Friday, September 30, 2016

Year 7: Week 6 - Bringing iPads Into 5th Grade Music

I remember six years ago, finding a projector on a cart and using it to show lyrics and videos in my general music room. It was so old that every single shade and light had to be turned off before you could barely make out the image. It wasn’t that my school couldn’t get the funding for technology in this room, it was that no one had asked.

The reason I started using this overhead was purely pragmatic. Handing out lyrics sheets took time and was distracting. The added bonus of showing videos gave the class more depth and another contact point, which helped students learn songs faster.

The next year, I got a really nice projector installed in the classroom as well as a document camera. This allowed me to seamlessly use this technology. Previous years, I had to wheel the cart out, and wait a couple minutes for the projector to warm-up. Now I could turn on the projector, put on the lyrics I wanted, mute the image when we were doing other work and with a press of a button, lyrics were instantly up.

During this time I also started using my school iPad, for showing videos, keeping student records, playing music and displaying lyrics and music. This device had no boot-up time and was easy to carry, which was a big bonus since I teach in two different classrooms.

These past two weeks I experimented further with technology. Each 5th grade homeroom has ten iPads (about enough for half the class). I created a folder on Google Drive and loaded it up with videos, lyrics and audio recordings of songs we were working on. I shared this folder with all of my 5th grade students.

During class time, half of the students watched videos and listened to songs along with a directed worksheets while the other half of the class were around the piano working on singing with me. Halfway through the class, student switched activities.

I had some trepidation in trying this out. First off, while our iPads are pretty well monitored, kids can still do inappropriate things on them. But students can also do inappropriate things with tambourines. If it happens, fine, we lean into it, but this isn’t a reason to not try. This is the main reasons I used Google Drive as opposed to creating a playlist on Google Dive gives them a controlled amount of content. If I shared a playlist of, suggestions would come up in the side bar that could lead student to places that at the very least would be distracting and at the worst, could be very inappropriate.

There’s always issues with the use of the apps. Google Drive has a very cumbersome way of logging out. I was very lucky to have the support of our technology department and for the first day we worked with iPads, I had one of the tech teachers in with me helping the students with the iPads. After this first class, I used them without the tech teacher and they did fine.

I wanted to use iPads so that the students could control the pace of their learning. This ended up allowing students to go deeper (e.g. student could re-watch a video they were interested in) and get more done since they weren’t waiting for others in the class to move on to the next part of the worksheet.

This set-up allowed me to work with groups of students with singing in a smaller group which was much more efficient. With only 8-10 students standing around me I could hear, diagnose, and correct singing issues much faster.

No, efficiency is not the most paramount goal of my teaching, but when it happens, paired with the ability to teach with more depth and provide students with more independence, teaching becomes more meaningful and more fun.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Monday, September 26, 2016

Parenthood: Week 171 – Midnight Visits For The Pillow?

One of the perks we explained to Ollie of having a “big boy bed” was that he could visit mommy and daddy during the nighttime. Ollie loved his crib and never learned to climb out of it. However we felt with nighttime potty training around the corner we wanted to transfer him to a twin sized bed.

When we got the bed, we explained to Ollie that he could visit mommy and daddy during the night. Ollie joyfully practiced this, telling one of us to go to our bed and close the doors. Then Ollie would pop out of his bed and come into our room and give us a hug.

At first Ollie stayed in his bed, unaware of the his new freedom. A couple night later, he started climbing into bed with us during the night. At first it was once or twice a week. He would try to cuddle with Diana and inadvertently push or kick one of us. After a couple minutes of discomfort, one of us would put him back in his bed.

As Ollie experimented with co-sleeping, which he was trying out for the first time, he started falling asleep in different beds. For some reason after putting him to bed, Ollie would leave his room, climb up into our bed and fall asleep. At some point in the night one of us would pick him up and put him in our bed. The fight to keep him in his own bed at bedtime wasn’t really productive.  As long as he fell asleep, we didn’t really care what bed he ended up in.

