Friday, April 29, 2011

Week 28: The Worst of Classes

"Self-flagellation is part of teaching"

Every once in a while I teach a class that doesn't go well. Sometimes I know exactly what went wrong and how to fix the situation and other times the class becomes an embarrassing train-wreck that lacks any noticeable learning.

Yeah I had one of those classes this week.

The class started out pretty well but about halfway through things started falling apart. I couldn't keep the students engaged and I struggled to keep order in the classroom. I could see things start to fall apart but I didn't know what to do to turn things around and before things got too bad, thankfully class was over.

Cleaning up the classroom after my students left I was angry and frustrated, partially at some of my students but mostly at myself. In the past weeks I had tried many different things with the class and I though I was making progress, all that work seemed for nigh. It seemed like I tried everything with this class: new seating charts, different kinds of activities, a variation of lesson structures and involving other teachers in the class. I pride myself on being imaginative and inventive educator and reflecting on the class with no ides on how to fix the situation left me drained and angry.

After pacing around the school for 15 minutes trying to find some answers in the hallway, I went to one of the veteran teachers in the school for advice. Here’s a couple things she reminded me of:

-Teaching is hard, even after 30 years, teaching is still hard.

-Teaching is not about teaching what you want. It’s about teaching what students can learn and feel successful at. While many teachers because of pressures of curriculum and standardized testing can’t teach this way, it’s really the way education should be.

-Teaching is not about being the teacher you want to be but rather being the teacher your students need you to be.

After our discussion someone I felt excited about teaching that class again as opposed to dreading it. Sometimes you forget these things about teaching and while this discussion didn’t provide me with any answers it provided me with reassurance that I wasn’t alone in my struggle.

I think a lot of us have days like this at work when things feel horrible and knowing that people around us sometimes feels the same doesn’t make this emotion go away but somehow it doesn’t feel so bad.
AND you can’t forget that a certain level of self-flagellation is necessarily a bad thing. Just feel bad, and then get over it.

There’s always next week. 

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Round 15: Viva La Vida Throwdown

One of my favorite songs of all time (which I wrote about in this earlier blog) performed by three of my favorite artist.

There's Weezer with their understated passion managing to be both celebratory and regretful all at the same time.

Taylor gently sings this song simply her angelic voice somehow making this song seem deeply personal (y'know it's not her lyrics that make her songs so feel so genuine).

Then there's Gaga. She reminds that she is a classically trained pianist and what it really means to be Lady Gaga.

I couldn't tell you which one I like the best. I'm simply awed at Coldplay's masterpiece. They managed to make a song that told such a specific story but was able to be interpreted in so many different ways.


Monday, April 25, 2011

Easter Sermon For the Non-Christian

Growing up in a non-Christian household, Easter was a little bit more baffling than Christmas. American culture has not as effectively defined Easter as an American cultural holiday with an identity outside of its religious context as it has for Christmas.

While there is the bunny, and the Easter Egg hunt, the baskets and Cadbury Eggs (which rock) you don’t really find as many non-Christian’s celebrating Easter as non-Christians who celebrate Christmas.  Easter is a religious holiday and remains closely tied the traditions of the holiest week in the Christian faith.

I’m a solid Chris-easter. My wife is Catholic and I’m happy to go to these important services in the year with her. Often I will attend other services throughout the year especially if my wife is participating as a cantor and singing for the service.

So what do I get out of going to church?

Well, the rituals, the stand up, sit down, kneel, responsorial chants and sitting their awkwardly in the pews when the entire congregation goes up to get communion is frankly, pretty meaningless to me. However in the readings and the homily there’s some potential for me to get something out of the experience.

For me the Bible is literature. I respect that it is a document of faith for many people but it’s not that for me. So when I hear the readings and listen the interpretation of how this book can apply to my life, it’s rather fascinating. Because while it may seem derogatory to think of The Bible as a non-secular sense as piece of literature, to me it's not because I view it as one it’s one finest of literature I've ever read.

