generate from my Surface in real time. I’m no longer tethered to the front of the room or to a desk. With my Surface as my whiteboard, I can teach from any point in the room, and my students can interact with my “whiteboard” content without having to leave their seats. Classroom management is much easier now that I’m free to move around the classroom.

StaffPad app on Surface.

There is an app for that. The Surface’s unique hardware is complemented by the selection of software applications I use in my classroom, for work, and at home. OneNote is where the magic happens. It’s not just a digital notebook, it’s my digital canvas. My canvas for instruction, for agendas, for media playback, for thoughts, for ideas, for plans, for content creation. It is the medium I use to teach my students with visuals. It is the bridge that transfers my instruction into their learning. OneNote is a whiteboard, a document camera, and a media player wrapped up into one amazing purple program.

I use various applications for music education. StaffPad is one incredible notation editor tool for my students and myself. I use Piano Time Pro for both visual & aural representation of sounds and their relationships. Putting Modtuner Pro on the projector lets my students see the tiny adjustments in pitch they make on their instrument, Modtronome Pro provides a beat when my students or I need it.

For work, I use Drawboard PDF to fill out various school-related documents, such as behavior plans, lesson plans, action plans, and all the other plans we have to fill out. A quick filling out with my Surface pen and share via email allows me to never worry about printing out another form.

For content creation, I have the full power of Office and Adobe apps at my disposal. Word for creating new worksheets, Excel for showing and analyzing student performance data, PowerPoint and Office Mix for prototyping,  presentations, the flipped classroom, and other various projects.  I use Sway for digital content sharing among staff, students, parents, and others. Photoshop and Illustrator for my graphic design projects, and Premiere for making my videos. Even InDesign for those special occasions. Whether I’m sitting at my local coffee shop, or docked at home to another monitor, I get the full multitasking power of a PC working in various software applications all at once, getting my work done like a boss.

It’s the little things. Last week my students were using the online PowerPoint editor for the first time to create their virtual valentines. Using the Edge browser, I was able to quickly annotate the PowerPoint webpage, giving my students the directions they needed to get started. Also, recently a teacher texted me at school, asking for help with some YouTube troubles. Rather than answer with a lengthy explanation text, I created a quick video response explaining the process to fix the issue using Snip. It was a quick and simple solution that didn’t impede on my current work at hand.

For me to do everything I do these days, whether its creating an e-learning application, conducting formative assessments, writing a project thesis paper, creating new digital resources for instruction, collaborating with my colleagues, presenting at workshops, making videos, annotating my student’s work, capturing student performance data, getting my Master’s degree, and providing my students with a solid music education, I need a special do-it-all device. For me, that device is Surface.