Friday, May 29, 2015

Year 5: Week 36 - Reactions To The Coming End

There’s this point in the year when you start your lesson planning from the last day of the year backwards. There is a mixture of feelings that come when you are leading up to that last class. There’s excitement looking forward to end of the year lessons but then there’s also an inevitable crunch when you realize how little time you have left to wrap things up.

The added layer is that there is a level of craziness from the kids that makes these classes sometimes a little rowdier and less productive, which throws another wrench into the end of the year teaching. I’ve joked that we should tell the kids that school is out in July and surprise them by letting them out early in an attempt to delay their end of the year squirrelyness.

Students express end of the year excitement in different ways. Right now, I can’t get my 3rd graders to stop vibrating. I’m not joking. They are having a hard time settling down and they are very distractible. However, they are still into getting work done and have a good level of buy-in.

My 5th graders are checking out a little more. They don’t want to work as much as my 3rd graders but they are still doing some good work. Their issue is a level reversion, especially by the boys. There is a lot of discussion about the transition into the 6th grade in the end of 5th grade. Many girls seem to respond to this looming transition by wanting to act more mature, while a lot of the boys respond to their feelings of insecurity of being an older student by acting more immature. My 5th graders are much more of mixed bag.

The 6th graders are doing a nice job of maintaining right now. Part of this is that they have their big performance and presentation is next week so they have still have concrete and consequential work to do. My 5th graders’ big presentation was in early May. Also, the 6th graders don’t have a major transition to think about moving into 7th grade. They just go down the hall to a new locker bay.

Then there are my 8th graders. I don’t know what the term is for the 8th grade version of seniorities, but it’s definitely a thing. Even though they are performing a song for their 8th Grade Tribute (our version of 8th grade graduation), they started mentally checking out weeks ago. Right after out concert in mid-May, they walked into class expecting to do nothing. Despite all of their whining and complaining, they have been having some good music classes and I’m really looking forward to their upcoming performance. However the effort it has taken to get them into the right mindset and navigating the layers of teenage attitude has been exhausting. One of the things that it's important to remember at this age isn’t to judge their opinions and thoughts on what they say.  Instead its important to focus on their actions. Right now their actions are demonstrating a good level of work and commitment.

We can’t forget the teachers. You would think that the teachers are starting to mail things in but they really aren’t. Two of my fellow teachers who are retiring are not letting up at all. They are driving hard all the way to the end and when I’m feeling at all like letting some things go their dedication is inspiring. No one would blame them for skating a little bit towards the end of their career but they continue to keep at it and that dedication is one of the many reasons I’m going to miss them so much next year and beyond.

There’s two weeks, lots of grades and comments to complete and the end of the year rituals.

Here we go, time to finish strong.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Parenthood: Week 102 – The Things They Don’t Remember

“Don’t worry, it’s not like they will remember this when they are an adult.”

This is what we tell ourselves when something goes wrong and we feel guilt and regret about something that has occurred with our child. Most of what we do with babies and toddlers they don’t actually remember as adults. It’s important to remember this as we try our best as parents and inevitably make mistakes. Don’t freak out about small things not going as planned with your kid, because chances are at the time they don’t realize something is awry and they probably will not remember that moment.

This same idea is also used to justify not doing things for our kids. Why bother take a kid to Disneyland when they will not remember it? Why take them on a trip when they will have no memory of this experience? Save the money for a time later when they will actually be able to hold onto these memories in a meaningful way. Sometimes it’s important that we remind ourselves to not go overboard with a birthday party or a trip when your kids are young. Remembering the fact that they will have little memory of an event gets us to relax a little bit and be more present in the moment.

Do experiences in our lives only have value is they are remembered? That’s a pretty depressing thought when you think about it because most of the moments in our lives are not committed to memory permanently. I reject this notion that we place value on the moments in our lives based on our memories. Often experiences that leave lasting memories are significant in our lives but there’s a lot of moments that we don’t remember that have significant impact on who we are as human beings.

I don’t remember the first time my dad held me as a newborn and I don’t think Ollie will remember the first time I held him. However this is one of the most important moments in my own life and Ollie’s life. That moment, the devotion of a dad being there, present with love and care is not something to be taken for granted. It is in that moment a connection was formed that grew and sustains my relationship with my father and my son.

Part of what we need to consider is that we do for our children for ourselves at the same time. Every times we go above and beyond, push a little harder to make a moment special for our children, we are giving of ourselves. Every single time we show care in this way, we are placing an importance on our children that makes them more significant in our thoughts and in our hearts.