Think about it, y’know how revolutionary Kurasawa’s Rashoman was because it showed the same story from multiple perspectives? The New Testament has four Gospels telling of Jesus from different perspectives. Each has different nuances and emotion but work together to tell of one of the most compelling lives in human culture.  How many books have your read that do that?

This whole last week led up to the central event of Christian faith, Jesus being crucified and resurrected. There are so many compelling layers to this story. The way that the same people that called to crucified Jesus embraced him week earlier, the betrayal of Judas, the way that Jesus accepted his fate, and the symbolic and literal meaning of Jesus’ resurrection. But the most powerful and relatable part of this story is the fourth station of the cross after Jesus’ falls for the second time carrying the cross and meets his mother.

Yes, this story is about the son of God but it’s also about the son of Mary. Within the suffering of Mary, I find an almost primitive response. Few of us can every truly relate to what Jesus went through but most of us have seen the tears of mothers forced to watch their children suffer.  Few mothers in literature bore that as much as Mary. If we believe that Jesus died for our sins, it cannot be overlooked that Mary mourned for our sins.

We are all connected. Everything we do has an effect on the people around us. When Jesus died the people who loved him went incredible trauma and pain. And when he was resurrected, the glory they felt was indescribable. I don’t know if Jesus’ actions, the suffering he went through had an effect on humanity but I know that had an effect on his mother.

I love my mom but I don’t think we should live life thinking about how every thing we do effects our mothers. However if we can use that lens in which we view our mothers, and translate that into love of all of people on this earth we will realize the power we have to influence the people in our lives

If we think of every person we effect in our life as the way that Jesus’ life effected Mary, the world would be a very different place.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Week 27: Being Part Of The Team

I’ve always been very lucky as a teacher to work with group teams of teachers. At my first job I worked with four other brilliant band teachers in a music department of ten. This is a big deal since most music teachers are one of three in the school and are sometimes the only music teacher around.

While this was a great group of people of amazing professionals, I didn’t really click with this group of people. When one of them would make a joke everyone else would laugh and then I would laugh a couple seconds later and when I made a joke . . . it was just a tad awkward.

At my next job I was part of very different team. As a special education associate teacher I taught under the supervision of a special education teacher with four other associates.  First off it was a great professional situation. I had never worked with elementary school students and these other associates had amazing insights into special education students that made ever day a learning experience.  And the special ed teacher I worked under took an immediate interest in my professional development and was a great mentor.

Oh yeah, and they got my jokes, and I got their jokes and when would never go a day without hysterically laughing at least three times a day. It was a beautiful combination of a professional team combined with comforting friendships under the leadership of a great special education teacher that made look forward every day to coming to work and hanging out with these wonderful people.

When I started this year at my new school I expected to be part of the music department as a great team and it turned out that way.  It’s a group of people with wide variety of experiences and ideas that works towards similar goals. We also a lot fun sharing the day with each other. While I’m grateful to be a part of such a great team what is truly amazing is the other teams that have welcomed me as a member.

The 3rd, 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th grade teams (I teach all of these grades) have all welcomed me in with open arms. Even though I’m not officially part of these teams and I don’t regularly attend team meetings, these teachers talk to me and treat me as a team member. I’m not the music teacher off in the corner that just takes their kids twice a week.  I’m a valid educator in their minds that contributes to the goals of these teams just like every other teacher.

Sometimes it’s kind of overwhelming walking into a faculty meeting and choosing which team to sit with but it’s awesome knowing that I have so places in this school I belong.  I am so grateful for this sense of belonging.  Yes, it is the individuals that make me feel welcome but it’s being inclusive as a group that speaks to the depth of these teachers. It’s one thing to preach these kinds of values to students and it’s another thing to actually practice them.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Bring It On by The Gaslight Anthem

I woke up this morning tired and exhausted from too few hours to sleep.  As I came to I noticed that my back and neck were tight for no logical reason.  It is exactly this moment that I hit every single day.  It's the decision to get out of bed and face the day.

Some days this decision is easier to make than others but some reason today was really hard.

What gets me out of bed is usually off aggressive self-talk.  I usually tell myself in not such a nice way to get out of bed and get going.  Instead of self-talk what mind played into my itself was "Bring It On."