Whenever he fell asleep in our bed, he always was on my side of the bed. At first, I thought it was cute. Maybe it was my scent that he was after. Nope, he just wanted my pillow.  I own a Tempurpedic pillow. It’s expensive, it’s awesome and it truly does help me get a better night sleep.

Now we have a wonderful routine a couple nights a week, where Ollie climbs onto my side of the bed, pushes me off my pillow and sleeps next to me. He’s no longer interested in cuddling with me or Diana, he just rests comfortably on my pillow, shoving me into the center of the bed, pillow-less.

This usually occurs around 2:00am.

No, I am not buying Ollie a fancy pillow, though right now he is currently using a pretty nice body pillow, which seems to make him happy. Is it annoying to be woken up and shoved off my own pillow by a toddler? Yes, but I like to think that it’s not just about the pillow.

The night can be lonely. When I wake up at night disoriented, I find peace through the presence of my wife and my puppy. Maybe Ollie wakes up and he’s lonely. It brings me comfort that he can come into our room and find solace in our bed in the darkness. Sometimes, when I wake up and find Ollie sleeping next to me, I feel complete.  Maybe Ollie feels that too and is simply looking for that sense of family when he come into our bed . . . or maybe he just wants me pillow.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Year 7: Week 5 - The Drum Lesson And The Lives That Matter

The feeling was bordering on panic. Plans started to fall apart before my eyes and I had to figure out how to make things work. There was equipment that I could not find, people I had to arrange and a lesson I had to teach that I hadn't prepared. We were finishing up our instrument introductions in 6th grade and I was going to see all of the girls to give them an introductory percussion lesson. I felt I could handle it but things did not feel right.

I stood there on stage without enough drum pads and barely enough sticks when the first girls came into the auditorium. I invited her up to the stage and we got to work. We worked on the grip, arm position and the single stroke and started making things happen.

Then we were off and immediately, all of the stress and previous worries disappeared and we were having a blast. The girls were learning, I was able to really teach them what work is like in the percussion world and even with the large class; I was able to provide a lot of individual feedback.

One of the things I love about teaching beginning band instruments is that there are so many opportunities to make that light bulb light up. Standing there across form one of the girls at the end of class, teaching her different drum strokes and watching her get it, I couldn’t help feel the same accomplishment for my own work that I saw in her eyes.


When she started her speech, she was clearly nervous. At the end of her presentation, she was crying emotional tears as we all gave her a standing ovation. Tears started welling up in my eyes as well and when I looked back at some of my fellow teachers I could see the emotion in their eyes as well.

She was one of the primary organizers of two Black Lives Matter student protests in Chicago last year. This work required bravery, determination, self-belief and a powerful sense of justice. For her to stand in front of her peers and teachers, the entire school and share her story required her to dip back into that well take a chance to share her story with the school.

In the applause of the audience and the questions that followed, I felt a strong sense of our school’s community, and our mission. We are a school that talks about social justice, fights for diversity and inclusion and values citizenship. Her work embodied what we strive for in our school.

Students continually called her a hero. It wasn’t because she focused on doing something for herself and won a trophy. She didn’t beat any one of a sports field; She was a hero because she fought for justice, for herself and others.  This is what my school values.  This is what I value.

He presentation was one of those special moments that strengthens my belief in my school.  The soul of a school is not found in textbooks or test scores.  It's found in moments likes these.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Monday, September 19, 2016

Parenthood: Week 170 – Drop-Off

I looked back up at the second story window and saw Ollie screaming and reaching out for me. I couldn’t hear him, but I knew the sound of his screams and sobs from moments before when he had begged for me to stay.

It was only the second day of school for Ollie. Diana took care of the first day. She had stayed around like the school requested in case of a major problem. The first day was only a half-day. The second day was different. It was a whole day and I wasn’t going to stick around.

