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Microphone-Toting Teachers Grab Students' Attention

Teachers at two elementary schools in Baltimore County, Maryland, find that students jump to attention when the teachers use sound systems in their classrooms. The microphones boost their voices over background noises and help prevent "teacher-voice" strain. Included: Tips on using sound systems in classrooms.

Some Maryland elementary school teachers have a rock-star look these days, but that doesn't mean they're sporting leather pants -- they're just wearing headsets.

Teachers in two Baltimore County K-5 schools with built-in sound systems are using lapel microphones or hands-free microphones with battery packs on their belts -- think Britney Spears -- to amplify their voices in classrooms. The result, some users say, is more focused students and fewer teachers with strained voices.

"Of all the money spent on this building, this was probably the best money we spent," says Sparks Elementary School principal Thomas Ellis about the sound system. "We immediately saw kids become more attentive. [A sound system] raises the voice several decibels and overcomes background noise."

Principal Karen Cordell of Dogwood Elementary School has seen similar benefits. "If used properly, it helps keep kids focused; it keeps up a consistent volume," Cordell tells Education World. "Some kids have asked teachers who were not using it to turn it on."

Some glitches, though, are inevitable. "We've had some embarrassing moments," Ellis says. "Sometimes teachers forget to turn off the microphones in the hallway or in the bathroom."

Leigh Anne Mayo, a Sparks first-grade teacher and sound-system enthusiast, says she has trained herself to monitor her "Britney Spears-type" microphone. "I've made it a habit; as soon as I cross the classroom threshold [into the hallway], I hit the off button," Mayo tells Education World.

BUILDING IN SOUND

Both Ellis and Cordell requested sound systems in their schools' construction plans. Sparks was rebuilt after a fire and reopened in 1998; Dogwood, a new school, opened in 1999.

A speech pathologist at Sparks suggested a sound system to Ellis. After doing some research, he made it one of his priorities for the new building. After observing the system at work at Sparks, Cordell requested one as well.

Only the physical education teacher at Sparks does not use the system, Ellis says, and that's because the activity level makes it impractical. Teachers do turn off the microphones when they work with small groups or individual students. Students also use the microphones when giving class presentations.

"Teachers have gotten so used to it, they really depend on it," says Ellis. "They miss it if it's broken."

OVERCOMING BACKGROUND NOISE

Mayo says that until she used a headset, she didn't know what she was missing. "When I turn it on, it's a signal [to students] to pay attention."

The sound system projects her voice over all the constant, low-level noise generated by the heating system, fish tank filter, and sounds seeping in from outside, Mayo says. "I feel there are a lot of things -- for example, noise from a lawn mower -- that adults can tune out, but kids can't always do that. This gets their attention and keeps their attention."

Not all teachers are comfortable using the microphones. Ellis requires Sparks teachers to use it; Dogwood principal Cordell leaves it up to the teachers. Many doubters have already changed their minds, though. According to Ellis, "Some people who were very reluctant now love it. I've created a monster."

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