Friday, October 30, 2015

Year 6: Week 9 – Getting Better

Sometimes it’s important to take a step back and enjoy what’s going right.

I was trained at college to be a “reflective practitioner.” After every sample lesson we taught and after every conducting experience we were assigned to write a reflection. At a certain point felt like I was writing reflections on reflections. While this was annoying at times, I’m grateful for this work because it has hard wired into me to be reflective with every single thing I do as a teacher.

The only downside with this approach is that sometimes this mentality ends up putting you a mind space where, ever after great successes instead of enjoying the moment, you instead spend time being self-critical.

So let’s take stock of what’s been going on. In the past two weeks, two majors project have come to a close: the acquisition of a new instruments and a performance that I helped bring to my school. I’ve made great strides in two other major projects.

While those things are awesome, what I’ve realized this week is that my kids are really doing well. Yes, my 8th graders are still, well, acting like 8th graders, but musically they are further along than any other 8th grade group I’ve taught. Even though there are bumps in the road, as a group they are really started to get “it.”

My 6th graders are slowly making their way from making sounds on their instrument that only a band teacher could love to produce real quality musical sounds. Their enthusiasm throughout this whole process is really inspiring. Most adults would not last through the process of learning an instrument with the same level of grit and determination that my 6th graders are showing.

My 5th graders are responding well to me giving them feedback after every activity we do in class. I write a 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5 as an assessment of their ability to work through the activity as a class. There’s no reward for a class with all 5’s but they are seeing concrete feedback, which helps them see what they are doing well and what we need to work on.

Then there are my 3rd graders. They are so excited to perform “Simple Gifts” at the upcoming Thanksgiving presentation. Sometimes the amount of energy it takes to reel them in is exhausting, but they are really into what we are doing. Yes, we have a lot of work to do when it comes to performing as a choir, but it’s clear that they all want to do the work and get better.

Yes, things are still crazy, but things are going really well. The work I’m doing is challenging because I continue to reflect on my practice as a teacher. But it’s good work, and as stressful as things get, the one constant is that I have great kids who inspire me every day.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Monday, October 26, 2015

Parenthood: Week 124 – Option C

“Ollie, do you want to wear your penguin pajamas or your stripey pajamas?” 
“Ollie wear pajamas with cars!”

Choice is an important part of developing independence in our son. From before Ollie could really make choices about his clothing I would let him choose between two shirts. At first, I would simply interpret which shirt his eye would go to first as the expression of his opinion, but now that he’s older, he is much more verbal about what he wants.

For those of you with toddlers you may think that the term “verbal” is a euphemism for “dictator-like” and yes, this is the case a lot of the time. Life for toddlers can be very confusing. They understand so much more about their life and their environment every day, but their verbal skills don’t always equip them to interact with the world in a way they would like.

Toddlers don’t have the capacity to understand choices made for them everyday. So they can get a little bossy. You would too if someone was making hundreds of choices for you in your life and you didn’t understand the reasons why.

I believe toddlers like all humans are innately good. I also believe that interacting with the world in a polite and productive way is not innate. Without proper guidance and instruction, toddlers again like all humans can act really rude and annoying running contrary to their innate goodness.

One of our primary jobs as parents is to help our toddlers express themselves in appropriate ways. I believe, (through anecdotal experiences and no research), that kids learn how to polite when they are given the chance to express these opinions.

A toddler is going to express his or her own opinion no matter what you do, so instead of steering way from providing a choice that may lead to a meltdown, lean into giving your kids more choices about things less consequential, to help them feel more control over their lives and get important praise for being polite.

What does this look like? There’s a fair amount of me giving Ollie two choices between something and him choosing an unstated third option. More often than not, I just go for the third option. If Ollie doesn’t want to get into the car, asking him which car he wants to ride in, “mommy’s or daddy’s” will provide a little sense of self-determination that gets him going.

Something new (and amazing) that we’ve started using this week is giving Ollie choice as a way to defuse coming tantrums and combat stubbornness. Example: Ollie insists on Diana reading him a book. It’s my turn to read to him, so Diana leaves the room. Ollie starts melting down, then I quickly give Ollie the choice between too books. He thinks about it, chooses one and settles in my lap. Another example: Ollie was getting upset because Ollie wanted to watch more television, Diana then offered Ollie the choice between two snacks, and he immediately moved his attention to the snacks and settled down.

Choice is a powerful thing. Most adults would rather choose a situation where they have more choices than stick with a situation they feel powerless. Ollie had no power to make that television turn back on, so he picked the path that gave him back some power in a productive way.