Now that Ollie was in a 3-6 year old classroom, things were different. We had to pack a lunch for Ollie for the first time. He had different teachers and there was a different process for drop-off and pick-up. They gave us the same advice on how to drop him off with the least amount of drama. I looked at these suggestions, half-laughing while reflection on the year before.

Last year, some drop-offs were really easy. I simply walked him to his room, helped him hang up his stuff and change his shoes and he would run into the classroom. Some days, he even forgot to say goodbye to me. Other days, there were tears, and negotiations. There were endless one more hugs, needing me to walk him all the way into the classroom and the promises from the teachers about gerbils to feed and fun activities. There were more good drop-offs than bad ones and while I learned how to handle the more challenging drop-offs, they still stung.

Outside his new classroom, I tried the strategies that worked before: offering to carry him upside down into the classroom, giving him a hug for the an amount of seconds that Ollie determined, letting him know that there was breakfast, and pointing out exciting new activities. Nothing worked.

At first, he asked “daddy stay.” After I told him know and reminded him that I had to go to my school, “daddy stay,” became a declaration and then an angry demand. It was clear that things weren’t getting better, so the teacher, came and picked up Ollie and gave me "the look."  It’s a serious and direct look, that tells parents, “it’s okay, I got this, leave and let me do my job.”

As I started walking away, Ollie’s screams filled the hallway and I could hear his words “daddy stay,” in sharp staccato tones. The teacher asked, “Ollie, do you want to wave goodbye to daddy in the window?”

I knew that there was no way that Ollie was calm down by the time that I was outside the building, but I hoped. When I turned around and saw him crying in the window, I felt my heart hurt, forced myself to smile at him and kept walking.

The whole day, I couldn’t concentrate. All I could think about was the look on Ollie’s face in that window as I walked away. When I finally got home that evening, I rushed over to Ollie and gave him a hug. He was content, watching the television. He scooted next to me and sat quietly on my lap. Then for what felt like the first time since I dropped Ollie off that morning, I exhaled.

The next day was better and the day after that there was no problem at all. Then this past Monday, I walked briskly down the hallway away from Ollie as he crawled after me and the teacher attempted to get him back into the classroom. The rest of the days I dropped him off went fine.

A colleague told me that dropping off his child to college was just as hard. While I felt better knowing that I wasn’t alone in my challenge, the thought that this never got easier made me feel sad.

The strange thing is that as bad as drop-offs are sometimes, I would never give them up. I only get to do them two mornings a week and this process is one way that I can be part of Ollie’s life at  school.  It's a roller-coaster ride and some parts of this ride, I don't really enjoy, but I riding it with my boy.  As hard as some parts of the ride are, we are moving forward and we are making it happen, together.

Today, as we walked to school, I asked Ollie how many hugs he wanted before he went into his classroom.  "TWENTY!" he enthusiastically responded.  Outside the classroom, we counted twenty small hugs and after the last one, he said goodbye and happily ran into the classroom.  I walked away proud of my son.  I couldn't see him through that second story window as I left, but I smiled knowing that he was going to have a great day.    

Friday, September 16, 2016

Year 7: Week 4 – Another Way

Me: Let’s look into the lyrics. Can anyone pick out any reference or connections to other things you have learned about?
Student 1: The title of the song is “Orion.” The singer must be referring to the constellation, or he might be thinking about the Greek myth as well.

Me: Exactly, two really good connections. One question for you. Is the narrator a man?

Student 1: I’m not sure. 
Me: That’s okay, I’m not mad, I just want us all to think deeply. Can anyone find anything in the lyrics of this song that indicated the gender of the narrator?

[three students raise their hands and then slowly lower them]
Me: Sometimes it really matters how an author, singer or narrator identifies, whether it’s gender or race. Sometimes, facets of an artist’s identity can influence how we examine the perspective of artists, and the art itself, but other times it doesn’t matter. Let’s not make assumptions.

