Friday, March 31, 2017

Year 7: Week 28 – Putting The Band (and choir) Together

For our middle school students’ curricular music class, they either choose band or choir.  The strength of both the band and the choir are interrelated. If the band kids for example have more performances or have parties that the choir doesn’t, then there are equity issues in the educational experiences of the students.

One way to address this is that we have the band and choir perform songs together. This is not common practice at other middle schools, but it’s something that we feel it is important to create an integrated band and choir curriculum and help the students feel a sense of community within their grade.  There have times when this has worked really well and other times there have been issues.

Not all songs lend themselves to having band instruments and balance between middle school band students and choir students is a significant issue. Band students often play with a louder dynamics as beginners and over time learn how to play with a softer tone. However many choir students in middle school while developing their head voice, sing at a softer volume and don’t develop a louder singing voice until later.

In the past, we did a Chinese folk song with band and choir. That one was a stylistic stretch for the band students and to address the balance, we had the band play by themselves, then choir sing by themselves and combine them later in the song. In contrast, last year we did “Glory,” from the film Selma, which worked really well because there were instrumental parts that filled in parts of the phrase where there wasn’t singing.

Today we put together “A Change Is Goin' To Come,” and “We Are Young,” with the 8th grade band and choir. “A Change Is Goin' To Come,” was a choir arrangement that came with instrumental parts. That’s always helpful because even if the parts are too hard (which they were), you can simplify them.  For “We Are Young,” the band has their own arrangement and we figured that the choir could just join in during the bridge.

A room full of seventy-some 8th graders is hard to manage. Basic things like, “when I step on the podium, please be quiet,” don’t work as well in that setting. However, once we got going the collective energy in the room took over and the kids really got into it. Feeling the energy and sound of instrumentalist while you sing, something I didn’t experience until college, is really special and having the band students experience what it’s like to interact with vocalists is a fun and unique experience.

Teaching-wise being in that room of kids and working the choir teacher to put that those songs together was the highlight of my week. These kids are very much 8th graders and don’t often demonstrate outward their enthusiasm, so it was really encouraging that a handful of students were visibly excited after working on these songs.

The rehearsal didn’t run as smooth as I would have liked but the music-making was good.  Yes, putting middle school bands and choirs together is a crazy idea, but we’ve made it work. Understanding that being a musician means that you are part of a community is central to music education and if we can create that for our students across ensembles, they will be inspired to create it for themselves.

Working on combined band and choir pieces is an excuse to collaborate with the choir teacher.  If that part of it wasn't fun, I wouldn't keep working on these projects.  At the end of "A Change Is Goin' To Come," we had agreed to slow down the song and conduct each of the final notes.  What we didn't decided on was who was going to lead.  When we got to that section, we looked at each other, and laughed at each other while we played conducting chicken waiting to see who would take the lead.  I don't know if any of the kids noticed how much fun that moment was, but it's time like that which we laugh about, which keep me coming back for more.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Monday, March 27, 2017

Parenthood: Week 197 – Ollie’s Imagination

Yesterday evening before his bath, Ollie was furiously dancing around the living room. He was spinning around, jumping from foot to foot, and wildly swinging his arms around. At the same time he was making growling and exploding sounds. There was a clear intent in the way Ollie was moving. Nothing seemed random in his movements.

“Ollie, what are you right now?” My wife asked. Ollie stopped moving and said plainly, “I’m a palm tree.”

Ollie falling into his own world of imagination is one of the wonderful things about having a three year-old. There are times when Ollie dances around or talks to himself while playing toys for extended periods of time, sometimes as long as fifteen minutes living in his own imagination. Often times Ollie is emulating things he sees in films or books and other times Ollie’s imagination takes him to other worlds that he creates.

