Monday, February 29, 2016

Parenthood: Week 141 - Visiting Ollie's Class

I’ve taught a 150-piece high school marching band. I’ve conducted the Northwestern University Basketball Pep band. I’ve taught students with special needs how to read. I’ve directed my entire school community in song and with little preparation I’ve given speeches in front of 70 eight graders.

Teaching has brought me into many different situations in my life, which is one reason I love my profession. But it’s fatherhood that brought me in front of a class of toddlers.

As a teacher, I’ve been blessed with amazing parent volunteers, so when Ollie’s school encouraged parents to volunteer, I was eager to give back. We signed up to bring food for the class pet, and brought a dish to the family potluck. When I realized that I had a couple days off when Ollie was in school, I volunteered to come into Ollie’s classroom and do my music teacher thing for Ollie’s class.

I’ve taught groups of students from ages 4 and up and I live with a toddler, but I have never taught a group of toddlers.  I worked on a couple songs together, packed some little bell shakers for the kids and brough my guitar.

As I walked in towards Ollie’s classroom, I heard the students coming in from recess and transitioning to being inside. Ollie saw me and gave me a smile but then turned his attention to his boots. He took them off along with his jacket and hat and hung them up in his cubby with a focus and purpose that I’ve rarely seen at home when it comes to transitioning from being outside.

Along with Ollie, we went into this classroom and I settled in on the carpet in the back of the room. As I sat there with my guitar, Ollie’s classmates started coming in, and sat in front of me. I looked up at Ollie’s teacher and said “I’ll start with something calm, since the just came in from recess,” and she replied, “You really are a teacher, aren’t you?”

I improvised a call and response song about animals in their environment and added some hand motions. The students were responsive but they were unsure of what to do with me. Ollie has his back turned to me, but he was singing along.

We did a song about doing certain movements and then stoping. I sang “Aiken Drum” and asked for suggestions of different kinds of food, some of which weren’t food like “plastic,” but I went with it anyways and we had some fun shaking the little bell instruments I fast and slow.

I tried to really focus my attention around the room and not focus too much on Ollie.  I was worried that he would get confused and want to sit on my lap as I tried to teach. But he behaved as if I was any other teacher.

We told Ollie a couple days earlier that I was going to come into his class with my guitar and play music. Ollie was really excited about this as it was all he was talking about at school during the days leading up to my visit.

After I was done, Ollie explained to one of his friends that I was going to take him home. She tried to tell him, while patting him on the back with care, that he was staying for lunch, but Ollie explained with pride that I was taking him home.

As I was putting Ollie into his car seat, I told him how much I enjoyed bringing my guitar and playing music for his class.  I told him “Ollie, I am so proud of you. You are doing such a good job at school!”

Ollie responded with a smile, “I’m proud of you too daddy.”

Friday, February 26, 2016

Year 6: Week 24 – Fundamentals

One of the things that I noticed at our festival was how much time the clinicians spent on teaching fundamentals. The students were really responsive to this work, but I wasn’t sure how they would respond to me teaching them these things. It’s one things to respond to a guest, it’s another thing to do this work with me as their regular teacher.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I do teach fundamentals. We go over posture, instrument carriage, breathing and embouchure formation. However when we get into the groove of preparing for a performance, sometimes I let these things slide in the desire of getting music learned and polished.

It’s a tricky balance between spending time on fundamentals and getting to playing music. With my beginning 6th grade band, if I waited until the fundamentals were mastered before letting the play, it would take weeks before we’d get to play songs. Without the carrot of the music, students aren’t motivated to work on fundamentals and they don’t really see the point of this kind of work.

Part of what I realized is that not all fundamentals are created equal. Some band director’s stress having the students put their instruments to their face when the director puts their hands up with militaristic precision. I have up on trying to get my kids to do this. It didn’t make sense to my students as improving their playing and my school community isn’t impressed with this kind of display.

My students aren’t really convinced by doing something because of "the way it is done."  A lot of performance practices with concert bands fall into this category. Only when I can make connections between sitting up straight, breath support and a better tone do my students put effort into fundamentals of playing.

