perspective

R – Dan Sovetsky is my colleague at York High School and we went out to get a quick bite after his concert a couple of nights ago. We were both in a reflective mood as we talked not only about the concert but about our music program and how it’s morphed over the last 15 years since we started working together. Invariably, it led to conversations around our perspectives about our jobs.

I was mentioning to Dan that I noticed earlier in the day that his desktop picture on his computer is a picture of his current concert band and how much he really seems to be enjoying working with them this year. He agreed. Dan seems to be enjoying his work with his band even more the last year and a half than ever before. It’s not that he didn’t in years past, not at all. But there’s been something different in his demeanor and approach to his students more recently. He noted that his current Freshman are just about the same age as his oldest daughter and it’s given him a perspective that he never had to this degree. He lives every day in that teenager’s world at home and his empathy for his students has not only become more acute, it really changes how he views them. It has been so cool to see him locking in even more with his kids at school as the years have gone by.

We talked some more and I was reflecting on being in my early/mid 50’s now. It’s been funny… I loved being in my 20’s but even more in my 30’s and yet even more in my 40’s. The professional impact of those decades has been a scaffold, each built upon the other. Through each I’ve gained perspectives and skills that have brought so much happiness to me. But now that I’m in my 50’s, it’s been very weird: it’s tough to think of continuing the scaffold because in my next decade I’ll be retired. The end. It’s not that I won’t stay professionally active in some capacity. But it’s going to be a new start, not a continuation of the trajectory I’ve been on since January, 1988. That’s a bit scary to me. I’ve always been restless – if not miserable – unless I have a next mountain peak to climb. How do I approach my career now? I still work hard, push myself to grow, etc, etc. But what should I be feeling during my day-to-day?

What I have found myself doing the last few years is spending more and more time reminiscing about “the good ol’ days” of my career. Dan and I were talking for instance about our truly incredible summers working at MSYM in Orono. To this day those weeks during the July months have been the happiest of my life. The kids, the environment, our colleagues, our time just hanging out at Pat’s Pizza. The beauty of those weeks is that, while I was in the midst of them, I knew in the moment how special they were. I really did. I was able to ride that wave for 15 straight summers and I loved every one of them. I have been looking back on my career the last couple of years reminiscing about other significant happy moments or events or years too. But there’s been one difference. I don’t think I honestly appreciated to the same degree how special they were while I was in the moment of them.

I’ve realized something this Fall. It’s that, with the wisdom of experience, there’s always going to be times that exasperate and frustrate you. There’s always going to be highs and lows. There’s always going to be trials and dejection in this profession. There’s no way perspective-hand-e1417450105710around it. My scenario at York continues to be a genuine dream come true, but I obsess over the details every week and I get bogged down in them. I do so because I enjoy the challenge. I also do it because that’s my job (I don’t apologize for it). But I’ve come to realize this Fall that it truly – to a degree I never fully appreciated until now – is about perspective. I came across a meme yesterday that said something like, “you don’t appreciate the photographs… until they are all you have left.” Instead of making me sad to think about that, it reinforced my new understanding of how I want to approach my career for its remaining years. Simply put, every day, every week, every month, every colleague, every student, every class: appreciate it all in the actual moment. It won’t last. They won’t be around forever. The experiences and events you have will be gone soon enough. I’ve decided that I do not want to be guilty of not appreciating ALL of it as its occurring.

I think I wasn’t capable of realizing this until I was older. That’s too bad on the one hand, but I think it’s one of the gifts of becoming older on the other 🙂 Which current freshmen are the ones I’m going to be mourning losing three and a half years from now, and am I appreciating my time with them now? What days am I going to look back on and wonder how I didn’t see the good stuff in the middle of them? Am I going to keep putting my head down, churning forward, only to reflect on the happy moments down the road, or am I going to keep my head up enough to experience and appreciate those moments in real time like I did for MSYM? The choice is a clear one for me and it has already made a monumental difference for me since the start of school.

James Taylor has a line in a favorite song of mine that, “…the secret of life is enjoying the passing of time.” While I love the sentiment, it’s a bit too trite for me. I don’t always enjoy the passing of time. I don’t live in a Disney movie and I am not always thrilled in the moment. But instead, I think, for me, the secret of life is becoming more and more about appreciating the current time regardless. Perspective. Reminiscing about years past, former students and experiences, it’s all good. The proper perspective however is causing me to simultaneously recognize that every day I’m in school is a “good ol’ day” in and of itself. To appreciate it and love it (warts, frustrations, down moments along with it all) as it’s happening is going to spare me a lot of wondering down the road, “did I truly take it all in at the time it was occurring?”. My suspicion is that there are thousands of people much wiser than me who realized this long before I did. I don’t think this blog post is unearthing any great revelation. But it was neat to be chatting with my colleague Thursday night, both of us reflecting on how our perspectives have changed so much. And in every way, for the better.

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hello mr. shwa

R – Thursday afternoon I experienced a major development in my entire philosophy toward developing and, more significantly, assessing choral enunciation for teenagers. It is centered around the shwa (Ə): the neutral, mid-vowel of the vowel chart. I was confronted with a critical flaw in my academic approach with my honors choir students, and both the realization and the adjustment moving forward is a story worth sharing.