After class, I talked to that 5th grader to make sure that he understood that I was appreciative of his observation and that his response led to some very important questions. He explained that he wasn’t making the assumption that it was a guy who was the narrator, it just came out and I assured him that I knew that he had no negative intention.

I’m not one of those teachers who correct students when they ask, “Can I go to the bathroom?” and make them repeat the question starting with “May I.” In general, I let students role their eyes at me, because I believe that most of the time it’s harmless and that there are more important battles to fight. While I try to set good habits with my students when they sing, if a student is not sitting up perfectly straight (especially with my younger students), but they are working really well, I’ll let it go. However, I don’t let comments about race and gender that are ill informed, based on assumptions or offensive go by without addressing them.

It’s a crazy world out there but that doesn’t mean that my classroom has to be crazy. I don’t shudder when my students to bring in statements that expose bias, racism and sexism into my classroom. I lean in and use these missteps as teachable. If our students don’t learn how to think about these comments, thoughts and perspectives critically, they will only add to the maelstrom of social issues in our society.

I didn’t start teaching thinking that I would be addressing social issues, but now I can’t help it. At this point in my life, I don’t think that I could do a job, which didn’t allow me to speak out against prejudice and point out micro-aggressions.

I can’t change the world, but I can show my students that there is another way.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Monday, September 12, 2016

Parenthood: Week 169 – The Extremely Cute Moments Of Toddlerhood

Loving a three year-old is enjoying the extremes of human expression. Ollie as an older toddler will do things like give me unsolicited hugs and say “I love you.” On the flip side the tantrums and meltdowns are incredibly epic. The bad gets worse at this age, but the good stuff gets even better. As a parent of a older toddler, you can’t let the bad stuff overshadow the great stuff. When you take a step back the good stuff outweighs the bad, but in the moment of a crying child who seems completely irrational, it’s easy to forget the good stuff. In that spirit, this post will feature some of the great stuff that makes parenting a three year-old awesome.

Ollie’s awareness of Buffy and his desire to interact with her has continued to grow as he gets older. When we are in the basement, he will often get out one of Buffy’s toys and try to play with her. Ollie will softly pet Buffy when he’s watching television and when we call Buffy in from the back yard, Ollie will join us and help us by calling her name.

A couple days ago, Ollie was counting things around the house. He started by counting chairs and then he started counting the people in our family. Ollie proudly stated that there were four people in our family. When I asked him to show me, he pointed and spoke, “mommy, daddy, Ollie and Buffy!”

Over the past thee years, we’ve done a lot to help Ollie go to bed. There’s been swaddling, rocking, singing, talking, begging, and lately, telling stories in the dark and giving massages. I know giving a toddler a full body massage seems weird, but it works.

After going through all of these things and lying in bed with Ollie, I asked him if he could help me go to sleep. He attempted to tell me a story, gave me a short foot massage and then sang me a lullaby. Sometimes the effort is the most meaningful part of a gesture.

Ollie wants me to pay attention to him. He wants me to watch him, and he constantly asks me to follow him on playground and play with him around the house. He tells me about things that he sees and what he is thinking about. Ollie wants me to understand his thoughts and I love that he wants to share his world with me.

In addition to the present, Ollie now shares the past with me.  He told me a couple days ago, that he remembers enjoying riding a horse with him and that I was there with him.  We expect as a parent of a young child that most of his memories will fade which makes it even more powerful when some resonate and stay with our special little guy.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Year 7: Week 2 – The Work

It’s easy to forget what is the real work of a teacher.

At the beginning of the year my time is filled with a lot of department chair work. There’s purchases to take care of, meetings to set-up, projects to move forward and more emails to write than I care to count. Then there’s room preparation. I’m blessed with the fact that I haven’t ever moved a classroom (which is a ridiculous and a challenging prospect that deserves all of our greatest sympathies). There was work to be done in my rooms but it wasn’t too bad.