I was pleasantly surprised at how receptive my students were this week about going back and talking about how to sit straight, the way breathing works and how important it was to hold your instrument correctly. They immediately hear how much better they sound when they think about these things. Here’s the thing, it’s not like, them sitting up all the sudden opens up their airstream and they play in tune. It’s the attention and care they put into their preparation before playing that puts them into a focused mindset that translates into a higher quality of playing.

We've got a lot of music to learn to get ready for upcoming performances but I’m committed to not letting fundamentals go. This may mean that my students learn less music but I think it’ll be worth it in the long run.

And they will look better in the process.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Monday, February 22, 2016

Parenthood: Week 140 - I Will

I just changed my tune and no one seems to notice, but you will.
I love being a parent, but I don’t love everything about being a parent. There are days filled with tantrums, crying and stress. Then there are days when parenting feels wonderful, when the world you share with your child is all that you need. Last Tuesday was one of those days. 
And the first thing on my mind when I arise.
My school has mid-winter break, a week off in the middle of February. Leading up to this week, Diana and I had been talking a lot about potty training. We both agreed that we wanted to jump off the deep end and do a series of days of intensive potty training to really help get Ollie going.

Saturday before my week off, we went to a toddler Valentines Day party. A couple parents there had done the intensive potty training thing and they all explained that it really wasn’t that bad. With Diana taking the lead and our friends encouragement we went for it. I wrote this blog post about day two of potty training. Diana and I were both home, it went well. The next I faced a day of potty training by myself.

I know it don't come easy but I love you, I do.
Usually when I spend time with Ollie alone it’s just for half the day, not the whole day. More often than not, I will take Ollie somewhere like the library or the grocery store. Often during that time I try to get stuff done around the house, like cook dinner or do the laundry. The nature of potty training meant that I really had to pay attention to Ollie so I resolved not to do any chores, not to check my phone and to give my full attention to Ollie the entire day.

Ollie got up in the morning, I got him on his potty, he went, we celebrated, and the day was on. I made him some oatmeal for breakfast, and let him scoop out the oatmeal and stir in the brown sugar. Whenever we make oatmeal I let him stick his finger in the brown sugar jar to get a taste. This time Ollie tried to stick his whole fist in the sugar, but I caught him trying, he giggled and happily licked his finger. I cooked myself a fried egg and rice (a traditional Chinese breakfast), and Ollie asked for me to hold him while I ate. This is something that Ollie often asks Diana to do, which can annoyingly get in the way of eating. I didn't mind as Ollie had never asked me to do this before.

I can try and I won't find it where I'm looking.
Throughout the day, we did activities together. When he colored with crayons, so did I. We built some block towers together, worked on arts projects, read books together, watched a little television and danced. Throughout all of this, I made Ollie regularly sit on the potty and he made good progress getting more comfortable using the potty.

There were a couple moments when Ollie got frustrated but overall he was in a good mood. Then about halfway through the day it hit me. The entire morning Ollie had my undivided attention. Even when were playing in parallel, he still felt my presence focusing on him.

I will do the right thing I will.
I wonder how many times when Ollie is frustrated if he is simply fighting for my attention. Ollie has to learn how to not having my attention all of the time, that’s part of growing up, but that doesn’t mean that there can’t be moments when he can have all of my attention.

When you focus all of your attention on your child, it’s amazing what you realize. Ollie is growing up so fast. His vocabulary is amazing, he’s creative, and funny and he asks great questions. More than anything else, Ollie just wanted to do things with me. There was something so beautifully simple about what made him happy.

I'm sure that you want me to learn from you.
When I woke him up and made him go to his potty, I promised that he could go back in the crib when he was done. After he did his business, I put him back into his crib and he curled up around his pillow. "Ollie, do you want to hear some music?" "Yes," he replied. I scrolled through my iPad looking for something calm and came to "I Will" by Brandi Carlile. When the song was done, Ollie asked me to play it again. After the third time through, I put it on repeat.