First, my premises to this point in my career. IPA (the International Phonetic Alphabet, not the beer 🍺) is extraordinarily useful by any standard. Anyone with even rudimentary training in college level voice understands that and has experienced it. My issue with it has never been its value. Rather, at the High School level, it is not practical, certainly not in northern New England. With limited face-time each year, I can either teach pedagogy and foundational choral technique or I can teach IPA, but I can’t do both. For 32 years I have worked with teenagers, all of whom have been in dire need of instruction around vocal pedagogy and technique. It’s the nature of the teenage voice. Consequently, that has been a primary focus. Since 1996, it has been THE primary focus. That Summer I took a graduate vocal pedagogy instruction course taught by two voice teachers from New York City. At the time, they were the two primary vocal instructors for the Metropolitan Opera. And Whitney Houston and Mick Jagger. Game on. They taught me how to teach vocal pedagogy and they provided the class with ideas and techniques that were practical to the general classroom as well as to the studio. It changed me as a teacher. Since then, I have focused on two elements in my choral program: pedagogy and choral tone. By attaching choral tone with vocal pedagogy, I have been able to instruct both, allowing me to serve them to my students in a way that is both manageable and digestable; I can deliver this instruction within the confines of my student face time, yet also in a way that they can assimilate and apply relatively easily. It will take them months and years to master these skills, but we as teachers already know that. I need to make sure those skills have been introduced in a way that is functional for them to be able to develop over time. And by “them” I’m talking about the 97% of the student population who have never taken voice lessons. This approach has never not worked for me. General chorus, honors choirs, guest conducting, summer choirs, adult choirs. It has little to do (I’m convinced) with my instructional ability, but rather with my corresponding curriculum, developed and refined since that graduate course. The credit goes to those two voice teachers. I have been able to work with “tone deaf” kids who haven’t sung since 4th grade and turn them into singers who make honors festivals. It also takes the so-called “talented” kids and provides them with a collegiate level tool box to help them refine their craft.

With me so far?

Let’s go to the de-construction and assessment of some individual pieces of this. The three that are relevant to this discussion are around tone, mouth and diction. My approach to choral tone has been an amalgam of that Summer course and the English Choir tradition. When you listen to those choirs, you can literally “hear” their dropped jaws and lifted soft palates (“palates”, not “pilates” 🤸🏻‍♂️) Listen to this excerpt and see if you agree:

The one non-negotiable for Chamber Singers each Fall is the performance of at least a couple of these carols for the purpose of instructing these technical essentials, because without them you just kill the carols. Students can then apply these to their other literature. However, you can’t assess and hold a student academically accountable for the raising of their soft palate (ya simply can’t see the darned thing!). Instead I combine two indicators/rubrics, one for tone and the other for mouth:

TONE; Sings with proper balance of “ring” and “loft”: (4) singing voice is perfectly balanced, (3) singing voice is independent but developing, (2) some vowels have too much ring (speaking voice) or loft, (1) no unique singing voice
MOUTH; Sings with dropped jaw and light bulb space: (4) jaw is always low with open space (3) jaw is usually low with open space (2) jaw and space placement are inconsistent (1) the mouth is barely open

It ain’t perfect, but at least it gives me and the students two very clear, very assessable indicators. The other side of the tone coin for me has been diction. This is important to me, because you can’t possibly assess “enunciation”: there’s too much going on there to assess it as a single entity. And the articulators (teeth, tongue, lips) bring everything forward in the mouth, which then works against proper tone. Instead I break it down to diction combined with tone. Here’s my diction rubric:

DICTION; Performs with aligned consonants: (4) consonants are the same dynamic as the vowels, (3) consonants are the same dynamic as the vowels more than 80% of the time, (2) consonants are the same dynamic level as the vowels between 50% and 80% of the time, (1) consonants are usually quieter than the vowels

Again not perfect, but it does effectively tie in with what I learned from Dr. Peter Bagley many times over in my career, and is simultaneously eminently clear and assessable.

Still with me?

I’ve already written this Fall about my current intern Emma, and on Thursday afternoon she was scoring our students’ assessments; individual student videos. The song they were being assessed on is one she has been teaching Chamber Singers, Up Good Christen Folk And Listen, an English carol. We were only assessing notes, rhythm and diction (we’re always working on tone, but we are finalizing notes and rhythms this month so November is spent just polishing and shaping tone, phrasing, etc). Here’s the section of it she drew my attention to as she was assessing the individual students’ videos:

Our students were just butchering the four places with the letter “r” sound at seconds 5-7, 14 and 17. Emma told me she couldn’t score their diction because there was no way to address the “r” based on the diction rubric. I told her that she had to stick to the rubric, that we weren’t assessing tone yet but would be; we’d address the “r” when it came time for that assessment soon enough. She wasn’t buying it. Emma was claiming that you can’t address diction unless you address all the consonants and that you can’t ignore something as egregious as what the kids were doing with their “r”s this early in the game. What followed was a two and a half hour discussion/investigation of how to handle the “r”. I looked up some articles and dissertations. I wasn’t getting anywhere until I came across a truly brilliant and thorough site devoted to choral diction (check it out!!!), and I read this:

“W, R, and Y are pathological in the sense that they aren’t really consonants (and actually, in a sense, not really vowels either).”

Hold the phone, Verne. Huh? Neither diction NOR tone? I’ve been riding along peacefully for 22 years and I just struck an embankment. In my boiling down of choral pedagogy to the smallest digestive pieces, I’ve somehow left this part out of the equation. IPA covers this brilliantly of course: Ə. And I immediately thought back to when Brady Allred from University of Utah came to conduct Maine All State. He preached the shwa. My lack of enthusiasm for it was founded in a) my presupposition that if you sing with good choral tone with a lowered jaw and raised soft palate, it is redundant (i.e. English choirs), and b) I didn’t hear a big difference in the all state choir’s sound. Turns out it was due to their mediocre application of the concept despite his brilliant instruction, not the concept itself. I’ve always admired Dr. Allred’s work and have always been blown away with how his choirs can sing with so much resonance and yet blend as well as any choir from King’s College in Cambridge. And it instantly dawned on me: rich, resonant choral tone PLUS THE SHWA. Listen to his choir singing “A Savior is found”:

And there it is. My approach toward de-constructing choral tone and diction was missing the capacity to sing with more resonance (King’s College would never sing “Sav..” or “is” that far forward) but with similar blend. Emma and I talked more about it (it was now 4:15…) and agreed that I need to add another learning target to my honors choirs standards: the shwa. Here is an initial draft of what this is going to look like:

SHWA (Ə); Performs “R and “Y” as neutral vowels: (4) Shwa always applied, (3) Shwa applied consistently with minor errors, (2) Shwa applied inconsistently; between 50% and 80% of the time, (1) Shwa is missing most or all of the time.