The other big part is lesson planning. This work is never-ending. Planning a lesson is like creating a piece of art or writing a story. It’s never done. You can always do more research, and the plan can never be perfect. A lesson plan is done, when I feel like the structure reflects a level of thought ties together the individual activities in the context of the lesson and the scope of the larger unit . . . or when I run out of time.

All of this work has overtaken my life for the past couple weeks, and filled my mind as I try to manage my work responsibilities with the multitude of tasks and stresses that come from my roles as a father, and a husband and an adult. Ugh, adulthood is the worst . . .

The thing is that all of that work really isn’t the “work” of being a teacher. This week I was reminded that the “work,” what I’m really here to do is what I do in front of my students. I don’t love the beginning of the year because it takes so much desk-work to get going, but I’ve really enjoyed the start of the year from a teaching perspective.

My 3rd graders have been delightful. They are new to me, so I’m getting to know them. My bag of tricks has a level of depth that it hasn’t had in years past. They don’t yet feel comfortable with me yet, which allows me to establish a working relationship that is respectful and fun. Every year I start with teaching me “Starfish & Coffee,” by Prince, which is hilarious fun, and this year I’m doing movement activities with Brandi Carlile’s “Dreams,” which is a blast.

My 8th grade band had their first full band rehearsal today. There was a great vibe in the room as we got down to work. The focus in the room felt right. While there is a lot of work to be done and summer rust to shake off, I finished the rehearsal feeling optimistic and proud.

The 6th grade students are trying out band instruments, which is a little crazy (and loud).  This process takes a lot of planning and preparation, however the moment when I make a small adjustment for a student and all of the sudden they produce a sound on an instrument and they get excited really is awesome.

And my 5th graders, oh those 5th graders.  This year, my 5th grade has a truly amazing vibe and they are really into music.  We are getting through lessons faster than I expected and learning music at a great pace.  They get "it" and the challenge of helping them go deeper and more is stretching me as a teacher is the best way possible.

The work really felt good this week.  I'm tired but more than that I'm excited and optimistic.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Monday, September 5, 2016

Parenthood: Week 168 – The Rest Of The World

The world isn’t made for children.

There are times when we take Ollie to a playground that is designed for children. If it’s a well-built playground it can have appropriate things for kids of a variety of ages, but not designed for adults. In this instance, I am entering a child’s world. Ollie’s enjoying himself, I’m enjoying playing with him and bringing myself to his level. My enjoyment is not from the playground itself but rather through Ollie’s experience.

Then there are places that have something for Ollie and myself as an adult. Great museums like the Museum Of Science And Industry in Chicago are like this. They have a submarine, an actual WWII submarine in that place. Many adults find this fascinating along with many of the other exhibits. Also at this place there are things for Ollie and exhibits designed for children his age. Along with family bathrooms, and other accommodations for children, this is a place that we can both enjoy at different levels.

The rest, the vast majority of places and residences, are designed primarily for adults. When you take a baby or a toddler to one of these places, you cannot really enjoy them fully. Your first job as a parent is to take care of and entertain your child, and that means that you eat your dinner as a quickly as possible, entertain your child with your smartphone while waiting in line to purchase an item and at a party you struggle to have a conversation before the sound of your child cries requires you to be drop out of the conversation.

Taking your toddler to “the rest,” is exhausting. It can be made to be fun, like when I allow Ollie to pick out his favorite colored bell peppers (he likes the orange ones) and eat samples the grocery store. Yes, I could give him his own child sized grocery cart, and it’s fun for him, but it is so much extra work to make sure that he run into someone else or wreck the store as he “shops.”

As parents we should bring our children to these places that aren’t made for them, that don’t accommodate their needs, like stores and restaurants that aren’t too fancy. It’s important that while kids are allowed to run around and go crazy at times they need to stretch themselves and behave differently according to context. Doing this takes so much out of parents and while it’s worth it at times, other times, it’s just a waste of time and energy.