Ollie has been really into the film, Moana. He has some toys and stuffed animals of characters from the film. While he loves these toys, the objects he uses to dress up like these characters he cherishes just as much. Ollie uses a lego block with an plastic antenna piece stuck on top of it as his version of Maui’s hook. When Ollie asked for Maui’s necklace, I found a strap used to hold a recorder and tied some kitchen utensils to it.  Ollie proudly wore it whenever he played as Maui, which was almost every day for a week.

I get that seeing a kid with a lego antenna with a spatula, and a spoon tied to his neck, dancing around may look strange, and it does. However, it’s this kind of play that shows the incredible development of a child’s mind and the power of imagination.

I see it in other places. Ollie’s ability to pay attention to audiobooks and his ability to follow longer and more complex books also is a display of his developing imaginative skills. Also, when we talk to Ollie about things happening in the future, we see him transition better which is a sign of his ability to imagine what is beyond the present.

As Ollie began to twirl around, he explained that the palm tree that he was representing was reacting to an erupting volcano. It was being thrown around in the blast. He was representing an object as well as an event and a story. To help himself understand this, he physically represented what his brain was imagining through dance and sound. Even though it may have looked random and strange, there was real and very important work going on as he continued to spin and flail across the room.

A child’s imagination is a wonderful thing. It doesn’t always make sense to the rest of us and it doesn’t have to.  Sometimes it's just a kid being silly but often it is so much more.

Give your kid the space to dance wildly and make weird sounds.  It is just this work that will strengthen the muscle of imagination that come adulthood may solve a problem in a way that only your child can imagine.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Year 7: Week 27 – Consequences & Break-Up Songs

I’m pretty comfortable “letting kids have it,” as a teacher. Most of a time it doesn’t take a lot out of me to give a students a “teacher look,” or to explain sternly to a student why what he said was inappropriate. I’m getting more and more comfortable stopping class to unpack comments related to gender and race that need addressing. However, I really hate giving out consequences like sending a kid to the principal’s office.

The difficulty has led me to do figure out ways to create relationships and do all I can do to avoid getting to a situation in which I have to dole out serious consequences. However, sometimes it just needs to happen. It rarely feels good to punish a kid, sometimes it feels awful, but when it’s what is best for the student you got to do it.

It’s easier to back off and just give that student another chance. It’s takes courage and strength to follow through. It’s part of the job I love, but that doesn’t mean I like it.

Break-Up Songs
As we worked through the lyrics of “Greensleeves,” my 5th graders started become appalled by the what was being done the narrator. I had printed out eight verses of “Greensleeves,” and after working through the vocabulary we worked through each verse, trying to put together the story that was being told in the song.

“So the narrator was giving all of these things to this person and he loved her, and she dumped him and didn’t want him back?!? She’s awful!” exclaimed one of my 5th graders as we got to the end of the last verse. I asked the class so who was on the narrator’s side and who was on the other person’s side. All of the students raised their hands expressing support of the narrator.

“Okay, let’s take a step back. Can anyone see in the lyrics, why the other person might not be such a bad guy”? I asked. After a pause, I explained, “look deeper, what did he give to her?” Then the students started talking about how every expression of his love was materialistic. I explained how it’s nice to get stuff from people we love, but sometimes what we really want is to spend time with people. Maybe, this person was being nice and asked for space in a polite way and the other narrator wasn’t getting the clue. Some of the students in the class seemed to relate to this point a little bit too well.

Then we voted again. People were a lot less confident about the vote and class was split about half for the narrator and half for his love interest. Then I concluded:
This is what’s so great about a good break-up song. It’s not clear. It has two sides and you can make arguments for both sides. You are going to find in life that this is how break-ups work, there are always two sides and it’s almost never 100% one person’s fault.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Monday, March 20, 2017

Parenthood: Week 196 - Parents These Days

People like to criticize "parents these days." Now that I’m one of these parents, I’m started to find these comments more . . . annoying.

Every generation looks to younger generations of parents with a critical eye. The criticisms I often hear about my generation of parents is that we over-scheduled our kids, we are too permissive, we don’t teach our kids how to clean up, and we give them too many drugs, or too few. That’s just a sampling.