I don't know why this song came up in my mind.  After listening through the album, American Slang, I had decided it was one of the more forgettable songs on the record.  Someone this song stuck with my in my self-concious and even though I didn't know this song meant something to me, this morning I found out it did.

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Flood by Take That

Every once in a while a song introduces a viewpoint on life that I’ve never considered.

I’m not going to claim that the subject of “The Flood” by Take That is completely original, who knows where they came up with this idea for this song. Regardless this song and video had an immediate impact on me commenting on our perception of our own lives and others.

Robbie Williams one of the biggest pop starts on the planet started as a member of Take That, a British boy band. Probably their most famous song was “Back For Good” which was released in 1993.

Recently Take That reunited as a five piece group for the first time in 15 years to record an album, Progress and released the lead single “The Flood” last November.

After listening to “The Flood,” I was comforted to hear the similar pop production and melodies that I was used to from Take That’s earlier days but what surprised me were the lyrics.  These words aren’t the normal sappy boy band schlock. There’s something deeper going on here.

I listened to this song over and over and I couldn’t quite put my finger on what was so interesting about this song. The lyrics are reminiscent, talking about other people not understanding what they were trying to do. There is a sense that Take That is  misunderstood as others critcized them saying “we’d never dance again.”

The music video illuminates the meaning of the song showing a crew race which Take That looses.  During the race everyone thought that Take That’s goal was the end of the race but as they keep on rowing beyond the finish line, we realize our own perceptions of Take That.

Often we look at other people and see them work towards goals and we think we understand where they are going, but rarely do we understand their true goals. In the same way, people often do not understand what is most important in our lives.

This instant we feel as we truly understand someone’s goals and their views on life we doom ourselves to misunderstanding them. We never truly “get” people and if we allow ourselves to feel like we do then we stop engaging them, stop trying to get to know them and loose the sense of wonder, interest and fascination that makes human contact meaningful.

We struggle everyday to make ourselves understood and sometimes it’s easier to define ourselves through short-term concrete goals like getting a pay raise or running a marathon. When we do this, we limit people’s understanding of who we are and who we want to become. Be brave. Tell people where you really are trying to go to, and if you’re not sure, tell them that as well.

None of us are simply trying to get to the end of race. There’s always something beyond. What’s ahead of us is uncertain, sometimes it’s scary, but it’s full of possibility and excitement.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Week 26: The Old Guard

The last couple times the entire faculty in my school has had discussions as a group I’ve been really impressed with the level of discourse. This is a group of people, almost two hundred who are able to have intelligent, informed and positive discussions about challenging issues.

One thing that I’ve found in these discussions is that there are a couple veteran teachers who have the amazing ability to put issues into historical context and frame the discussion is a meaningful way.

Now having the “old guard,” around isn’t always a good thing. People who have worked for a long time at the same place sometimes can become bitter and negative. One reason it’s hard to be a veteran teacher is because similar issues often arise year after year and it can be aggravating to have these discussions repeatedly.

But these aren’t the kinds of veteran teachers at my school

The teachers that I have met who have been around at my school for decades are not the negative examples used to argue against teachers unions. People often cite a teacher who has tenure as someone who cannot be fired so they mail in their job waiting until they retire so they can get their pension.  Even though I’ve met these kinds of teachers, thankfully from my experiences, these teachers are the minority. Furthermore, the veteran teachers at my school could not be more different than this negative stereotype.

I’m thinking of one of the kindergarten teachers I’ve gotten to know. She’s one of the hardest working teachers I’ve met. While the things that kindergarten teachers teach like how to be nice to each other seem like not much of challenge to teach, when you talk to her, you realize there really is a science and art in teaching these basic, but fundamental parts of education.

As a new member of the school community, it is vital that I have a historical perspective of the school that is not expressed through bitterness and complacency. I was hired because I have a unique background and viewpoint on education that the administration and faculty actively encourage me to express. However, without historical context, my comments aren’t informed and relevant.