I can easily assess this. Emma exposed one more weakness of my overall approach. I wasn’t assessing “diction”, I was actually assessing “consonants”. My rubric for it therefore remains, but the indicator name from here on out is going to be “consonants”.

If anybody needed a case study of why my blog post from last month means so much to me (Student Teachers), you just read it. But my biggest a-ha moment here (clarity of thought, not the Norwegian 80’s band 🎸) is a reminder of how critical it is to refine learning targets in the academic, group ensemble classroom. Assessable learning targets have to be clear, but also manageable. That means putting a limit on what indicators you assess AND boiling down what you feel is absolutely essential into the smallest bite-sized pieces. That looks different for each of us of course, but the danger in every instance is in boiling down too far and inadvertently leaving out essential pieces. I just discovered a piece two days ago that has been completely missing from my students’ list of accountability targets, but will now allow me to evolve my critique of individual singers’ tone and application of consonants with far more nuance and effectiveness. I cannot wait to implement it into my students’ assessments, and I cannot wait to see how its presence refines my instruction as a result.

shwa

 

 

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student teachers

R – I was going through goober music teachers and was somewhat surprised to realize that I’ve never written a blog post on student teachers. Working with them has been one of the great joys of my career for many reasons. I even started this blog with Jarika who student taught with me in 2011 – and I’m still trying to become half the teacher she is. I’ve written before about how I believe we give younger teachers short shrift (nothing to learn from beginning teachers) but not about those in the final phases of their training. Currently, Emma Donahue is a 5th year intern pursuing her Masters degree and she’s with me this Semester through December. Just four weeks in, it has been an incredible reminder of how lucky I am to be involved in this kind of work with preservice teachers.

Yesterday after school we made sure her new laptop was uploading student video submissions from google classroom to doctopus so she could also be assessing them along with me from home. We got it running and ran through a few of the videos together to calibrate our thinking (these were of the treble choir sight reading in class from earlier in the week). It was a fascinating time we spent. We watched the first singer and Emma noted that her voice was somewhat breathy. We had already assessed her jaw/mouth placement and were now onto tone. Our discussion was centered around the difference between tone; voice placement (ring/loft; resonance/space) and vocal production. My premise is that placement is post production and an entirely separate indicator. It’s not that one doesn’t impact or even inform the other, it’s that they are two separate things. In addition, I can hold a student completely academically accountable for placement – that’s a cognitive choice (as long as I’ve done my job) – but production goes to a point beyond what I can hold a student academically accountable for. We have to find the time to work with them on it for sure, but it is not a formal indicator. Emma and I talked about that. She was in the position of having to deconstruct that singer’s sound to the point of determining placement, all the while hearing and seeing other issues. It’s a challenging multi-task. She scored the student remarkably well on that and the other indicators, provided written feedback, submitted it, and we went on to the next student. Emma was surprised at hearing a strong, healthy production and placement from this Sophomore because this same student did not generally sing out in class to the same degree. We discussed why and Emma scored her indicators. We went on to one more. Breathiness issues again, but this time we could pinpoint some specifics why as they pertain to our indicators. The corresponding lower scores were put in place because of the rubric attached to them, and appropriate feedback was provided so the student could demonstrate improvement next time. Emma also sent the request of having the student sign up for academic intervention time to work with her on it for a few minutes for the purpose of giving her some pointers. I’m looking forward to watching that.

What happened here wasn’t just the routine assessment of some of our singers. It was a process that required us to dig deeper into student achievement and what building blocks are in place that we not only can control, but have an obligation to address. How do we address them? How do we tease out individual small grain size building blocks and address them individually and independently so that we can bring them all together and synthesize them by the end of the school year? What deductive reasoning can we use when we listen and watch the video assessments? What are the sequential steps we can take with each student? This time together was a microcosm of what having a student teacher is like. And while it is instructive for the student teacher, it’s a turbo charger for me because I a) have to articulate my own beliefs and understandings and b) do so in a way that is transparent and coherent. And if I can’t? That should be a huge red flag for me… and for my administration who has me under a professional contract to be a competent educator. A few other thoughts:

  • Emma is my 24th student teacher in my career, and there is one common thread every single one of them have: not one OUNCE of their success was attributed – in any way whatsoever – to how well they did on their Senior Recital. Thanks to higher ed, a ton of my time is getting my student teachers to transition from their “performance” mindset to an “analytical observation” mindset. My most successful student teachers are the ones who did so, and viewed the analytical observation part as the most rewarding component of their placement. Emma is one of them: she is already discovering that if she nails down 13 different things simultaneously while in front of her students, I can identify 2 or 3 things she missed 😉 What this is doing however is causing HER to become that analytical as well, and she’s now running with it. The resulting growth in her teaching pedagogy and acumen is literally occurring on a daily basis. She is feeding the analytical side of her mind, she is now standing in front of her classes with that approach, her lesson plans and on-her-feet thinking reflect it, and she is blossoming. Today, four weeks in, I would happily hire her as a teacher in my own school district for that reason.
  • What’s happening now for Emma with each new experience in front of the kids is a football quarterback analogy I’ve used so many times over the years. With regard to progression as a teacher, there are maybe five or six Heisman Trophy winning quarterbacks in the last 50 years who have even been remotely successful in the pros. Talent really won’t help you any more at that point. Rather, if your approach and mindset is spot on, the game gradually starts slowing down. To a rookie quarterback, the safety blitz is a killer because it just comes out of nowhere too quickly to react in any positive way. To a veteran quarterback, they not only see it coming sooner, their thought process is so quick that they don’t even think of how to respond, they just already instinctively know and do the right response. The better ones even use it to their advantage because they have enough mental time to look at their options and make the defense pay for it. They think it that quickly. If you’re Tom Brady, it even gets to the point that you, “already have all the answers to the test”. Every blitz is literally slow-motion to him. The game slows down. That’s one of the most awesome transitions to see in a student teacher and facilitating this transformation is about the most fun a cooperating teacher can have.
  • I believe a misconception of student teaching is the “mini me” mindset, not only for the student teacher but perhaps too often for the cooperating teacher as well. “Watch what I do so you can learn how to do it too.” Obviously, if you’re worth anything at all, any student teacher (any peer for that matter) can learn from various things you do and adopt it into their regimen. On the other hand, I have told every one of my 24 the same thing when they began: that they can do anything they want. Anything at all, even if – ESPECIALLY if – it is different from what or how I do things, and that this time with the students is a blank canvas for them. But: I’m going to ask them why they do everything they do… and they had better have a pedagogically sound answer for me or it’s not going to end well. It is not sufficient to “do” the right thing, because the “right thing” is 100% subjective. The right thing for the choral program at York High School might be the polar opposite of the right thing at Keene High School where I student taught over 30 years ago. But if you – any teacher at all – can articulate the pedagogical “why” behind what you do, there is no discussion to be had. And isn’t THAT the goal for a student teacher to achieve? I could go on an on for hours about the impact Jean Nelson had on me when I student taught with her at Keene. The greatest gift I believe she gave me however was the gift of allowing me to develop my own teaching style and strategies while holding me insanely accountable. I’ll never forget her words to me when I started. Jean is a brilliant piano player and I on the other hand was a “claw”. I was very nervous about student teaching because of my lack of piano skills. But she began by telling me this: “…you have the rest of your career to learn how to become a good rehearsal pianist, but you only have these four short months with me to learn how to become a good rehearsal technician, and that’s what you’re going to focus on.” She never once allowed me behind the keyboard. I quickly started to wish she had! The minutia with which she asked me questions and held me accountable was never ending, but it caused me to start becoming a teacher. Better yet, she allowed me to become ME, not her. Did I take dozens of things she did and incorporate them into my own teaching? Of course. But she also allowed me to experiment with my own ideas, teach with my own style – not because mine was better, but because it was an extension of me. When I got my first teaching gig, I would stay through after school routinely, sometimes through supper, working on my piano chops. And I indeed needed more student face-time in the years to come to continually refine my craft. But I showed up on day one to Bellows Falls Union High School knowing the reason behind everything I did, and I knew it was pedagogically sound. Consequently, I showed up believing that I was a damn good teacher… thanks to Jean.
  • There is another myth about student teachers, that the actual students suffer when someone new and unexperienced get in front of them. Well, it depends on your definition of “suffer”. Do things slow down? Yup. Emma told me yesterday of her frustration that the Treble Choir is moving so slowly through a song much less challenging to them than a song I’m teaching that they’re flying through. But she’s not moving them any slower than I did 30 years ago. It’s part of the process. Mistakes will be made along the way too. So be it. The question is, do you have an environment in your program in which students are taught to learn from everything and everyone around them? How does a student teacher in that environment not invigorate the students’ learning process? Do you have an environment in your program in which you make it transparent that you, as the teacher, have much to learn and that it is equally transparent that you are learning too? Do you have an environment where the students take as much pride in watching a student teacher progress as you do? God bless you if you don’t, but my experience at KHS was extraordinary in large part because that’s the environment that was provided me. And I refuse to have one at York that denies a student teacher, and my students, and ME those same opportunities. We don’t suffer with a student teacher: we grow. I just about fell out of my chair taking notes on Emma’s teaching two weeks ago when, in something like her third warmup ever, she took the kids in a circle, and had them sing in four part harmonies on crunchy numbers like I do. But she instead decided to work on blend as a learning target for that warmup, and instead had them sing “ooo” while holding up the fingers of the numbers they were singing. I’ve never thought to do that. It was nothing short of emma trebleextraordinary, and suddenly there were overtones in the room which prompted further discussions about the essentialness of blending vowel sounds, including and especially the inconvenient ones (sorry solfege). That was the springboard for the work we are now doing with them on vowel formation. My mind was blown and now I have a new warmup I will be incorporating the rest of my career. I can give more than few other examples from my other student teachers in years past (precisely because they weren’t “mini me”s btw). Does this sound like my program is “suffering” from having a student teacher?
  • I’ve already alluded to it, but I have to state unequivocally: I am the teacher I am today because of my student teachers. Every one of them had and have strengths and weaknesses… just like me. When I teach, I require them to take notes as if they were my college supervisor and ask leading questions afterwards about everything I did. The pedagogical reason for this is so I can evaluate them on the types and the quality of the questions they’re asking me. I discover what they are thinking and observing… and what they are not! This informs my further work and discussions with them. But the Randy Pausch head fake is that I grow exponentially through this process too. I have to be accountable for every syllable I say, every action I do, every vocal and physical inflection I make, because my student teachers will eventually question me about each and every one. There is no greater professional development than a post observation discussion about the “why” behind the “what” (quick insert here, there’s only two reasons to question someone: 1. because it’s a passive/aggressive way to disagree or 2. because you genuinely want to learn from that person and asking them leading questions is how you do so… isn’t it a shame we live in a society where the cultural default assumption seems to be reason #1?). When you have a student teacher, this professional development of questioning and discussion occurs on a daily basis. Even when the roles are reversed. When I sit back and take the notes on my student teacher, I have to be really clear with my questions, and I have to be really sure I know what I’m talking about if I call them out for something. Yesterday, I quickly, almost subconsciously wrote down a three pronged approach to my philosophy of kinesthetic learning in the choral rehearsal. I’ve never done so before, I’ve never been able to before, and then I looked down at her lesson plan and my scribbling: and there it was. No joke, the growth in a student teacher is crazy significant during their time with you. But if you are authentic about providing pedagogical feedback, you will find yourself doing the growing too.