If a student is struggling with math, you don't lean away as a teacher and put less attention on math.  You lean in and do more math work.  Toddlers struggle with making choices and expressing their opinions in a productive way and in order to help our kids through this we need to lean in and provide more productive opportunities for choice, not less.

I'm not advocating letting your child completely run his or her own life, but see what kind of power you can give to your kids while maintaining very necessary controls over your child's life.  This may mean that you let your toddler pick their own clothing and wears a horribly mismatched outfit a couple days a week.  Ignore the clashing colors and focus on your child's expression.  That smile and sense of pride is more beautiful than the most perfectly coordinated outfit.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Year 6: Week 8 - Ghosts Of Kids Who Quit

I see them in the hallways. They say “hello” to me in the lunchroom. Like a ghost whose spirit is not at rest, when I least expect it, I’m reminded that while I’m through with them as their teacher, the memory of how I taught them is not through with me.

These are the students who put their hope in me, embraced the experience of learning an instrument and then later said no. These are my band students who quit.

Like other teachers, music teachers put their heart and soul into what they do. It is such a difficult thing to teach students how to play instruments. We see so much growth, so quickly. We teach for the present but we also try to prepare students for a future in music. So when they quit, it can be hard not to take it personally.

I still remember how horrible I felt when my first two students quit on me. It was during the first month of teaching high school band. This school was enormous and I was given the two lower 10-12 grade bands (there were a total of five 10-12 grade bands). Two seniors approached my department chair with a class drop slip and after they cleared it with him, I was informed that these two kids were quitting band.

I was completely caught off guard and I know that I was doing the best I could with a difficult job but I really wish that I could have done better for these two guys. Maybe it didn’t have as much to do with me as I thought at the time, but I’ll never really know and that’s what is so difficult about kids quitting.

Sometimes you know the reasons and sometimes you don’t. Even when you think you know, it doesn’t stop your brain from thinking about what you could have done better. Over time, you learn to let these thoughts go. The longer I teach the more easily I get over it but there’s a sting, a feeling of failure that lessens in intensity but never leave you when you see that kid in the hallway or think about them.

The amazing thing is that all of the band students who quit are really warm and nice to me after they leave. The ones who aren’t and give me a little attitude are clearly looking for me to affirm that I still value them, which I do. These students compliment their ex-band mates after performance, they share with me good memories they remember from band and sometimes they even tell me how they regret quitting and much they miss band.

Not all ghost are bad, and sometimes in life all you need to do to find the positive is to look outside of yourself. Yes, they quit band, but that one fact only defines your memory of that student and how you feel about them as much as you allow it too.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Monday, October 19, 2015

Parenthood: Week 123 – Sick Day

There’s this moment in a classic Daredevil comic book when he approaches a stone slab with Elektra’s dead body (his girlfriend) laying on it and through a mystical force of will, he tries to bring her back to life. Daredevil passes out and when he awakes her body is gone. Later in the book, we see Elektra standing on a mountaintop standing strong. While it is later revealed that a character named Stone is the one who resurrected Elektra, it is told that Daredevil purified her soul.

Any parent who has cradled their sick child understands what Daredevil was trying to do. When your child is sick you would do anything to make them feel better. You would take your kids’ sickness on yourself, go on midnight drive to the drug store and even sit in a bathroom with the shower blasting at its highest temperature at 2am in the hope that it would loosen a cough.

Like most toddlers Ollie has had his share of sicknesses. Part of this is from the fact that last year he was in daycare and this year is in toddler school. Anyone who says that being in these situations allows kids to get sick and have stronger immunities later in life has no idea what they are talking about. There is no benefit to kids getting sick from daycare. That whole “immunities” reasoning is just false rationalization.

If all you had to deal with was your child just being sick, it would be tremendous amount of stress but in our society, there’s the issue of taking time off of work or finding childcare, which adds layers of work stress on top of what is already a challenging and emotionally draining situation. Once you get that piece settled the real work begins.

When a child is sick at a young age, it is of some comfort to know that they will not have long-term memories of being sick. The bad thing about kids being sick at such a young age is that you can’t explain to them that they will get better soon. Ollie has a sense that Tylenol will make him feel better but he’s only beginning to understand that he will better in the future.

There’s a feeling of powerless when your child is sick. You can take your kid to the doctor (deciding when to do this is a trial all by itself). Even when you do, often it’s just a virus that needs to work itself out so you are left there holding your child whose sad eyes fill you with a mixture of guilt, desperation, and anxiety.