Ollie asked me to come into his crib, so I climbed in. For almost half an hour Ollie giggled and cuddled up against me as we listened to Brandi Carlisle's voice soar through mountains and valleys of melody over and over again.  As Ollie rested his head against my chest, I whispered along with Carlile's singing into Ollie’s ear, with a prayer in my breath and a promise in my voice: 

I have to say that I'm proud to know you 
And I'll never ben the same because we met.

You might not miss this

I will, I will I will. 

Friday, February 19, 2016

Year 6: Week 23 - The Festival

It’s been two weeks.

The dust has settled (which in my world means all of the music stands have been put back and random percussion equipment has all been put way) and I’m finally able to take a step back.

Was it a success? Well not everything went perfectly. There were a bus confusion. Performances spaces were set-up minutes before they were needed. Some students and parents were confused at times. Students complained about coming in on Saturday morning. Some students didn’t like the clinicians and others didn’t understand the point of the whole festival (seriously, I think that some people thought that this was going to be more like a carnival with cotton candy).  And there were a couple students who did not represent themselves well behaviorally.

Keep in mind, my school has never hosted or even attended a music festival, (except for one of our choirs who did a small festival last spring). A lot of what we did this year was educating the community and ourselves about what a music festival experience means and what it would take to put on an event like this. Framing the negatives with this fact, the morning truly was a success.

Far more went right organizationally then went wrong. This was largely due to individual faculty and administrators who took initiative and volunteered to run parts of the festival. Could we have been clearer with schedules and locations? Yes, but everything ended up being where they needed to be when they needed to be there. No student missed a performance. Students will complain and many did when reflecting about the festival, but the complaints weren’t philosophical criticizing the point of the festival.

Kid’s complained about getting up on a Saturday.  They complained that the drinks they got at snack time weren’t cold and they ended up with a flavor of potato chips they didn’t like.  If they are complaining about the food, we're doing just fine.  Not every student liked the clinician they worked with but more importantly the vast majority of students thought their time with the clinicians was educationally beneficial.

About 500 hundred teenagers at an event will lead to some behavior issues. That’s in the nature of an event like this. We knew this would happen, not because we are pessimistic about teenagers but because we are realists. While it was disappointing, these students’ actions in the context of a music festival and not a school day made this a meaningful teachable moment.

It’s all good.

There’s two other things that really made this a success in my mind. First off, what this meant for us as music teachers in the community. It is common for music teachers to be invited to work with other teacher’s students, whether its in a festival or in a classroom. How often does this happen with classroom teachers or subject teachers at higher grades? This is something that is really unique in music education.

We had university professors and teachers from other schools working with kids, which created strong connections in the community. Also, this was a professional development experience for us as teachers. We got to see master teachers use different techniques and tricks which were very helpful and inspiring. It’s the same feeling you get from going to a conference.

The second thing that proved to me the success of the festival was that moment right before the performance. When the work is done well and students are in a positive mindset, that moment right before a performance is so much fun. There is excitement, energy, and the joy of anticipation. I felt that before my groups performed and right before the high school students performed during the showcase concert. It was a feeling that comes from being surrounded by positivity, hard work and the magic that comes from creating music.

The festival was an adventure. It stretched my mind organizationally and challenged me as a leader. It was something I did for my school and myself and I would do it again. I’ve already got a long list of things to improve on for next year from people who worked on the festival. This list exists because people want to see it improve and most importantly, they believe in the event.

Festival. Done.


Monday, February 15, 2016

Parenthood: Week 140 – The Potty Train

Parents have different priorities. Some parents prioritize reading while others makes sure that everything their child eat is organic. There are parents who choose to use cloth diapers while others teaching their children to throw a ball at a very early age. We all make choices about parenting and this prioritization means that some things are not focused on.  Potty training hasn’t been at the top of the list.

Now, we are in day two of potty training. Yes, we got the potty a couple months ago and have had potty books around the house but we had not fully committed to getting this done. Like everything else in parenting, there are many different approaches and philosophies when it comes to potty training. Diana asked around, we got a book, she read it (I’ll start it soon) and now here we are, in the second day of not leaving the house, having Ollie sit on the potty regularly and watching him like a hawk.