I interview every single potential student teacher before I commit to them, for the purpose of seeing if they actually want to be a teacher or if it’s just a peripheral interest. I have no patience for a twenty-something standing in front of my kids with less than a 100% commitment to all it takes to become a master at this craft. My students deserve better. But for those who are committed? After Emma and I finished calibrating our assessment scores yesterday after school, it was about half an hour beyond what we had planned. She thanked me for taking the time and also for the additional work it requires to have her with me this Fall. I told her right off that in no way is it extra work. She didn’t accept that. She came right back at me: “You find it fulfilling, but that doesn’t mean it’s not extra work. It is extra work. That’s not the same thing.” Color me called out 🙂 And yes, she’s dead on correct. Working with student teachers is extra work. It’s extra work, extra time, extra energy, extra commitment, extra expectations. But it is also hands down one of the most fulfilling things I can be a partner in, causing me to grow and become even more proficient at something that is the passion of my life. How could that ever feel like work? Every student teacher I’ve ever had has made me a better teacher, and each one has also made me a better student teaching cooperating teacher as well. Best yet, in every case it’s also been an opportunity to thank Jean Nelson for all she gave me at Keene High School by simply paying it forward. And all this is why, often as much as my students, my student teachers have been some of the greatest blessings – to me – of my career.

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imperfect offering

R- As I tuned in the car to MPBN one day last Summer, I was listening to a social scientist by the name of Richard Matthew talking about his work in the Congo and some pretty interesting stories and perspectives. As he spoke, he referenced a friend of his by the name of James Orbinski who referred to humanitarian work as an imperfect offering: “There’s never enough resources to help, and sometimes you do the wrong thing and sometimes you don’t understand things fully. But you still have to do something.” That really resonated with me as an educator.

If you’re now expecting me to find a connection between humanitarian work in the Congo and teaching in America, don’t hold your breath. But I would argue that there is a profound correlation between teaching in America and the idea of an “imperfect offering”. Good teaching to me has the following components:

  • Integrity. Honesty and consistency of character is either at the forefront of who you are as a teacher or you shouldn’t be in the profession. Students and colleagues see what you do. You are either a reflection of the better world we all want this to be or you’re something less. There’s only one road to follow here.
  • Pedagogy. If what you practice and do is not founded in research, exploration, study and observation, don’t kid yourself into thinking you’re doing okay. There is a reason there has been so much research and academic reflection on good practice. You’re equally kidding yourself if you think that your undergraduate and even graduate studies successfully check off this component for you. It’s the year-to-year learning through reading and discovery that allows you to teach with authority. The key is to not follow every tenet like a lemming, but rather to know “why” you do what you do. If the answer isn’t reflected in foundational pedagogy, you’re building your house on sand.
  • Originality. There are so many great lines out there, and I don’t even know who to attribute most of them to, but I’ll use an appropriate one here: “Be the best ‘you’ that you can be.” Look through history, look even through your own past. The people who made great contributions to you, your life, none of them were trying to be someone they weren’t. I think the great transition for teachers is morphing from 1) learning what to do and when, 2) knowing what to do and when without having to think about it, 3) incorporating #2 into their own unique style and presence. I believe anyone can be a great teacher. But only Steve Smith could ever have been Steve Smith. Only Jean Nelson could ever have been Jean Nelson. Only Dennis Cox could ever have been Dennis Cox. Get the point?
  • Empathy. Again, if you don’t possess this to a high degree, you’re in the wrong profession. Get out of your own self while in the classroom and get into the minds and psyches of your students. Individually, how are they doing? What do they need? Where are they coming from? Your “agenda” as a teacher is barely worth the paper your lesson plan is typed on until you incorporate this one component into your teaching. After doing so, you are an incredibly invaluable link to your students and their future. They need assistance from caring, empathetic people in their lives. One could argue that teaching with “tough love” is equally important. I would argue in response that tough love is still love, and tough love still requires empathy. The opposite of empathy, to me, is actually apathy. If you complete your day of teaching, and you don’t know how your kids were doing as people that day, you really missed the target and I question your true value to your school and to your students.
  • Consistency. This to me is the toughest one. We aren’t robots, we’re actual people with good days and bad days. Having to be consistent with our expectations, how we treat people, how we deliver our curriculum, how we keep kids first. I know as a statement of fact that this is a great, great challenge. But the degree to which we accomplish this facet is the degree to which we build trust in our students. And the degree our students trust us is the degree to which we can make an impact on them, academically and personally/interpersonally.