Ascending up the concrete staircase of Northwestern Football stadium with Ollie on my back, which lacks convenient elevator access, after dealing with their sexist and anti-family new bag policy, it really made me question if it was all worth the effort. It was cute when we made it up to the seats and Ollie got to sit and play with his toddler friends, but all of the hassle and stress to get to that point was absurd.

These are tough choices for parents. At what point do you say it’s not worth it. I question whether it’s worth trying to get Ollie to got to the library on days when he just wants to stay at home. Other times, I don’t have a choice. I need to go grocery shopping, Diana isn’t home, so he has to come. Well, why don’t I get a babysitter? If you are asking this question, you probably aren’t a parent, so just trust me that it’s impractical to get a babysitter every time you need to do an errand.

I’m not angry. I knew that this was the world I was bringing Ollie into. We are a society that often gives lip service to being focused on family while passing policies that make it unnecessarily difficult to raise children. Right now, I’m just tired trying to reenergize for the next time I need to take Ollie out into the adult world. And I’m disappointed. I feel let down by my alma mater, Northwestern University, for their lack of creativity by going with the NFL’s policies and not coming up with a more family friendly policy about bags.

Diana reminded me that we blessed with so many wonderful family friendly activities for children (Ollie AND Buffy) to look forward to this fall: apple picking, neighborhood Halloween celebration, and children concerts. For now, I’ll keep that in mind and look forward to the song of Ollie giggling and Buffy’s park as they run through piles of fallen leaves.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Year 7: Week 1 - The Heart Of The Matter

I’ve grown to understand that teaching means being in a state of feeling that there is never enough time and that I ma never as prepared as I would like, but the past week has been a little ridiculous.

Tuesday we started with teacher meetings and today we had our first day of classes.

Over the past two weeks, I came in four times to do work. I brought Ollie with me and had someone babysit Ollie at school while I worked. This arrangement allowed me to get some work done and for Ollie to play at school, which he enjoys. This time was helpful, but it felt woefully insufficient.

My wife’s schools started two weeks ago, Ollie’s school starts next week and I started this week. The stress of being on three different school calendars is difficult. Add into the mix the fact that Diana moved classrooms this year, which is a incredible undertaking. To help this past week, before Ollie’s school started, my mom flew in and stayed with us this week to watch Ollie.

As insurmountable as my to do list was this week, and continues to be, it was nice to be back in school with the other teachers and the students. There is a comfort in sliding back into Mr. Tang mode. I click into a certain mode with my 8th graders, 5th graders and 3rd grade. At one point there was deliberate thought in how I modulated the pitch of my voice and cadence of my speech for different ages, and now it’s a role that I slide into without much thought.

There is a good amount of beginning of the year set-up to do including labeling pencils with my little kids and making sure my band kids have all of their instruments and music organized. I rushed through this stuff last year and didn’t check up on these organizational pieces, which caught up to me in a flurry of misplaced music, locker disputes and pencils that were “stolen.” I have planned out more time to take care of this stuff before we get moving and one of my goals is to stay on top of these organizational pieces.

I love my job and I feel fortunate to be a teacher at this school, but this isn’t charity work. The union that I belong negotiated that a great new contract last spring, that provides a level of stability and great benefits that ensures that I can continue to work at this school.  "Changing kid’s lives” and “making a difference,” is a nice warm fuzzy feeling that quickly goes away when you are spending large amounts of personal funds on school supplies and have inadequate prep time.

I am able to be a teacher because of the work of my union and the positive choices my administration has made to ensure that part of my job does not include economic and personal sacrifices.

I don't feel great about the prep for this year, but I did the best I can do.  The balancing act of life and teaching is only getting harder, but it has resulted in me taking my time and my life less for granted. There's a lot of work to do, but it's good work.  It has value and at its center is heart.