It’s easy to forget in these moments that all of these feelings that give you that hollow, lonesome feeling deep inside is an expression of love. To feel so much for someone else, to be want to give part of your own life energy to make someone feel better truly is love.

Parenthood makes you feel this mixture of emotions so deeply that you feel alive and it is this experience that brings life meaning.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Year 6: Week 7 – My First Asian Teacher

I still remember when I realized that for the first time I was going to have an Asian-American teacher.

It was a week or two before the start of 7th grade (might have been 6th). I received my class scheduled in the mail. This little index card sized print out listed our classes, our locker number and combination and our teachers’ names. Next to the title “language arts” was the name “Naganawa.”

I was really surprised. I never had a teacher in all of my years in school up to that point that I identified as a racial minority. I asked my mom about this and she confirmed that I was going to have a teacher who was Asian-American and this realization changed my assumptions about life.

I grew up on Mercer Island, a suburb of Seattle and there were always other students of color in my classroom, especially other Asian-American students. I was aware of this and I remember conversations from my elementary school years like “are you Chinese? I’m Japanese. Let’s play and be friends.”  My family was Taiwanese, there were other Asian families that we spent time with and my teachers at school appeared to be Caucasian. That was the way things were and I never imagined that anything would or could be different.

Walking into school that first day, I was nervous about many things but I was excited about meeting Mrs. Naganawa. On that first day, she took attendance verbally and went around the room saying everyone’s name and making eye contact. When she said my name and smiled at me, it didn’t feel like a stranger saying “hello” for the first time. Because we were both Asian, I immediately felt a connection. She understood what it was like to be Asian and in that way she understood what it was like to be me.

Over the year she made us write weekly “Reading Responses.” This was a two-page, typed reading journal. She wanted us to think about books that we were reading and reflect. They papers have to be book reports, and we could go on tangents if we wanted.

At first I wrote the way I was taught. I had topic sentences and supporting body sentences. I got good grades on these assignments and slowly I started writing in a freer journal style. To my surprise, Mrs. Naganawa was enthusiastic about this because she valued how I was more freely expressing my thoughts through writing. It was this support that over time made me in love with writing. And it is this love of writing that I’ve returned to through the years as one of the most important parts of my life.

Would I have learned to love writing the way I do if Mrs. Naganawa wasn’t an Asian-American. I’m not sure but I know that her race helped me feel more comfortable which led me me to take more chances with my writing.  More importantly having an Asian-American teacher broke me out of my world view and expand my idea of what I could accomplish as an Asian-American.

Thanks Mrs. Naganawa for showing me that an Asian-American could be a teacher and opening up a world of possibility that has led me follow in your footsteps.  What your example meant to me motivates me every day as a teacher.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Monday, October 12, 2015

Parenthood: Week 122 - Banana & Stars

Banana Meltdown
“Sure, you can have a banana.”

I peeled back the top part of the banana and handed it to Ollie. Then I turned my attention back to Diana and we continued our conversation. Before I could finish responding to Diana’s questions, Ollie let out a loud and mournful cry, “banaNAAAAA!!!

In one hand Ollie had a piece of banana that had broken off and in the other hand, he was holding the remainder of the banana. “Banana broken!!!! FIX BANANA!!!” Ollie pleaded as tears rolled down his cheeks and seemed to spray outwards from his eyes. Diana and I looked at each other barely able to hold in our laughter.

“Ollie, daddy can’t fix your banana, can I get a you a new one?” I explained holding back laughter. “Ollie, wants NEW banaNAAAAAA!!!” Ollie responded, maintaining a high level of sadness and tragedy in his voice. Diana quickly handed me a banana, I peeled it and handed it to him. Ollie dropped the “broken” banana, and took the new one. He immediately stopped crying as he started eating the new banana while walking away from us.

“Two stars, no more stars!”

I saw Ollie’s little hand point at the night sky as we gazed up at the stars on a warm fall night. I had spread a beach towel on the sidewalk in front of our house and was lying down while Ollie lay on my chest. At first we both only saw a couple stars but as our eyes adjusted to the darkness, more and more stars appeared in the blackness of the night sky.

I asked how many stars Ollie saw and first he counted two, but then there was more and after a moment, he stopped counted and silently pointed up at the sky. I explained that the stars were suns, just like our sun but were very far away. Ollie quietly whispered, “far away sun,” as he contemplated the meaning of what I was saying.

I watched Ollie’s hand in front of me move around gliding from star to start like a conductor leading an orchestra through a flowing legato passage. A plane came into our field of visions and I told Ollie that a plane was flying over us, and he softly echoed “flying over us.”