It’s going pretty well. Ollie is using the potty, the, he’s starting to ask for the potty and he’s feeling pretty proud of himself. It helps that it’s below freezing outside, so we aren’t really motivated to leave the house anyways and we have a long weekend. Honestly, it’s not all that different from potty-training Buffy, which I took the lead on (Diana is doing a great job taking the lead with Ollie).

The nice thing about doing potty-training this way is that you can’t really do much else except hang out with your kid. You have to watch your child so carefully for signs that he or she needs to go, that you can’t really do much else. Normally, if Ollie’s doing a puzzle for example I can cook some dinner, with this potty training I have to pay attention to him. So we are actually playing with him more and reading more books with him than we normally would on the weekend.

I hesitated to get going with potty training because diapers are really convenient. There’s a whole other world of accidents and attempting to find bathrooms for your child when you are out of house that I am not looking forward too, but that will pass eventually.

Parenting is not about getting to a point when you are comfortable with your child’s current developmental needs. It’s about helping them move through developmental milestones, which requires constant adaptation and learning from you as a parent.

Ollie learning how to do new things and becoming more independent is exciteing but it’s also challenging. When Ollie learned how to walk, it created many challenges as there were completely different things that we had to keep Ollie from getting into, but after some time, this doesn’t feel like a thing. I’m sure that I will be able to say the same thing about potty training and parenting a “potty trained” toddler in time.

It’s nice to put life on pause and focus on Ollie. I may be a little paranoid, making Ollie stand on bath mats and sit on towels just in case he has an accident, but he doesn’t seem to mind doing this for me. He’s has had accidents in the past two and it’s not so bad, but still . . .

Chugga-Chugga-Poo-Poo!! All aboard the potty train!!!

Friday, February 12, 2016

Year 6: Week 22 – Feminism In The Classroom

My special education professor at college opened his first lecture explaining that the entire class would be taught from a feminist perspective. My initial reaction was “what does special education have to do with feminism?” As the professor unpacked what feminist philosophy was and the history of the movement, I became to understand that I was in fact a feminist. Throughout this class, that professor made a persuasive argument that viewing education through a feminist viewpoint was essential.

Feminism became a bad word in the 1990s. People like Rush Limbaugh characterized people invested in woman’s rights as “feminazis,” a horrible and sexist term which was an expression of male insecurity. We are still reeling from this as people in my generation who embody feminist ideas often do not want to embrace this label.

I am proud to be a feminist. The more time I’m married, the more students I teach and longer that I’m a father, the stronger I feel about the necessity of bringing feminism into the classroom. That’s one of the main reasons, I sat down all of the 8th graders at my school during music class and made them watch Shut Up & Sing, a documentary about the The Dixie Chicks.


(I talk about this film in more detail in this blog post.)

In this film, my students saw a group of woman, The Dixie Chicks, deal with public criticism, watch their careers fall apart, struggle to reinvent themselves as artists, while having babies, and balancing family life. This film showed a depth of in the female experience that is rarely seen on film, and almost never seen by eighth graders.

This film has a clear story but there’s a lot of subtlety. The conversations about being a stay at home dad, and how they balance having kids with their careers are not issues eighth graders completely understand but exposing them to these conversations helps broaden the way they think about themselves and the people around them.

In year’s past I’ve had them watch Buffy The Vampire Slayer to give them different ideas of female roles in media and while The Dixie Chicks film was not as immediately engaging, it served a similar role.  Through the Dixie Chicks, my students saw women who spoke their mind, women who weren't afraid to swear, who loved their families, and fought against sexism and ignorance without "acting like men."

We have a lot of work to do.  People in our society are actively working to limit the choices and freedom that woman have in our country.  Woman are still socialized by many to be passive.  Double standards in gender are pervasive in everything from fashion to sexuality.  Unfortunately the progress that we have made, blind many people to the necessary work we have ahead of us.

We can't let sexist jokes go, we can't allow girls to make self-deprecating comments about their intelligence and we have to actively work to make sure that woman's voices have an equal if not more prominent place in our classrooms.