I’m sure Ollie will not remember this birthday party that we put on for him earlier today. But through the pictures, he will know that it happened. More importantly today he felt what it meant to be loved by being surrounded by people who hold him in their hearts. It is this feeling that will sustain him and carry him through difficult moments in his life in a way that he will never be able to articulate, because it’s not a memory. It’s something deeper that is woven into his being. It is something that he will know, but can’t remember, a feeling that is stronger than a moment and an emotion that is more powerful than a thought.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Year 5: Week 35 - The Class After The Performance

How do we end the year?

Many music teachers feel their job is done after the final performance. I once observed a teacher who had her students literally watch movies for a solid three weeks because the performance was done. This is a ludicrous and self-defeating way to teach.

One of the reasons our job as music teachers at my school is so challenging is because we insist on not only having our students put on great performance that reflect high levels of musicianship but also because we are committed to having meaning and significance in the process of preparing for performances.

We all understand that a meaningful process brings significance to a performances and it is often in the preparation that our students experience their most important musical memories at our school, not the performances.

If the time after a performance is not spent doing meaningful work in music class, than it is communicating to our students "since we don't have any more performances, we have nothing to do in class." This goes contrary to our process-orientated philosophy indirectly elevating the performance.

Yes, we need to give our kids and ourselves mental breaks after performances. But beyond a class or two to relax, it is important that we take full advantage of the time we have left in the school year. This is prime time for students to reflect on the year, do important assessments, to revisit favorite activities and songs, and do the lessons that or so often hindered by preparing by performances.

We want our students' last memory of music this year to be of creative, joyous, and focused music making. Creating this memory will help our students have a better transition in the beginning of music class next fall. For example if a class of 3rd graders ends the year watching a week of DVDs that have no curricular significance, than how can we expect them to walk into 4th grade music in the fall ready to work?

Even if you don’t go along with my school’s philosophy of music education and have a stronger focus on the performance, you must recognize that any time wasted even at the end of the school year is a wasted opportunity to lay ground work for future great work.

I reject the notion that class is less significant after a performance is done. Yes, because of the reality of the tension between process and performances expectations, it often feels that preparing for the performance is critical class time and post-performance classes are more relaxed.  Regardless, we should always strive to make every minute of class, regardless of where it lies in the school year, as meaningful as we can for our students.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Parenthood: Week 101 – Daddy Bear

“No.”

I didn’t like the way that boy was talking to Ollie and I wasn’t going to let him get away with his nonsense.

We were in a local play space last weekend. For those of you who aren’t parents, a play space is a big indoor playground. You pay a fee and you can let your kid run around. It’s great for rainy days and to give your kid the opportunity to play with different toys. Also it help keep parents sane by having a place that they can visit and keep their kids entertained.

When we come to a play space or a park, Diana and I take turns watching Ollie and most of the time we do this from the distance. So I didn’t really see the beginning of the interaction Ollie was having with that kid, but what I did see was a boy at least 5 years of age take a play piece of fruit out of Ollie hands and then immediately take another piece of fruit from the net that Ollie was carrying around play food in (for some reason Ollie was having a blast carrying around play fruit in a net, welcome to toddler logic).

I quickly walked across the large room and looked down at the 5 year old.
“No.” 
“But these are my special fruit.” 
“No, they are not.” 
“I need all of them.” 
“No, you do not.” 
“He is taking them from me.” 
“No, he did not.”

“I’m going to put them all on a high shelf so the baby cannot get them.” 
“No, you will not.”
At this point I had full teacher look on. He started trying to take all of the play food and put it on the top shelf. I let him do this for a minute and then took it all down and placed it back down. That’s when he said “no” to me, I turned and give him an even harsher teacher look and he backed away.

A couple things to note: There was tons of play food around on multiple shelves. So it wasn’t asking this kid a lot to share. He clearly had no intention of playing nice with Ollie and with the way he had taken the play food out of Ollie’s hand had never been taught how to deal with younger children.

If Ollie was being grabby, which he can be at times, I would have stopped him and also if this was a kid Ollie’s age, I would have been more likely to let it play out and see what happened. But this was different it was a kid who was much older than Ollie, and he should have known better.

There’s this feeling that wells up inside of you when you see someone doing wrong by your child. We have to be careful to temper these feelings with rationality, but it’s hard. Sometimes you don’t have time to think it through. Because when it’s your kid, you don’t have a choice, you have to act.