Good teaching does not however include being perfect, because it isn’t possible. There’s never enough resources, sometimes you do the wrong thing and sometimes you don’t understand things fully. My first few years of teaching I would come home every day and beat myself up over how I didn’t successfully carry out one or more of my goals as I tried to be a good teacher. 30+ years later that’s been reduced to only 1 time every week or two 😉 But here is where the great yet simple quote from Fleetwood Mac singer Lindsey Buckingham comes in: “If you’re any good at all, you know you can be better.” An imperfect offering is not accompanied by a shrug of the shoulders. It’s accompanied instead by self reflection and the final, most important component of great teaching: Perseverance. In the history of mankind, there has never been a “perfect” musical performance. By anybody. That hasn’t stopped any of us from trying. I hope every colleague reading this blog post enjoys a wonderful school year of their own imperfect offering and all it entails while practicing that never ending journey of becoming a great teacher.

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why proficiency worked… in the arts

R – This is Goobermusicteachers‘ 100th blog post. It’s fitting that it’s on this topic. The Maine Proficiency Law, §4722-A. Proficiency-based diploma standards and transcripts was voted into law in 2012. Six years later, it is removed from law. I have my own theories of why. Technology was fundamentally unable to transparently support the work. Communities across Maine made it clear that they were more interested in how their High School kids did compared to other High School kids (grades) as opposed to transparently reporting what their kids actually knew… or didn’t (standards). Schools were given no direction from the Department of Education because, after all, this is a “local control” state. Schools were all over the map with regard to implementation. Post Secondary Education largely doesn’t concern itself with the issues directly confronting High Schools, and therefore did not universally adopt standards scores for admission (can’t fault the parents for that one). The crime here is that thousands – tens of thousands – have said all along that this all won’t last. It will be rescinded, it will end up being like every other “big thing” that’s come down the pike: worthless and a mistake.

This big thing was not worthless and it wasn’t a mistake. And not just because I say so.

Big picture, this big thing was the first one that required us to look at student achievement, as opposed to achievement tools (see “Assessments; Common Local” ca 2006…). And we actually had to be precise about what students knew. This forced us to have very deep discussions about why we do what we do, measure what we measure. And there is no way an educator with an ounce of integrity in their bones could claim that this process of self-examination – for those with equally enough integrity to have authentically done so – wasn’t exceedingly valuable for that reason if nothing else.

How does this apply to the arts? The topic for this blog post.

Looking back to when a few of us founded the Maine Arts Assessment Initiative (now Maine Arts Leadership Initiative) in 2010, it is too easy to forget the landscape back then. We were just coming out of the Common Local Assessment saga and the DOE was in the process of a re-boot. For the arts, we were still wrestling with the pros and cons of the 2007 re-release of the Maine Learning Results and not really moving too fast in any productive direction. The objective of MAAI was the following:

OVERALL GOALS:
1. Create an environment in Maine where assessment in arts education is an integral part of the work all arts educators do to promote arts education.
2. To build on the exemplary work of curriculum, instruction, and arts assessment to continue to provide and expand on quality arts education programs for all Maine students.
OBJECTIVES:
1. Devise a statewide plan for arts education
2. Include professional development opportunities, regionally and statewide to expand on the knowledge and skills of teachers to improve teaching and learning
3. Build on the capacity of arts educators. Utilize technology to gather existing resources, make resources available and create new resources

My own informal goal was based on my experience at the New England Arts Assessment Institute at Plymouth State that Summer: that if we are to ever move the needle with regard to essentialness of Arts Education for our PK-12 students and in our PK-12 schools, then we’d better start getting serious about actually being academic. I’ve written many blog posts over the years alluding to fraudulent high school music programs all over the country practicing as fundamentally co-curricular activities but doing so cleverly disguised as academic subjects, bastardizing our entire profession as a result. It was time in 2010 to put put up or shut up about music education being an essential academic subject. My conviction then and my conviction now is that this is embodied and informed through our assessment practices. This also happens to hold true for visual as well as performing arts.

MAAI’s first attempt at bringing assessment into the arts dialogue was met in-house with a LOT of trepidation: if we hold a conference devoted to assessment, will anybody actually show? “Assessment” in the arts was a dirty word. After much debate we decided to be transparent about our goals and our process as it tied to the importance of assessment. We ended up holding our first biennial statewide conference in October of the following Fall. Back to the Future: Arts Assessment For Learning was held at USM in Portland. We decided that our big, audacious goal would be to have 200 attendees. We knew we wouldn’t get anywhere close, but believed we could at least bend that needle a bit. Not only did we meet the 200 threshold, we had to expand that number the week of the conference when registrations kept pouring in. When it was all said and done, 225 visual and performing arts teachers attended 17 workshops on assessment (a month later Jarika and I started this blog). Proof that the time was right for this work? This was the Fall PRIOR to the Proficiency Law being introduced and passed in Augusta. Once it was, the work of MAAI took off. Exactly two years later, that same biennial statewide conference saw 230 visual and performing arts teachers attend 35 workshops on assessment related topics. MAAI teacher leaders presented their workshops multiple times to over 300 educators during the 2013-14 school year at the regional and state level.

What happened after this is that the Proficiency Law started to drive arts teachers’ work. This meant now having the same conversations with Math teachers and Science teachers. English teachers and Social Studies teachers. What we discovered in many districts around Maine is that it was the arts teachers LEADING these discussions with their faculty, and even their administrators because of the professional development they had already undertaken and built upon in their own classrooms. Proficiency worked… for the arts.

Fast forward to this past year or so. Schools’ failed attempts at proficiency. Schools’ failed attempts at implementing standards based report cards. Schools’ failed attempts at rallying all subject areas around even the concept of proficiency. For all the reasons I stated in the first paragraph and then some. But here’s my takeaway. Ready for it? The essential role of authentic assessment of individual students in our ARTS CLASSROOMS – music and visual arts in particular – was never tied to the Proficiency Law to begin with.

It was a movement that was grass roots.

It was a movement that began because we deemed it important and not because someone told us that it was.

