In South Portland, Maine: Engaging students, no matter where they are

When Andrew Wallace first tried Lightspeed’s instructional audio system at an industry conference, he didn’t think his voice sounded much different. Those around him, however, did.

“I noticed when I was speaking that people were really more in-tune with what I was saying,” said Wallace, who is the director of technology for South Portland School Department

Wallace, along with second-grade teacher Kristin Ortiz, shared their experiences for In Action: Lightspeed Instructional Audio in the Classroom.

South Portland, which serves more than 3,000 students across eight public schools, implemented Lightspeed’s Topcat system throughout all its elementary instructional rooms over the last three years, and is now adding them to its middle and high schools.

Focusing on the audio in A/V

Wallace said the instructional audio systems are no-brainers when it comes to implementing technology that offers a big impact on students. As he’s become involved in building projects over the years, Wallace said schools often spend money on video technology but neglect the audio elements.

“What I realized was that if kids are not hearing what the teacher is saying, they can’t process that information and they cannot learn new information,” he said. “If they’re always struggling to try to discern what is being said, then they’re never going to progress.”

Wallace said with audio, where you’re sitting, the direction you’re facing and even your physiological make-up has a huge impact in what you actually hear, especially for young children.

“As adults, you could miss a few words and fill it all in, but that’s because you have a great vocabulary you’ve build up your entire life,” he said. “But if kids miss words, they’re not going to be able to get to the next part of the lesson. They’re going to be stuck there.”

Ortiz, who has spent two decades as a teacher, said three years after piloting Lightspeed’s system at Dora L. Small Elementary School, she can’t imagine not using it.

“Today, it’s a no-brainer. It’s the first thing I do. I walk in, turn the lights on, go get my mic and wear it,” she said.

Noting that she “has a loud voice to begin with” and had to tone it down a little bit, Ortiz said the system took a period of adjustment to hear her voice amplified throughout the classroom.

“The kids were kind of looking at you or it, wondering ‘What is that?’ and looking up at the ceiling where the sound was coming from,” she said.

Making connections, building relationships

Ortiz says Lightspeed enables her to better connect with students, something that is crucial to learning, especially for hybrid models that combine in-person and distance learning and requirements for mask-wearing.

“You can’t get anywhere in academics until you’ve built that relationship with your students,” she said.

Ortiz said she sometimes uses the mic like a game show host, announcing each student’s arrival to the room, or uses a silly voice to add energy or reset on days when things seem to be dragging.

“It just makes them laugh and it really helps them to feel that connection from their teacher,” she said, adding that having her voice amplified makes it easier to grab attention. “I’m not having to be that echo all day long of ‘What are we supposed to be doing?’ You’ve grabbed them, they’re laughing with you and now they want to work with you.”

Wallace said students across the district share a sense of engagement, no matter where they’re sitting.

“I often hear them say, ‘I feel like she’s right next to me,’” he said. “If you’re that kid in the back left of the room, may not always feel like you’re that connected to the teacher.”

Engaging with multiple small groups

Health measures such as social distancing have temporarily restricted use of the Lightspeed’s Activate system, which enables educators to monitor several small groups simultaneously. If kids get stuck, they can use the system to call for help, triggering an alert on the teacher’s mobile device app.

Ortiz says she uses the system to listen in and quickly redirect students to move the discussion back on track, activating her mic to say “Hey, writing station! I’m so excited that you’re getting a new dog, but I need you to get back to your writing.”

“It’s allowing me to engage and interact with every student, even though I’m specifically working with the four in front of me,” she said.

A sense of calm

South Portland teachers often tell Wallace Lightspeed helps create a “sense of calm” in the classroom, eliminating the need for them to strain their voice to project to students seated beyond the first row. That pressure to make sure everyone can hear clearly has only been heightened by health measures such as mask-wearing, social distancing and increased ventilation.

Ortiz said she recently had a cohort of students ask her to turn off the mic so they could see what her “real” voice sounded like, only to request she resume using it.

“They said, ‘we like it better, we hear you better,’” she said. “Collectively it’s bringing us together in a way that I never imagined. I saw it and thought, ‘I’m just going to be louder,’ …and it’s so much more.”

Beyond amplifying her voice, Ortiz said the system has helped her be more effective at managing the classroom.

“It allows me to just be silly at times, but it also allows me to just bring it down and talk with them,” she said. “No matter where I am, they’re all really right there with me because they hear that. They can get off task and as soon as I turn this back on, they’re back on again.”