I talked to this kindergarten teacher the other day to thank her for sharing her thoughts in meetings and how much she helped me understand the school.  To my surprise, she encouraged me to speak up and share not only my ideas but my thoughts and my feelings with others.  In the same way I am grateful for her perspective, she expressed to me the importance of my perspective as a new teacher and how much she valued what I had to offer to the community.

While I’m not sure how much I really have to teach a veteran teachers, it’s nice of her to express the potential she sees in me. This attitude, this approach to learning from me as a rookie to a veteran and a veteran to the new kid on the block is what education is really about.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Round 14: Elvis Presley Vs. Sam Kinison

Though "Are You Lonesome Tonight" was originally composed and recorder in 1926, it was Elvis' cover in 1960 that made it one of the most famous ballads in the history popular music.

This song features Elvis' incredible baritone and an intimate and touching spoken bridge. The message of bridge is that even though Elvis has been lied to he can't go on living without his love.


Comedian Sam Kinison performed "Are You Lonesome Tonight" on Johnny Carson show in the 1980s with a slightly different spoken bridge.

The Winner:

I don't know about you, but somehow Sam's version seems a little big more genuine than Elvis'. Yes, Elvis has that unearthly voice but Sam has that scream . . . and um. . . for some reason I can relate to Sam's anger better than Elvis simply resigning to his own feelings of loneliness.

. . . and even Elvis couldn't take this song seriously . . .

Monday, April 11, 2011

Waterfalls by TLC

I was at a Thai restaurant with a groups of friends and someone asked if I knew the song “Creep” by TLC and as we discussed this song and TLC as a group I was reminded how important this group was in the 1990s.

TLC was the closest thing the 1990s got to The Supremes. This was a group of woman who were not afraid to utilize the power of their own sexuality however they also had a conscience. No, they weren’t doing Pete Seeger style protest music but they did music that empowered woman and touched on social issues in their lives. They sang about guys who were “scrubs,” girls who felt “unpretty,” spousal abuse and a disease called AIDs.

There was T-Boz and Chili who sang while Left-Eye provided the rapping. And it was their second album in 1995, which perfectly described the trio Crazy, Sexy, Cool with Left-Eye providing the crazy, Chllli, the sexy and T-Boz the cool. This album was a monster. It become the only album by a female group that sold more than 11 million copies in the United State alone.

While “Creep” the lead single was a great song and the perfect example of a rhythm and blues mid-tempo slow jam, “Waterfalls” really crossed over into mainstream and established TLC as a force in popular culture.

“Waterfalls” juxtaposed a funky and sensual slow-grind beat that is usually used to back up songs about sex (ala the Isley Brothers) against lyrics that discussed the consequences of the choices we make in our lives.

The first verse tells the story of a mother who has lost control of her son. He decides to deal drugs and ends up getting shot in a drug deal gone wrong. TLC comments on the love of the mom but also the thoughtlessness of the son and the tragedy of the situation.  The second verse tells the story of a man who is sexually promiscuous. Because of his choices he contracts AIDs and suffers the consequences as his health fades.

The chorus urges us to not chase “waterfalls,” dreams and passions that aren’t good for us, whether its money or sexual pleasure without thinking of the consequences. TLC says that we are moving too fast in our lives and need to think about the how what we are doing affects the people in our lives.

This is heavy message. “Waterfall” is a song about gang violence and one of the most devastating diseases of our time. The catchy melody takes the intensity of the subject down a notch so that message can come through.

I’m not going to argue that people’s lives have been saved because of this song but I’ll never forget the images in this music video and the Left-Eye looking straight into the camera and rapping “believe in yourself.”

Whether or not TLC had the social impact that they desired is not as important as the fact they tried to truly say something with their music.  It is because they tried that people gravitated to them and for a certain period, they were the biggest group in the world.

They did this not by chasing waterfalls but by sticking to their rivers and lakes: who they truly were on the inside.

Friday, April 8, 2011

To Make My Wife Happy . . .