I’m more exposed to these comments because I am a teacher. I feel lucky to teach with an optimistic group of teachers, but concerns about how kids change do come up and within these concerns, the factor of parenting often come up. Even though the faculty at my school expressed these concerns politely, there is sometimes an undertone of “parents these days.”

I pay attention to articles that come out about parenting as part of what I do to stay current on my practice as a teacher. When you are a teacher, random people you meet like to tell you about the problem with parents or sometimes try to get you to tell them about problems with parents. Usually I respond telling them how much I enjoy working with the parents of my students, which I do for the vast majority of the time, and the person asking looks disappointed.

My generation of parents does not have it all figured out. I am sure there are things that we are doing that will be found to not be the best for our kids. I know this for a fact because, there are things that parents from generations before me did, that were insane! Yes, there should be a trajectory of better parenting as time goes by, but this upward trend will have little valleys. That’s fine. It’s okay for parents to make missteps, as long as they are not grossly inappropriate or put their child’s health at risk.

Before you judge too hard on “parents these days,” don’t forget about parental amnesia. It’s the thing that makes you forget what it’s actually like to work a full time job and come home to a cranky kid, attempt to cook dinner and then spend three hours trying to put your baby to bed.

Almost all of  the complaints I hear about parents, look different from another perspective. A child who is over-scheduled may have a parent who really cares about that kid having diverse life experiences. A parents who seems to be too permissive, may actually be working very hard to help their child self-regulate and what you see is actually progress. A kid who doesn’t clean up well, isn’t always because parents aren’t trying to teach these skills (trust me) and medicating a kid is a really challenging thing to do. First off, in my tens years of teaching, I can't only remember two cases where a kid was overmedicated.  Second, wouldn’t you be careful, about giving your child drugs that affect their brain chemistry? In some ways, isn’t this a sign of love?

If you actually want to help us out, judge less, and listen more.  Parents these days could use a break, just like you so desperately needed once upon a time, when you had a little one and felt like you had no idea what you were doing.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Year 7: Week 26 - The Teacher Kids Want To Hang Out With

It started when I began student teaching and it has never stopped.

In my entire career as a teacher there have always been groups of students, who like to come talk to me before and after class or during breaks. Often, they are just goofing around but sometimes they want to have deeper conversations.

This has been an interesting thing to manage throughout my career. When I was student teaching, the students would often try to figure out personal things about my life and try to get me to talk more as a peer. In this context, I had to place clear boundaries because it was important as a person who looks young that I establish a level of authority. At the same time I didn’t want to shut this down completely.

Some of my favorite memories of student teaching were long conversations individual students would have with me during their breaks or on bus rides. Teenagers often want someone to just listen to them, and something about my personality and demeanor has often made students feel comfortable opening up to me. I wanted to be a person those students could talk to, but I still needed to maintain distance. There are clear lines that teachers can’t cross and I’ve always been conscientious of this fact.  I am glad that I was able to foster student-teacher relationships that were meaningful for my students. I know this worked because some of these students I worked with as a student teacher more then a decade later are still in contact with me.

This continues to a lesser degree but it still happens. I walk down the halls and groups of students come up to try to joke around with me. Sometimes I have some fun with students in groups but now more then ever, I politely don’t engage at their level. One of the things that you need to be careful of as a teacher is that when students talk to you, it can feel like you are socializing in a friendly way but you are not. It’s a teacher to student talk, which has socializing aspects and is friendly but is in no way a friendship.

The attention from students is really nice. I’m not going to deny that, but this attention isn’t important, and it can often be distracting. It’s great having those more socially outgoing students coming up to you and asking you about your day. However the students that are more socially introverted deserve attention just as much. If the students who are quieter see you joking around with the more socially confident students, it can make the quieter students feel less valued.

What’s interesting is that while I shoot down more of those groups of students coming up to me to joke around, the amount of students who want to have deeper and longer conversations with me one on one is still a significant part of my life as a teacher.