Towards the end of the film, there is this tearful and amazing scene:

On one side of the room, I saw a group of boys looking bored and tortured.  I thought, "well, they don't need to enjoy watching this but it's good for them anyways."  And then I saw one a group of girls sitting a couple rows ahead up leaning forward sitting at the edge of their seat.  One girl in particular had an expression of empathy and care, like a older sister watching her younger sibling struggle through a sickness.

Progress, one student at a time.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Monday, February 8, 2016

Parenthood: Week 139 – Super Bowl L

7:27 a.m.
Ollie let us sleep in. As we heard him call to us through the wall that our beds share, I groggily said, "good morning."  Some mornings, Ollie wants to jump right out of bed, other mornings he wants to stay in his crib and read some books and today like many mornings lately, he asked for Diana.

9:15 a.m.
“Ollie, is this a pants or shirt?” With some leading questions, Ollie helped us sort the laundry in the den. He throws socks into a stack and attempts to rearrange clothes that are inside-out (though most of the clothes that he does this with are actually outside-out and he’s making them inside-out). At a certain point, Ollie sits in the middle of the pile clean clothes pulls armful of clothing into this arms and he happily rocks back and forth.

Apparently I did the same thing when I was his age.

10:10 a.m.
Michaels. Diana had to pick up some craft stuff for her classroom and Ollie was short on some art supplies. At the endcap of one of the aisles is a display with small animal and fantasy figures. Ollie picks up each figure and asks me what each one is?

Ollie finds some rubber spiders and other bugs. He hesitates to touch them but giggles whenever he reaches out and feels the little rubbery hairs on the bugs.

12:30 p.m.
Tacos. After a trip to the mall we sit down to a lunch of tacos. Sometimes we let Ollie work on his own to feed himself and sometimes we just feed him. With tacos, I choose the latter. Ollie happily ate the taco that I fed him and then asked to have some do Diana’s taco. After weeks of teaching Ollie how to leave the table politely, Ollie asked, “can I be excused?” We applauded him for asking nicely and Diana helped him down from the table.

4:10 p.m.
Grocery shopping. As I carried Ollie out to his car, he screamed “I want mommy come too!” I was already feeling stress about hitting the grocery store right before the Super Bowl and Ollie’s screaming wasn’t helping. I tried playing some of Ollie’s favorite songs, and talking to him, but nothing was helping. When we finally got to the store, I asked Ollie, “are you okay, do you need anything?” Ollie then immediately stopped crying and happily chirped, “No, I’m okay.”

And yes, the grocery store was insane.

7:58 p.m.
Crying. I hate listening to Ollie cry himself to sleep, but sometimes that’s what happens. Diana was very patient with putting him down but Ollie wanted more and it was time for him to go to sleep. After hearing him cry for a couple minutes I walked in and asked him is he wanted a “bonus kiss.” He was finally quiet and Ollie whispered “yes.” I leaned down and gave him a kiss. “Bonus hug?” Ollie asked as he stood up, and I reached down and gave him a hug. Ollie then cuddled up on his pillow, I lay his blanket over him and said goodnight.

And no, we didn’t watch the Super Bowl, but it was still a pretty awesome Sunday.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Year 6: Week 21 - The Night Before The Festival

How do I feel?

After a couple hundred emails (I got tired of counting), and a 5 page to do list, our festival is almost here, tomorrow morning to be exact. Yes, I’m feeling stress, but not as bad as I thought I would. It’s strange; it’s actually been a really good teaching week. Part of it is the fact that when I’m teaching I know that I can’t take care of any festival business. I can’t do anything about the festival, so why bother stress about it. In a weird way, being the classroom has been liberating.

I’ve been prepping my middle school bands for the festival, but we are at the point that we can't make a lot of big changes musically, so it’s mostly helping them understand how to think about the festival experience and keeping them focused. While none of them have every done a festival they’ve been receptive to this experience. Yes, they are complaining about getting up early on a Saturday, but they’ve been stepping up musically, which means that they really care about this experience. Sometimes with teenagers, it’s best to judge them by their actions, not their words.

My third graders are loving week 2 or recorder. I’m giving them more time to explore individually than I have in the past. The downside is that some students are doing some things incorrectly, however, because students get time to play with the instrument, I’m getting less interruptions when we come together as a full group.