Ollie’s hand turned into a wave and he said “stars, goodnight” as he slowly began to sit up. I carried Ollie into the house as he continued to say goodnight to the stars.

As I lay Ollie in his bed, Ollie said “Ollie sees stars,” and I replied, “the stars are beautiful, aren’t they?”

“Stars bootiful” Ollie agreed.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Year 6: Week 6 – “There’s a special place for you heaven"

The day before our first day of beginning 6th grade band, I was sitting at a table with a representative from our rental company helping parents get their children instruments for the first day of band class. One of the parents after finishing up told me that there was a special place in heaven for what I do. It didn’t really occur to me why she was saying this until the next day, the first day of 6th grade band with instruments.

We’ve spent the first couple weeks of school helping the sixth graders decide between band and choir. We firmly believe that choosing between band and choir as the 6th graders curricular music class is an important decision and should a valuable experience by itself. Instead of having kids elect whether they want to try a band instrument, we have every sixth grader learn how to play every band instrument for about twenty minutes. This is kind of a crazy experience and it’s difficult to organize. It also means that we don’t start band and choir until about a month into the school year but we believe it’s worth it.

When students learn these instruments, we focus on giving them the basics of how to make a sound and hold the instruments. Most kids within the twenty minute lesson can get a pretty good sound and play a couple notes. It’s noisy and a little chaotic, but it’s actually not that bad, because you are getting students directly to the magic of making music.

The first band class with instruments is completely different. It’s an “beginning of the year” kind of lesson, in October. The kids have moved passed these kind of set-up lessons in every other class so its jarring for them to have me teach them about where their music folder is located in the cabinet. Combine this with what we need to teach in that lesson and you have one of the most challenging classes I teach all year.

I’m not joking when I say that I need to teach the kids which side of the instrument case is up and how to lay it on the ground before opening it. I need to go over how to breathe, how to place this little wooden, incredibly fragile reed on a mouthpiece, and help kids understand what side of the mouthpiece to blow into. You’d think that this intuitive, but its not.

The kids are so excited to play but you got to hold them back because if you don’t go over these basics they will probably break their instruments within the first five minutes of trying to play. The first sounds that come out of these instruments have rough edges and like a sculptor you need to find the beautiful tone inside that block of sound and help them find them. It’s confusing, it’s loud and it’s exhausting.

I'll be honest, after last Wednesday's  band classes, the first with instruments, I was done.  The day went well, but I had absolutely nothing left and I was glad to be to done for the day.

Thursday we had our second day of band.  The kids remembered a lot from the previous day.  It was still chaotic but the kids had a better idea of what to do so it wasn't as crazy.  Everyone wanted to play but I had to work them in groups and as individuals so I had to spend a lot of energy stopping people from playing.  And then towards the end of the lesson, something amazing started happening, kids started playing with a great tone.  It wasn't consistent but it was happening.  The awkwardness of holding the instrument started to melt away.  My kids were really doing it.  The improvement over the first two days of band class is truly remarkable.

At the end of class, I had each kid play one great note.  I got to Mary and she played and squeaked.  I told her to make sure that she wasn't pressing any of the palm keys on her saxophone and to go through the embouchure formation process.  Again, she squeaked.  I told her to slow down and focus, I demoed the note on my saxophone and asked her to try again.  Then she hit a really nice warm note on her instrument.  I told her that, I loved the dark wooden sound she made.  Mary replied, "really?"  "Yes, I'm proud of the improvements you made and you should be proud of that sound," I affirmed.  She walked out of that band room, walking a little bit taller and I couldn't help but smile.

I'm not going to lie, band teachers have to withstand some of the most horrendous sounds created by human beings, and listen closely to these sounds as opposed to shutting these sounds out.  But these sounds get better, every single day and with that improvement, comes a feeling of pride and satisfaction, that's a little slice of heaven.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Monday, October 5, 2015

Parenthood – Week 121: Follow Your Child's Passion Or Why My Dad Listens To Broadway Music

For the past week, I’ve learned a lot about the moon. This satellite takes 27 days to orbit the earth. Because the way the earth rotates and orbits the sun, from the same point on earth, you can’t see the moon every night. I’ve downloaded an app on my iPhone that keeps track of the moon’s cycles and helps locate it at night.

I’ve never really had an interest in the moon or other celestial bodies. This is why I’ve only recently discovered these basic facts about the moon. So why the sudden interest in this subject? Ollie.