Being that teacher that kids like to hang out with is really fun.  As long as this come from a place of respect earned from relationships built on meaningful learning done in the classroom, really important interactions can happen every day.  

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Monday, March 13, 2017

Parenthood: Week 195 – The One Reason

I saw a video for exercise class for dads in which they can hold their babies in their carriers while they work out. It’s a cute idea, but it’s not really very long that you can hold your baby in a carrier. Also, the amount of time when that baby rests in the carrier and doesn’t react to the outside so you can do aerobics world is even shorter.

I’ve been thinking about this lately because Ollie is getting older. He’s wonderfully independent in many ways and as much as I love the fact that Ollie can go to the bathroom without any help, part of me is not ready for this level of maturity.

Over the weekend after lunch, I climbed into bed with Ollie, and we got cozy (which means we both cuddle up underneath the covers). We read a stack of books together, at least four, and then he falls to sleep in my arms. I get up after dozing for ten minutes and let him have his afternoon nap.

We live in a chaotic, dark and seemingly pessimistic world but there are moments that bring peace to the heart and the mind in a way that rejuvenates, sustains and reminds us of the beauty of the humanity that gives us the hope. Reading a book to a child and cuddling him to sleep is one of those human experiences makes life beautiful.

Ollie’s current favorite book is Corduroy. It’s that book about the bear who is missing a button, goes to find one and is later bought by a girl.   I remember this book as a child and the fact that that the girl is African-American. It’s book about finding one’s place in the world. It’s about being accepted for who you are and accepting others. It’s about finding a home, not in a palace but in a fourth-story walk up.

I can tell Ollie all of these things, but through books like Corduroy, he sees there is a shared humanity, that the value in our house exist in the lives others. Books are reminders that we are not alone.

I can make Ollie feel secure, safe and loved enough to let go into sleep knowing that the world he knows and the people he loves will be there when he wakes up. It is what we give to others that defines humanity and the gift of peace, I can give to Ollie is one of the things that makes my life worth living.

There are a million reasons to not have a kid. But there’s one reason to have a child.  It's in that feeling of falling asleep with my son.

That feeling is infinite.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Year 7: Week 25 – Recorder Wars: The 5th Grade

I love how enthusiastic my 3rd graders are about playing the recorder. They look forward to it, have a sad when we don’t do recorders and they genuinely enjoy playing the instruments.

Then 5th grade hits. I’m not going to get into why the enthusiasm disappears when they reach 5th grade, but I will say there is dramatically different. Many 5th graders openly dislike the recorder. The focus breaks down. It’s really hard to get them to work as a group. I’ve never been able to get them into a good groove working as a class.

So I gave up on teaching 5th grade recorder in the large group. It just wasn’t working. There wasn’t enough buy in for them to learn as a class. I could never strike the right balance, which resulted in advanced kids being bored, and students who fell behind confused. When 5th graders feel bored or are confused, often they express this by being disruptive.

I feel better about what I’ve figured out for my 3rd graders on recorder then what I do with my 5th graders. However, I have found some things that work, so here they are:

1. Recorder fun: I remember the moment when I realized that I could play pop music on the piano. It was through the songbook for The Little Mermaid. It’s a powerful moment when students realize that they can play music they know and like on an instrument. Hal Leonard has this series of recorder books, Recorder Fun! (here’s a link to the Adele one). Each book features a finger chart, basics on reading music and pop songs. Each song is written in big notes with the note names written inside the note name. Lyrics and chord symbols are also included.

Most of the time the rhythms are too complex for my students to read, however, if they know the song, then they are mostly using just the note names to play the song and ignoring the notation. I’m okay with that. At least they are being exposed to notation and feeling the gratification of playing a song that they know. However without knowing how to read rhythms, well it's hard to play as a large group which leads to. . .