Somewhere along the line I started to believe that my job in my relationship with my wife, Diana was to make her happy.  It seemed to make sense.   I've always known that Diana enjoys sharing her life with me and that more often than not when she thinks of me she smiles.  So It seemed a natural extension that because I made her so happy that I was responsible for making her happy.  Lately I've come to realize how wrong I am to think this.

As I have l gotten older it has become increasingly clear to me that responsibility truly is a choice as I continue to encounter people  who have very different ideas of what they are responsive for as I do.  So what is messed up about choosing to be responsible for my wife's happiness? Because this choice is flawed and self- defeating and only leads to both of our unhappiness.

In order to make Diana happy I would have to know what she wants at all times and the only way for that to happen would be for me to be able to read her mind and even even if I could, Diana wouldn't really enjoy me spending my every thought and action on focused on her.  No one wants their partners to be their slave.  Moreover I can't be responsible for Diana's happiness because I'm not responsible for Diana.

If Diana gets a speeding ticket, the policeman doesn't call me up and make me pay for the ticket.  When Diana does a great job on a project, her clients don't call me.  Diana's life is her own responsibility.

While I may not be responsible for my wife I am responsible to my wife.  If Diana gets in a car accident and calls me for help, it is my job to do everything in power to help her.  Yes, this requires that Diana communicates her needs to me clearly and yes this may take a little magic out of the romance, but this is how relationships work.  If you expect your partner to know what you want and do it without you asking, you're in for disappointment.

Diana has told me that she appreciates where my heart and my intention are in wanting to make her happy and the thing she has reminded me is that part of what brings her joy is me pursuing my own happiness beyond the whole "making you makes me happy."

Diana and I have been together nine years.  In this time I've learned so much about life, love and what it means to truly share your live with another.  The single biggest revelation that made me realize about my true responsibility to Diana is how she has made me happy, not by taking responsibility for me but by listening and helping me, living her own life to the fullest and sharing her world with me.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Round 13: Aerosmith & Run-D.M.C. Vs. Aerosmith & . . .

In 1986 Run-D.M.C. with the help of producer Rick Rubin re-recorded "Walk This Way" with Aerosmith.  This song was originally released eleven years earlier off of Aerosmith's Toys in the Attic.  This duet with Run-D.M.C. revolutionized the music industry as the first mainstream melding of Rock and Rap music.  "Walk This Way" helped legitimize Rap as a musical genre and revitalized Aerosmith's career. 


Through the years Aerosmith has tried to recreate the magic of their re-imagining of this song with Run-D.M.C.  In 1989 Bon Jovi joined Aerosmith at a peformance in the UK.

Then in 1999 when Kid Rock joined Run-D.M.C. and Aeromsith at the 1999 MTV VMA's.

 . . .  then there was the Superbowl performance with Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake . . .

 . . . then there was Fergie. . .

And just last week . . . SIGH. . . Carrie Underwood joined Steven Tyler the lead singer of Aerosmith at the 2011Acadamy Of Country Music Awards Show (skip to 2:45).

The Winner:

Now I love "Walk This Way."  It's a great song.  The original version features one of my favorite guitar licks.  It's got rapid-fire suggestive lyrics that are clever and hilarious.  Run-D.M.C. really did bring  new life to this song but the following performances well. . . it's just not the same.  Frankly it's getting a little tiring.  I mean Carrie Underwood?  Really?!?  It's not that it was a bad performance but how many time can you bring this song out and expect it to be fresh and exciting.

While the audiences almost always erupts in enthusiasm every time Steven Tyler whips this song out with a new artist, I feel it's a unsuccessful attempt to capture the magic of the original duet with Run-D.M.C.

This is where it all started live in 1977.

Monday, April 4, 2011

“Mean” Week 1 – A Letter To Taylor Swift

Dear Taylor Swift,

Last week a group of third graders sang your song “Mean” in my music class and reflected on one of the most important issues in the lives of young people in our society: social aggression and bullying.

My name is Kingsley Tang and I’m a music teacher in a school in Chicago. I teach 3rd and 5th grade general music as well as 7th and 8th grade band. Last week I started a four-week unit based on your song “Mean” with my third grade class to study song form, lyrics and the feelings expressed in your song.