Last week I wrote about Ollie’s new fascination with the moon and after a couple days where we couldn’t find it in the night sky, I did some investigating. While Ollie doesn’t fully understand my explanation of why we can’t see the moon, he seems receptive to my efforts to explain the rotation and orbits involved in our moon’s visibility.  Ollie concludes "moon hiding."

I was talking to someone recently about having kids. Her husband was looking forward to have a kid to share his interests in sports. She had no idea what they would do if they had a kid who was into books or music instead of sports.

I told her, “Don’t have a kid to have someone to share your interests, that’s what friends are for, kids are something different entirely.”

I understand the desire to have a kid that shares your interests. We sentimentalize the idea of a father taking a son with to a baseball game and passing on a generational interest in sports. I would enjoy if Ollie shared my interests and some of them, he already does. But I would hate for Ollie to pretend he likes music more than he does to gain my approval when in reality he would rather be doing something different.

I got really into Broadway music when I was fourth grade. After hearing part of The Phantom Of the Opera CD at a friend’s house, my mom got me my own copy. My uncle got wind of this and got me a half dozen other Broadway CDs. I got really into Broadway music and started watching as many film musical as I could get my hands on and asking to go see Broadway musicals.

My dad has always been into music but mostly 1960s rock music (I wrote about his significant musical influence on me in this post). This fascination was a little strange for him. He wasn’t as into classical music but he understood its value but show tunes was something different altogether. So my dad made a choice. He listened to Broadway music with me and along with my mom made the effort to take me to see The Phantom Of the Opera. I don’t know how much my dad understood what he was watching, but he got that it was something that I was interested in and that was enough for him to make the effort. Now if you ride with him in his car you are as likely to hear songs from musicals coming out of his car’s sound systems as you are to hear some oldies.

Given the choice, would your rather have a kid whose interest mirrors your own or have a child that introduces you to things that you never imagined as being part of your life? Personally, I would prefer the latter.

Parenthood about creating an environment where a child’s interests is nurtured.  An atmosphere where a kid likes things not to please their parents but because they find inspiration in a subject is critical in child development. This is about providing your children the freedom to be themselves.

As parents we need to let go of this idea of “the baseball game.”  Passing along our passions and our interests is helpful in helping your kid know you, but more importantly following your child's passion is essential in helping them get to know and love themselves.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Year 6: Week 5 – “But he made me do it.”

When you are a teacher you are faced with many different situations. Over the years, you try to address things in ways that are effective and meaningful to your kids. Sometimes things work like when I offer to students who are being disruptive that they can leave the class and not participate and I wouldn’t be angry, and the kids choose to stay and work. Other times, tried and true things don’t work. This week I offered to some kids that they could leave the class and finish their disruptive conversation and they chose to left. They made a huge ruckus in the hallway and came back to class laughing loudly and having a great time.

When something that worked before doesn’t, it’s disarming and disorientating. Not knowing what to do, I told these students to sit down and I tried to continue the lesson. The boys didn’t settle down so I asked them to meet me in the hallway.  I put on a music video of the song we were working on for the other kids and propped the door open.  Then I found myself looking at these three students with no idea what to say.

Before I knew it, they all stated in with their excuses:
“Are you going to talk to him? It’s not my fault? He distracted me.”
“It wasn’t my fault, he was making a funny face at me.”
“I couldn’t help it, he was making me laugh.”
My mind swirled around to different possibilities. I could talk about individual responsibility, the thousands of choices they make every day, or how they created ripples that spread throughout the classroom. The problem is that I had tried all of these ideas with these kids and nothing stuck. And then it hit me. They are blaming other people for their actions. Other people are “making” them misbehave. It takes a smart and stronger person in some ways to manipulate another person . . .

I put my hand up to quiet them and asked “So you are saying that you are week?”

“This other kid made you laugh. That must mean that you are easily manipulated and that you are not a very strong individuals. I thought you were a strong, smart and determined individuals but from what you are saying, it sounds like you are really, just pretty weak.”
They insisted that they were strong and that my initial impression of them was correct. They stopped talking about other people and instead focused on this idea that by putting the responsibility on other people for their behavior it inadvertently revealed weakness. I ended the conversation stating, “Don’t every give others the impression that you are weak. I know that you are strong guys and by portraying yourself as weak, blaming others for your actions, you will fail to get what you want in life.”

I brought the kids back into the room and they did really well for the rest of the lesson and they came back the next day ready to work.

Now I don’t think that this is the end of conversations with these students but at least I figured out one more way to get a message to them.  These conversations are tough and sometimes the negative message doesn't work, which is why its essential to remind the students how much you believe in them.  This is the message that builds relationships and helps kids learn to believe in themselves.