2. Small group work: After students try some songs out of the Recorder Fun! series, they give me a list of their favorite songs and I put them in groups according to their song choice. They have the fingering, the notes, and they have an idea of how the song works. Then they can go at their own pace and figure out how to play together. This takes some doing, but I find that in a small group, they can usually figure out a way to play in sync with each other. I work my way from group to group giving them specific goals to work on during the lesson.

3. Alto recorder . . . or tenor?: I have all of my students try the alto recorder and in every class I have three or four students who love it. It fits the bigger hands of some students; many like the lower sound and more advanced kids often enjoy the challenge of the larger instruments. Alto recorder is in a different key then soprano recorder so there’s some transposing that needs to happen. Usually I give them a chart that shows how the transposing work and have them write out a transposed parts themselves.  And surprisingly one of my 5th graders got really into playing the tenor recorder even though she could barely stretch her fingers out to cover the holes.  Hey, she worked really hard at it and made it work.

4. Recorder as a unit: Instead of doing a little recorder as part of a class over a period of time, 5th graders seem to do better with recorder if they do it every music class for the whole period across a series of classes. 5th graders are ready to focus on projects for longer periods of time. It is also easier for students to see growth and feel success if they are working on recorder songs more often during a shorter span of lessons.


Monday, March 6, 2017

Parenthood: Week 194 – Getting Serious

I have a pretty good “teacher face.” You know that look a teacher gives student or a class that will get them stop talking or focus immediately (if you are ever hanging out with a teacher as them to demo their teacher face for you). Over the years, I’ve grown to enjoy having stern talks with kids. No, I don’t enjoy making kids feel guilty or cry, but I do like the mental challenge of figuring out ways to talk to kids to help them understand the consequences of their own negative or careless choices. I only have a finite number of these talks a day in myself and when I’m not sure what to say, these talks can be really stressful. However, when things click, it can be satisfying knowing you’ve helped a student grow.

My “daddy face” is another story. I really don’t like expressing frustration to Ollie or having to be really stern with him. Like my growth as a teacher, I’ll probably get better at it, but right now, it’s really not good times.

Last week, I was putting Ollie to bed. We had done the whole routine, story, and cuddling in bed. I sat in his rocking chair, which Ollie often requests I do while he goes to sleep. However this time, Ollie was not simmering down. He was bouncing on the bed, and throwing his blankets, pillows and stuffed animals off his bed. Calmly without any emotion (which is what is recommended), I placed him back in bed, but he giggled as soon as I let go. Then he slithered off the side of the bed and continued to be silly.

It was getting late. We had been at this for probably forty-five minutes. I had things to do, and it had been a long day for me. I could feeling the frustration build. I had been here before as a teacher, and I knew that I couldn’t loose control, but I decided as I have at times at school to let some of the steam out in a careful and controlled way. I picked up Ollie put him in bed and said quietly but sharply, “YOU are going to sleep right no! Daddy does not think this is funny. He is not happy. Go. To. Sleep.”

Ollie lay there silent, looking at me shocked, not knowing what to do. I tucked his blanket over him, and left the room. I checked five minutes later and he was asleep. I proceeded to hug him, stroke his head gently and tell him as I do every night, “Goodnight Ollie, you are my special little guy, daddy loves you and daddy is very proud of you.”

I felt horrible.

I know that is was good for Ollie to see that there were limits. I also know that it was fine that I said what I said in the way I said it. However, part of me really dislikes having to be that way with my boy and I’m a little sad that this works.

You don’t have to convince me about the importance of being a parent who sets limits and lets their children see the natural consequences of their actions. These consequences are sometimes anger and frustration. I get all of this logically, but in my heart, I’m not there. I only want my words to bring my child joy and I don’t want anything I ever do to make him unhappy even for a moment.

Sometimes the things we do for those we love aren't things that we love to do.  It is exactly our capacity to do these things out of love that make us parents.  Not friends, or mentors, but parents.

Maybe someday, I'll be fine being more stern with Ollie, but if I'm not, that might be such a bad thing after all.        

