Friday, March 6, 2015

Year 5: Week 25 – Tangents

We had a game that we played with our 7th grade biology teacher. At the very beginning of class, one of us would raise our hand and ask a question that had nothing to do with the class. Sometimes our teacher would answer the question and then start the class but other times, with the right question, asked the right way, it would send our teacher off an a tangent that had the potential to last the entire class period.

As a student I never understood why he would even entertain our off-topic questions. But now that I’m a teacher, I get what he was trying to do.

One of the challenges about teaching middle school students is that in order to have a productive class, sometimes you need to let students talk about things that are on their mind. With my third graders, if they ask me about an assembly earlier that day, I can tell them that we are not going to talk about it and then redirect their attention back to music class without much effort. I’ve found that this doesn’t work as well with my older students.

Part of this has to do with the fact that when students bring up off-topic questions to me at the middle school level they are often personal and meaningful. Last week, as we were about to start playing, one of my students told me about how her dad told her that she was mixed-race and how she didn’t feel right about this because she had always identified as Caucasian. Other students heard this comment and as a minority, I felt it was important to help her unpack her feelings and talk about my own struggle with constructing my racial-identity.

Yes, it took up some class time but at the same time taking time to validate her feelings and help other people understand her struggles and my own put us all in a better place to work together as a band. Kids need to feel safe and valued in order to be creative in a music class and it takes moments like these to build this environment in a classroom.

Not every off-topic conversation I take time on in class is deep and personnel. We spent ten minutes last week talking about this whole “what color is this dress?” optical illusion thing. I decided to talk about that because a couple people in the class had no ideas what the other students were freaking out about and I didn’t want people to feel left out. Also I saw a way to make a connection between accepting different perspectives with what we were doing in class.

Is there other times when kids are trying to do what my classmates and I did in middle school? Probably but not that often because I’ve never gone off on a tangent for all that long.

It’s important that we connect with our students in discussions that have nothing to do with curriculum but reveal something about ourselves as human beings. Some of my fondest memories of teaching are embracing these moments and helping my students think about something in a deeper and more meaningful way.

I’ll never forget one of my 8th grade flute players who asked me in the middle of class, “There’s someone in my group of friends that I don’t like hanging out with. How do I spend time with other friends in this group with out hurting that one person’s feelings?”  This led to a ten minute discussion.  I remember the insights from other students and the really interesting discussion we had about what it meant to be friends and how to deal with people we don't like without being mean.  But I have no idea what musical concept we were working on or what song we were rehearsing.

I'm okay with that and I'm thankful that my biology made the effort to be more than a teacher.  Honestly, I don't remember anything about the biology I learned from him but I'll never forget the the feeling of warmth in his classroom and his wonderful stories about being a marine, and growing up.

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