It was a movement that began to move us from a co-curricular mindset of “developing the whole person” to a curricular mindset of actually doing so; academic accountability does not stifle creativity or “love for the subject”, it enhances it.

It was a movement that allowed us to move beyond the idea that assessment was a barrier to student creativity and success, to one of assessment unlocking potential for both that we had never previously imagined.

It was a movement that – for the first time ever – put us on the same equal playing field as the other 7 academic subject areas.

It was a movement that caused and causes us to reflect and refine our work for the expressed outcome of doing right by our individual students.

Best yet, it was a movement that is still moving.

Here’s my hope as we begin the 2018-2019 school year in Maine. Now that the law is gone, take whatever stand you want on standards or proficiency, I couldn’t care less. Those who have bought into it have done so via their own discoveries, firm foundations and convictions. The rest can only do so via a similar journey. That onus is on them 800px-Music_class_usaeither way. But all arts educators must remember that refining their assessment practices – with or without an 11th commandment coming down from the state house – is the booster rocket that will continue to drive us where we need to go in this 21st century, individually and collectively in the arts. We cannot tolerate any longer ANY academic program in music or visual art that isn’t academic in practice any longer. A Math teacher who bases 10% of their grade or more on “participation” ought to be fired for that practice. It’s no longer acceptable to have it accepted in our arts classes. We can’t accept it from ourselves and we can’t accept it from our neighbors. We need to keep after academic integrity by examining sound individual assessment practices based on sound and very transparent academic expectations. Call it proficiency, call it standards, call it good practice, call it common sense, call it being responsible. Call it being a professional educator. Call it whatever you want. But let’s remember that the practicing of this tennet is more important to us now as a profession than it was even back in 2010.

And we aren’t dependent on any stinkin’ proficiency law to keep it moving.

 

This blog post is dedicated to the memory of Phil Martin (1954-2018): a remarkable educator and even more remarkable person, who served on the staff of the New England Arts Assessment Institute.

 

 

 

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the concert: promoting literacy #2

R – When two of television’s most popular shows are called “The Voice” and “America’s Got Talent”, we had better be doing something to keep music education on the front burner of being an academic subject. There’s nothing wrong with either show, but there is a cultural myth in this country that singing is about interest and/or talent… and that’s about it. Name one other core school subject area where either matters, and yet somehow both are perceived as virtually essential to being enrolled in a music class. Worse yet, this view is shared by students, parents, administrators, guidance counselors and so on.

What are we doing about it?

6 and a half years ago Jarika did one of the bravest things I’ve ever seen a music teacher do when she began her first ever concert as a music educator by teaching the audience to read music. It was extraordinary on two fronts. First, it was a demonstration by a beginning teacher that it is okay to be professionally brave and take risks. I think we can all learn from that. Second, she demonstrated to the entire assembled audience that literacy and singing are academic skills. The audience left her concert that night buzzing about what a game changer it was. We have the technology, ability and opportunities to change our community’s perception of what it is we do and why it is essential.

I have not been able to hold my concerts in a space with either a sound system or a projector/screen so I have done my best to replicate this with a small piece of sheet music placed inside each program. It actually worked pretty well but I’ve planning for the day I could finally do this in an auditorium as well and my first concerts in our new one allowed me to do so. I hold the same concert twice in a week’s time so I can implement an evaluation and revision process with my kids between them. So I got to do the audience music reading twice. This video is of the second time: teaching the audience to read music.

The reaction from the audience was positive, but the details coming from the kids in the following days showed me that this has to be a regular part of all my concerts from now on. I had stories of kids telling me that when they got home their parents actually initiated conversations about reading music and showing them even more!

If a concert has the potential to cause our communities to discuss and think about music as a skill, why would we not be tripping over ourselves to make that happen? Let’s spend some time thinking about our public performances and what messages they send to our schools and communities. The best music education advocacy is a proactive one. Our concerts are largely untapped resources for providing this.

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sond advice

That isn’t a typo. A few weeks ago I finally got around to watching the brilliant Stephen Sondheim documentary, Six By Sondheim. Directed by his friend and collaborator of over 35 years, James Lapine, it dives into Sondheim’s inner thoughts, not just his story. My admiration of Sondheim’s work is shared by millions – he single-handedly transformed the very genre of the Broadway Musical.

For me, I have spent my career discovering similarities and parallels between his work and that of the late choral director, Robert Shaw. Both beckon to my sense of analytical-ness. Both based the emotional content of their work on an excessive (obsessive?) attention to the smallest technical details; the paradox of their work being that out of the technical minutia comes the emotion and spirit of what they aim to convey. The criticism of both, Sondheim throughout his career and Shaw as early as 1952 in a Time Magazine article entitled, “Too Much Perfection”, has been that their work is too technical. And yet their work brought music to life in a fashion that often made others seem ridiculously superficial by comparison. I found myself taking notes as I watched the Lapine documentary and, as is the case with so much of Sondheim’s work, found underlying meaning that wasn’t readily transparent on the surface. In this case, I discovered so much of what he articulated transferred wonderfully to teaching in general and music education in particular. Some of my notes:

“I love inventing. The hard part is the execution, obviously. But even that’s fun. And when I say fun of course, I’m talking about agonizing fun, I’m not talking about ‘pleasant’ fun.” What teacher hasn’t agonized over their students, classes, expectations, daily routines and so forth? I think the key to this statement is that the execution of our work is not supposed to be easy, nor is it supposed to be fun (which is why I have always felt that “loving music” is a lousy reason to go into education: it’s not relevant). It is, however, unlike any reward one could ever dream of as you go through it and get to the other side of the efforts. A lot of teachers try to avoid the “agonizing” or get weary from it. Sondheim states it as core of the fun. This isn’t bad advice for any teacher of any subject area. As Shaw put it, “The wonderful thing about the amateur chorus is that nobody can buy its attendance at rehearsals, or the sweat, eyestrain and fatigue that go along with the glow.” As Sondheim put it, “If you didn’t get those moments, you couldn’t put up with the rest of it: the loneliness and the tedium and the endless amounts of work, you know, the sweat.” Get what they’re driving at?