If this boy’s father hadn’t been across the room buried in his laptop and saw the way I talked to his son, he may not have been happy about it. Like that would be a surprise, his kid is a jerk, where do you think he learned that from?

I'm a teacher, I love kids and I understand kids.  But in that moment, I hated that kid.  Later when I saw him in a cozy coupe, I was imagining him getting involved in a massive flaming 5-cozy coupe pile-up, with him on the bottom as Barber's "Adagio For String" played in the background.

Yeah, being a dad brings out a little crazy sometimes.  I'm not going to deny that fact.  Even though we need to keep the crazy at bay, it's all part of parenthood and even more reason not to mess with my boy.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Year 5: Week 34 – Bringing Joy Back

I’m not very good at being a stern teacher. I’ve observed teachers as a student and a professional who are good at motivating student through a stern and serious tone. Over the years, I’ve gotten better with my “teacher face” and once in a while I can turn it on and get kids back in line. However this is more of a “get your butt in line”-move than a motivational tool.

What I am good at is creating a whirlwind of positive energy that makes students want to participate and contribute because of how much joy is being created through an activity. My students are much more receptive when I tell them how I’m excited about the potential of something and the few things that need to change for it be even better.

This seems like one of those “positive reinforcement is more effective” ideas, but it’s more than that. It’s not that simple and it is really hard to keep positive energy flowing, because you are not getting positive energy back.

When you first start working with a group of kids you are pumped up, you can jump around, redirect misbehavior quickly and keep moving without too many issues. But as the year goes on and you have to deal with more and more issues with students, sometimes you find yourself in a place when it seems like the only way to deal with a group of kids is to address the negativity you are getting from a few kids with a more stern tone.

This is very necessary at times and can easily become a default, because it makes sense. A kid is having a negative attitude, so you have a serious talk with that student about how they need to shape up and contribute to the class. Often this works, but sometimes having this direct of a conversation doesn’t gets you nowhere. In the same way as Gandhi said "An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind,” responding with negativity with a similar tone back to the student sometimes gets you nowhere.

It’s actually easier to snap at kids and lecture them with an angry tone than lead with positive energy. I had a not so good day on Monday and Tuesday with some of my classes and I was really stern and hard on my kids. It didn’t work. Then I realized that I’m not good at that and more importantly, I wasn’t having any fun.

I came in Wednesday, dug deep and was super energetic, engaging and positive and the kids who weren’t with me earlier in the week, got involved with the class because they wanted to be part of the positive energy in the room. After every class I taught I was exhausted, I felt like I had just run a race but it was a good kind of tired. And at the end of the class my students and I left the classroom smiling.

I find that I slide into moments when I forget that it's the joy of learning that best motivates my students, because there are times I'm worn out and I don't see my positivity reflected in my students.  In those moments it's important to remember that just because they aren't showing it, it doesn't mean that students aren't getting it.

Dig deep y'all.  The year is almost done.  Bring your kids energy and joy.  Have some fun.  Yes, a lot of the kids are checking out, but stern lectures aren't going to get them on board as effectively as your smile.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Monday, May 11, 2015

Parenthood: Week 100 – The Magic Dragon

As I carefully picked up Ollie out of his crib, I could feel a fever emanating from his body. He whimpered quietly as I picked him up and I lifted him high up on my chest so that he could snuggle into the side of my neck. It was clear us that Ollie was sick and as I headed off to work, leaving Ollie in Diana’s care I wished there was something I could do to make him feel better.

Diana took Ollie to the doctor, and while we were thankful that Ollie didn’t have any other symptoms besides a fever, we were frustrated. Ollie’s energy was low, and he wasn’t his normal silly and inquisitive self. He was irritable and cranky and all of the things that usually got him in a better mood were not working.

I got back home after work as soon as I could. When I got home Ollie wasn’t doing worse, but he wasn’t doing a lot better. He didn’t eat a lot for dinner but we managed to get some fluids in him. Diana had made some commitments that took her out of the house for the evening, and we both felt that Ollie wasn’t so bad that she had to stay home so I found myself alone with my little sick son.

Ollie didn’t want to do anything but cuddle, but every time I held him close he got restless and wanted to be released from my arms. As soon as he was down, he would ask again for me to hold him. So I turned on some Sesame Street and he lay down of my chest as I reclined on the couch. He seemed comfortable, but he still seemed unsettled.