My fifth graders are doing some recorder work in small groups. I asked for their feedback on who they wanted to work with, which always causes drama. Yes, this is more work for me, but I think it’s better for them and I told them so. Giving students choice makes teaching more difficult but it leads to more meaningful learning.

There’s been so much to do with this festival for so long that it seems weird to move into a phase soon when the festival will not be going on. There’s other projects that I have on the horizon that I’m exciting about started. They aren’t as big in scope and they are different and they will provide a welcome change of pace.

I’m looking forward to my students having their eyes open to the bigger world of music through seeing other students perform and working with other music educators. But more than that, I’m just looking forward to being in the building surrounded by great students and people coming together to make music.

Most people have very low expectations for teenagers.  Part of why I love my job is because every day my kids prove those people wrong.  We hear about people all the time hurting people, manipulating people through fear and hate.  In the face of all of this darkness I can't imagine a more life-affirming and hopeful example of the positivity of the human spirit than communities coming together to make beautiful music.

Yes, I'm doing this for my kids, but I'm also doing this for my own soul. 

I'll let you know how it goes.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Monday, February 1, 2016

Parenthood: Week 138 - Leaning In To The Screams

“I know honey, sometimes it’s really hard to be a toddler.”

When Ollie is confused and he doesn’t understand the world, Diana will often give him a hug and express this thought of empathy to Ollie. These moments are important reminders to me that Ollie and other toddlers have very real challenges in life.

As an adult the toddler life seems really amazing. Toddlers don’t have to worry about finances, chores (the ones we get them to do are done in the context of play most of the time) and they are completely ignorant of the challenges of trying to live a positive and optimistic life in a world so permeated with hate, ignorance and prejudice.

With all of that not on a toddler’s mind, it’s hard to understand why some things like not getting to drink out of a certain cup because it’s in the dishwasher causes such major meltdowns. A toddler should just enjoy the ride, I mean, all they have to do is play all day long and have things done for them.

That’s now how toddlers see the world. From their perspective everything is bigger than them, literally and figuratively. They live in a world that isn’t made for them. While Ollie impresses us every day with his language skills, there are still more concepts and ideas that he cannot understand and express to us than ones that he can. A lot of the time when I explain something to him, it’s the tone of my voice that gets him to calm down, not a cognitive understanding of the logic that I’m explaining.

But this shouldn’t try, because these calm explanations are what helps these little people know that you are with them, not against.

If you tell your kid that they can have one cookie and then they demand another one, you should say no. If this is followed by a tantrum, parents should hold firm, so that the child learns that there are boundaries when it comes to sweets and that screaming about something is not the way to get what you want.

This can be done multiple ways. You can fight with fire and be stern, and raise your voice. Let’s be honest, there are times for this, but more often than deescalating the situation with a calm explanation with get the child to chill out. For example, “I hear that you want a cookie and we aren’t giving you one, and this makes you sad and frustrated. So we will calm together and take some deep breaths.” The desire to want more of something that you can’t get will never go away, but being to able to deal the emotional power of this feeling is one of those requirements of being an “adult” (which not all people are taught by the time they are “grown-ups”).

This is that digging deep thing, because the worst tantrums happen when you are tired, emotionally drained and lack patience. It’s really hard to empathize with another human being who appears to be screaming about something that is not a big deal, doesn’t really matter in the long run and sometimes doesn’t make sense with through adult logic. Here’s the thing, you’ve had these moments to and when people don’t validate your feelings when you are in that tsunami of emotions, all it leads to negative self-talk that poisons our own relationship with ourselves.

Do you the best you can in these moments to remember that toddlers need empathy. Sometimes there are screams are of anger, but most of the time, they are cries for help. So get some earplugs if necessary, and lean into the screams with love and calmness.

Toddlers aren’t terrible. They are wonderful. Toddlers see the world with such a beautiful sense of discovery. Today, Ollie saw a piece of scotch tape on our doormat and thought it was the coolest thing ever. This mindset, not knowing the world also creates frustration and confusion. Sometimes it helps to remember that the hard moments of parenting a toddler comes from the part of them that we love so much.