In whatever song I’m teaching my students I always look for ways to apply the songs to my students’ lives. When we learned “Follow The Drinking Gourd” we talked about the Underground Railroad as well as the issue of fairness in my students' live.

Most of the time I apply songs to my students’ lives in a roundabout way and I’m always searching for music that directly addresses my students’ thoughts and feelings and “Mean” is the perfect vehicle to do this.

Feeling unprepared to have discussions with my students about this topic I enlisted the help of our school counselor. She jumped at the idea and we’ve put together an exciting unit we are co-teaching that will teach our students not only about music but also about what it means to be “mean.”

In the first class, which we taught last week, the students learned the first verse and chorus and discussed their reactions to their song.  In the next class, the counselor and I will split the class into two groups and discuss things that people have done to them that are mean, things that they have done that are mean and ways that they deal with meanness. I will take these thoughts, write them into new lyrics for the song and then the students will learn the lyrics they helped create in the next two classes.

The first class went fantastic. We started by watching this clip of you singing this song:

After watching this clip we had a great discussion.  My students had some really insightful things to say about your lyrics. Many children reflected how words can hurt and that the saying “sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me” is false.

The most profound and impressive observation a couple students pointed out was that they didn’t agree with the line “all you’re ever going to be is mean” from the chorus. I was proud to hear them point out the fact that being mean is an action not something about who they are that they can’t change.

Thanks for creating such a wonderful song. It’s a beautiful musical space for my students to reflect on their own feelings. 


Friday, April 1, 2011

Week 25: Reflective Practioners

Y’know how there are phrases that you need to drop during job interviews to let the interviewer know you are up with the “biz”? In teaching some of these phrases are “I don’t teach, I facilitate learning,” “I take a child-centered approach” and most important “I am a reflective practitioner.”

One of the unique things about teachers is that we are hard-wired to reflect about our job. Now you may be thinking about how you have written reflections during goal-setting meetings but it’s probably not to the same point that most teachers do.

From day 1 of my educational classes in college we wrote reflections.  In almost every single assignment there was a reflection part and all of the teacher experiences we had from a five-minute demo to student-teaching experiences required written-out reflections.

Honestly, this was really annoying. Part of it was that the format of these reflections were often too structured and they didn’t seem to have a point.

So when I got out in the field and started teaching without thinking I left space in my lesson plans for reflections. Sometimes I would write something down after a lesson but a lot of times I didn’t bother. Regardless my brain, having this idea of reflections drilled into it, would think back on lesson and try to figure out what went well, what needed improvement and how this informed future lessons. It only seemed natural that I write my thoughts down.

After teaching for five years, I’ve worked up a system in which I make bullet point after every lesson in a notebook, about five per lesson right after I teach.  It helps a lot in planning for the future and remembering what to plan for the next class.

Beyond the pragmatic purpose of being a “reflective practitioner,” thinking back on ones work this often changes the way you view the world. This level of constant reflective creeps into your personal life and you start thinking twice about the way that you talk to your friends and plan events in your life. While at first this is a little odd, I find that it’s made me a more patient and thoughtful.

This practice of reflecting also goes deeper as teachers constantly think about their experiences as students. Every day I think about what it would be like to be a student in my class and delve deep into my memories from childhood.

How often do you really think about what it felt like to be a kid? I think about this every day and I can’t quite articulate how this affects me, all that I know is that when you are surrounded by people who do this every day, there’s a feeling a humbleness and perspective that informs every decision in my school.

Are all teachers “reflective practitioners?” No, but they really need to be and education majors out there, I know it’s annoying but just write the reflections. It is the reflective approach to teaching that is the most profound way that we can improve our craft.

If you are at a job where you don’t reflect very often, try it. Every day write down two sentences about how you though the day went. Think about what it was like to be kid yourself at “work” in school and slowly you’ll start to see the your world through the eyes of a teacher.

It’s like looking into a window.  When you think back on your actions and your life you have can see your reflection in the window but at the same time you can look through through the window and find amazing things deep within yourself.