Friday, March 3, 2017

Year 7: Week 24 - Recorder Wars

The recorder is one of the most ridiculed instruments. Probably the only instrument that gets as much grief as the recorder is the viola, but probably as not as much because most elementary school teachers don’t hand every single one of their students a viola in 3rd grade.

I taught recorder for the first time for one year before I got to this school. The recorder was part of the 3rd grade curriculum when I got here so I’ve kept it up.

Teaching the recorder is a true test of a teacher’s ability to carefully plan curriculum and effectively instruct students. My first year, I just gave the kids the recorders and then attempted to teach them. That was a disaster. It was a headache-educing, chaotic cacophony. I remember taking Tylenol before trying to teach the recorder and that still didn’t help. I had songs to teach and I knew how to teach the instrument but I didn’t know how to teach the recorder to 3rd graders.

Over the past seven years, there’s been a lot of trial and error. However, I’ve kept at it and I’m at a pretty good place. My 3rd graders after playing for about a month, wrote compositions this week using G, A, B, & C. Only two our of my sixty kids needed a reminder to put their left hand on the top of the instrument, and almost all of the them are tonguing. Also I got most of the kids to hold the recorder with their right hand lightly to the side of the holes as opposed to a death grip at the bottom of the instrument, which forms band habits.

Even though all of the kids were playing at the same time during class, no one was squeaking or playing obnoxiously loud and they were all motivated and working. Here’s a couple things that I’ve figured out that has helped me find success teaching the recorder.

1. The introduction.
Starting about a month before the students get the recorder, I start playing for them and showing them videos of people playing the recorder. I make sure that the performances I show them feature children, adults, soloists, ensembles, different styles of music, men and women and people of color playing the recorder. I make sure that all of these videos that I show feature good playing technique and a quality tone model.

2. The Quiz
I give one quiz in the entire 3rd grade year. It’s the recorder quiz. This quiz is one page long and asks the kids about basic recorder technique.
  1. Which hand is at the top of the instrument? Left or right.
  2. What type of air do you use to play the recorder? Fast or slow
  3. If the recorder doesn’t sound right, what should you check? Fingers completely covering the hole & make sure to use slow air
  4. How far do you put the recorder in your mouth? Right in front of the teeth.
I purposely create stress around this quiz. I want students to realize that the recorder is something that is important and that there is a right and a wrong way to play it. The creative part is not in how you play the instrument; it’s what you create with great technique. I explain that if a student does not get 100% on their quiz, they will not get their recorder and they will have to retake it. I usually have one or two students a class who don’t pass, but since most of the questions are pretty easy to figure out, the retake ends up not being a lot of drama.

3. Get them used to playing in small groups.
I usually have them sit in three rows and split them up into two groups. Once students realize how much easier it is to hear themselves play in smaller groups, they will wait their turn to play.

4. Have challenging material around for more advanced students.
I have various recorder method books in my room. If kids are moving ahead, they can grab one of these books and work out of it.

5. The iPad
I used to use Recorder Master on my iPad, but that program is no longer updated and doesn’t work very well on the updated OS. I’m currently using Flute Master.  This program features songs that are displayed as a game first in which kids control a dragon that burns bats. Then the same song is displayed in traditional notation with a moving red line that helps the kids know where they are in the music.

Flute Master has a three songs that have nothing but B, which is great because it provides important repetitions to get technique established and it gives the opportunity to teach tonguing. Nothing motivates students to behave well on their recorder more than the possibility of playing the recorder game on the iPad in front of the class.

Next week, I'll talk about some things that I've gotten figured out for my older students on the recorder. . .

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Bedtime Buddies

Ollie's bedtime buddies (left to right): 
- Gigi the Giraffe 
- Chu from "Chu's Day" by Neil Gaiman 
- Polka (baby toy, infants do best with high contrasts like B&W)
- Bailey from Finding Dory
- Tùzǐ (rabbit in Chinese) from my mom
- Cookie Monster
- Moana
- Maui
- Super Dog
- Bowser (dragon with Frozen shirt).