“To make art sound effortless takes a lot of effort.” Many of my student teachers over the years have come in and immediately wanted to get to the goosebumps and the emotion. One of them introduced a new song to the choir and 10 minutes into it began talking to them about reflecting on the text and feeling what the song was getting at… before the students had any idea what the notes were yet. After a post-class briefing where I reiterated that job #1 is to be technically precise (the composers deserve at least that much from us), before long that same talented teacher was getting down and dirty into the minutia and getting wonderful music out of the kids. But, man, it takes time to get the kids there. My fear in our current educational landscape is that we feel (legitimate) intense pressure to have a large enough music program to justify our employment. That is a very real reality in programs in every single state, ours not being the least of them. Consequently, we feel the need to keep our music students happy and engaged, whether through the literature we select, our class routines or by going straight to the aesthetic as soon as possible; appealing to their emotions, all so they will continue to stay involved with it. I get it. So do you. But if we are in the business of not only making art but also fostering real musicians, we cannot shortcut or downplay the essentialness of the work. This quote, it seems to me, must be at the forefront of what we are teaching our students. If we’re not teaching them this, what are we teaching them?

“You can’t learn in a classroom, and you can’t learn on paper. You only learn by writing and doing and writing and doing. That’s how everybody who’s ever been good got good.” I love this quote. Obviously, Sondheim is referencing the art of writing lyrics here, but every molecule of this translates to the art of teaching. Inherent in this quote is the understanding that there is an analytical component that goes hand in hand with it; “doing” is a great vehicle to learning, but not without introspection. For the newer teacher, it isn’t good enough to emulate or model other teachers: you need to begin to emulate who you are going to be. That happens through experimenting, trial and error, falling down and getting back up, risk taking, and so forth. For the veteran teacher, it has to do with applying what you have observed at conferences, rehearsals and coursework. It isn’t enough to “know”; “knowing” never transformed a classroom of students. You have to “do”, you have to apply.

“You must be able to defend every single word and note.” As music teachers, we make dozens of choices daily, often within a single class. Can you defend every single choice? Educationally? Sure, anyone can “justify” a choice, but I have seen many music teachers fall into their own self-made pits by making choices they had a tough time defending when push came to shove. There was music program in a different state a few years ago that was in danger of being removed from the school day to allow more time for the other academic classes. Advocacy efforts went into high gear. A colleague contacted me asking if I could help them out. I went to that music program’s website and read press releases they were putting out. The web site provided nothing in the way of what they were doing academically, 40% of the students’ grades were based on “participation”, and their argument for the program being essential was that it promoted teamwork, self-esteem and the concerts were really great. I never lifted a finger for them. To state it plainly: if you cannot educationally justify every single syllable of what you say, what you write, what you think, what you do, do not expect your program to be viewed as an educational necessity. There are a lot of co-curricular music programs in this country cleverly disguised as academic subjects. Don’t let yours be one of them.

“Teaching is the sacred profession… my life was saved by teachers.” He referred specifically to his latin teacher and then to his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein. It’s a reminder that a teacher is someone who reaches out and positively impacts a person. Your area of teaching expertise is irrelevant to this; the prior paragraph notwithstanding, we have an obligation to simultaneously get out of “music teacher” mode and just get into being a good teacher too… for every student. Oscar Hammerstein was not a teacher by profession and yet had a profound impact on a young man who viewed him as one. How much more of an obligation do we have, those of us in the profession, to model this impact? His other teacher wasn’t even a music or english teacher. We need to get out of this mindset that somehow our effectiveness as true teachers is confined to our aptitude in music (go back to what I said about going into teaching because you love music). My own High School music teacher had the greatest impact on me growing up, and he utilized his music program to impact kids in that fashion. You can get there from here, but my point is that it does not have to be mutually inclusive, and that just caring about your students as people can transcend merely the music.

“The people who like my work are expecting so much, and it makes me… tense.” Cautionary to newer teachers, and essential for veteran teachers: this has the potential to eat away at you. Early in my career I had to each year “outdo” what I did the year before or else I felt like a failure. It ate me up inside. I’ve already spoken to two colleagues of mine this Summer going through the very same thing in their careers. As Sondheim went on to add, “It’s not that you want to ‘top’ yourself, it’s that you want to write something fresh. It requires more courage as you get older.” We become our own harshest critics and, while that can be a healthy thing in process, we need to – in equal measure – be able to reflect on each school year as it’s own entity. In the concluding song from his Sunday in The Park With George, Sondheim wrote the dialogue between the contemporary George and his muse, Dot. For this coming school year, these are profound words to remember:

[Dot:] Are you working on something new?
[George:] No
[Dot:] That is not like you, George
[George:] I’ve nothing to say
[Dot:] You have many things
[George:] Well, nothing that’s not been said
[Dot:] Said by you, though. George
[George:] What am I to do?
[Dot:] Move on…
Stop worrying where you’re going-
Move on
If you can know where you’re going
You’ve gone
Just keep moving on

I chose, and my world was shaken-
So what?
The choice may have been mistaken,
The choosing was not
You have to move on

Look at what you want,
Not at where you are,
Not at what you’ll be-
Look at all the things you’ve done for me

Stop worrying if your vision
Is new
Let others make that decision-
They usually do
You keep moving on.

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