I turned off the television, reached to my iPhone and played “Puff The Magic Dragon.” He gently said “Puff,” and settled back down on my chest and finally relaxed. As soon as the song was done, he sat up on my torso and said “more Puff,” and I played the song again. After the fourth time, I simply put the song on repeat and we lay there together for almost a half an hour hearing about the land of Honali.



I carried him upstairs for his bath. This usually relaxing activity was full of crying and screaming. The rest of the bedtime routine didn’t go very smoothly either.

In Ollie’s bedroom, I placed Ollie against my chest as I sat in the rocking chair and again played “Puff The Magic Dragon.” Every time we got to the end, he would pick his head up off my chest and say “more Puff. Each time we got to the end of the song his request would get quieter, barely a whisper, until one time at the end of the song, there was silence and Ollie was asleep.

We probably listened to “Puff The Magic Dragon,” for more than an hour that night and not once did I feel like I was getting sick of this song (I’ve written about this song in this blog post). There’s a special place that I hold Peter, Paul and Mary for creating such a wonderful song that along with my embrace could bring him peace.

Like all parents, I hate it when Ollie was sick, but there was special that I will never forget about cuddling him and listening to “Puff The Magic Dragon” as he fell asleep.

Ollie doesn’t need me to rock him to sleep anymore. And it’s nice to now that even though he’s older, there are still times that he needs me to cuddle with him and along with a little help from Puff, I can make my son feel better.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Year 5: Week 33 – All Call

Sometimes music teachers get this idea in their head that it would be a good idea to put masses of students on stage for a performance. Wouldn’t it be fun to have an entire grade perform a song? It’s only about sixty kids. Why not combine all of the bands to make a massive ensemble of almost one hundred kids? Or do some fun cross grade work and have 3rd graders perform with 7th graders to make a massive choir that also reaches into the triple digits.

This past week, my thoughts have been deep into preparing for an all-call band performance at an assembly on Monday that also features a cross-grade 3rd grade and 7th grade choir. These are the kind of crazy ideas that cause a lot of stress, make us second-guess ourselves and put us in situations that seem to teeter from being phenomenal to being a complete disaster.

Whenever I’m thinking of putting together one of these projects, I try to focus on the “should,” more than the “can.” No, just because you have the will doesn’t mean that the way will always work itself out, but focusing too much on logistics early on can kill great ideas before they get developed.

The logistics are a big deal and providing students with a sense that their needs are being considered even though they are performing in a larger group is critical. There are seating charts, teaching kids transitions, making sure there are enough chairs and stands, and figuring out how to move said chairs and stands. Honestly I’ve spent more time in the past two weeks focusing on these issues then the actual music. If students do not have an appropriate space to perform, the music will not matter.

The rehearsals went pretty well this past week. Here are a couple things that helped make these the insane proposition of these mass rehearsal be more successful.

1. Preparation: We’ve been talking to the students about these mass rehearsals for a couple weeks now. I’ve explained how they need to adjust their rehearsal decorum and their playing so that they know how to manage themselves. We talked about how they need to be more independent and that the thing I hate the most about these rehearsals are that we can’t have discussions and I can’t get students feedback.

2. Making the rehearsal meaningful: Before the mass band rehearsal I told the band that we were already proud of them. Now it’s their job to work in a way that makes them proud of themselves and each other. The mass rehearsal was a time to prepare for the performance but more importantly, it was a time to share, explore and connect with each other as musicians and human beings through music.

3. Have fun: Sometimes as music teachers we forget to show our students the joy of music. While it’s necessary to maintain a certain decorum to keep the focus of a large group of students, you need to show the kids how much fun you are having. We need to remind the students that while all of this is hard work, it’s also a lot of fun.

We’ll see how next week goes. Even if the performance doesn’t go perfectly, I’ll feel ok, because I know that my students had a lot of fun getting there.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Monday, May 4, 2015

Parenthood: Week 99 – Degrees Of Cuteness

When Ollie was an infant almost everything he did was cute. It was cute when he sneezed, it was cute when he farted, and it was even cute sometimes when he cried. Now that Ollie is a toddler, none of these things are cute anymore. Ollie’s sneezes are accompanied by steams of snot, that if we don't wipe off quickly, he’ll rub all over his face, his are farts are stinky and gross, and there is nothing cute about a toddler crying at full volume, or any volume.

This doesn’t mean that Ollie isn’t cute anymore. Every stage of Ollie’s life has been cuter than the previous, and while I don’t think Ollie has reached his pinnacle of cuteness, I’m sure he is still heading in that direction. What is cute about Ollie has evolved.

When Ollie was an infant every little thing about him was cute, but for the most part all of the things he did that we found so adorable were not deliberate actions. What we found so cute in those early days of his life was things like how he yawned. This wasn’t an action made with any intention to interact with us; it was just something he did instinctually. So what are we left with now that so much of what made him so cute has evolved into things that are not so adorable anymore?

Well, we are left with a lot.

The things that Ollie does now that are cute are expressions of his effort to interact with the world. Here’s a couple examples of Ollie’s current cuteness from the past week: When Ollie gets excited and “runs,” his arms flail behind him in the most adorable way. Ollie's ball handling skills are so awesome that they often result in him throwing a toy basketball behind him intentionally. There’s Ollie’s effort to talk, which while baffling at times is almost always adorable. Then there’s his new bedtime ritual in which he says “cheek to cheek” and wants to go from hugging Diana to me and back to Diana squeezing his face against ours.

The cute-factor is getting ridiculous right now. It is exactly his intentionality that has raised Ollie’s actions to this new level of cuteness. Now along with the cute stuff, the challenging stuff has gone into a much higher gear as well. This is probably why toddlers have developed through evolution a heightened level of cuteness.

Will Ollie ever stop being cute? Ehh. . . I’ve watched my own students loose their cute-ness and it’s tough to watch, but here’s the thing. As awkward as my teenage students get, I never forget how cute they were when they were in younger grades and this memory sustains me and give me strength when I’m dealing with their oh so special teenage issues.

No matter how old Ollie gets, I’ll never forget how cute he was as a toddler, and just like with my students, while sometimes I miss the cuteness, I really love what comes after cute: a maturing young adult. While I will miss the eventual passing of the cuteness, I looking forward to Ollie being so much more than “cute.”

Friday, May 1, 2015

Year 5: Week 32 – The "Perfect" Day

As a teacher you plan and you prep your students for experience and you hope for the best. Along with this optimism, teaching requires you to brace yourself for disruptions, because along with every great accomplishment there are issues.

When the work we do with our kids is combined with the interpersonal dynamics of adults working together, it is inevitable that things go awry. Things cannot go perfectly at a school. Disorder and chaos will occur, students will misbehave during a concert, some students will get into a heated disagreement and faculty will disagree about important issues.

Our instinct is to strive to minimize these problems that seem to get in the way our teaching. We can always do better, but no matter how many talks we have with students, things will happen. The best students act thoughtlessly, and the greatest teachers’ passion create disagreements.

It’s hard to not get frustrated when things don’t seem to work as well as they should. I’m doing a project where my 3rd graders are doing a joint performance with the 7th grade choir of songs from Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Yesterday, I dove into the insanity of rehearsing almost on hundred students crammed into our choir room. Overall the kids did a fantastic job.

When we were debriefing about the experience one of my 3rd graders pointed out that she observed one of the 7th grade students misbehaving. This was disappointing for me because I had told the 3rd graders that 7th graders were good role models and I had reminded the 7th graders of how the 3rd graders looked up to them.

We talked to that 7th grade student and it all got worked out. We reflected and tried to figure out what we could have done better but the reality is that with one hundred kids in the room, an issue was bound to come up.

It took a while to get over and accept the “bad” that happened in that mass rehearsal as just part of the process of working on this performance.  Sometimes rehearsals need to not go perfectly in order for better rehearsals to happen. Sometimes people need to step in puddles so that others can remind them of how to be good students. And sometimes our younger students need to see that older students while more mature in many ways, share the same struggles to behave respectfully.

As we strive to be better educators, sometimes we forget the positive that comes when things don’t go perfectly. Some of the most important life lessons happen when students misbehave and some of the most important decisions are made through embracing the tension of disagreements between teachers.

We have got to be self-critical and strive to create the best learning environments for our students and be self-reflective when issues come up. At the same time we need to embrace issues, frustrations and conflicts that arise as inevitable and as parts of a students' experience. This is a very tough thing to do, that I still struggle with, but this is what teaching is and this is the gig I chose.

If your idea of a perfect day as a teacher or a perfect event with students doesn’t include any unexpected issues, then you are in the wrong profession. Teachers don’t strive for everything going right, we work for our students to help them learn how to be better humans beings and that can’t happen if everything goes “right.” And anyways, if teaching was filled with “perfect” days, I’d quit from boredom. It’s the downs along with the ups that makes this job so much fun.