lessons learned

R – The reason I went into music education was less to do with music and more to do with the personal impact I saw a powerful music program make on my peers when I was in High School. I suspect I’m not alone in that. Once a music teacher however, we are required to be held accountable for musical elements taught, practiced and mastered by our students. Yet that’s both the joy and the frustration, because we also want to get to the heart of the matter: our students. How do we reach them? How do we teach them about them?

My chorus midterm exam every year is a 5 paragraph essay. It always offers multiple essay options, including correlating Kohlberg’s 6 stages of moral reasoning to chorus (mwaa, haa, haaaa…). But it also always emphasizes one thing regardless of which reflective essay they choose: their grade will be based almost exclusively on their thorough substantiation of their opinion. The point to this? The “what” you say is not nearly as important as the “why” you say it. Lesson #1. Lesson #2 is the story I tell about the year I had a student rip me to shreds in their midterm… “you teach by intimidation”, “you talk a good game but don’t really know what’s going on”, etc. Yet she proceeded to follow up every one of her three points with thoughtful, insightful, supporting observations on the matter. She received an A-. She didn’t spell check very well and there were errors in punctuation so she didn’t ace it, but it was still an A-. She had earned it. I took her aside after I turned them back and she was dumbfounded. She expected me to fail her because she didn’t believe that someone would actually stick to their guns and follow through on the premise that the grade will reflect the support given the arguments. I told her that I disagreed with every single statement she made. She was also the only one out of 118 students to feel the way she did. But she supported her opinions thoughtfully and articulately and that was the point. It turned her around in some key ways, and to this day I am so proud of that. I also had a student write glowingly about me that year, how I was the greatest thing ever and my course was the most awesome they’d ever taken. They also didn’t support a word of what they wrote; no examples or justifications were written to support the statements. Guess what grade the student received?

And perhaps you don’t think the word got out that chorus was a class where your opinion mattered as long as you were respectful and articulate?

I also developed an exercise called “question box” where once every year or two, the chorus will walk in to class, I hand them a piece of paper and ask them to write down a question for me (without their names on them), personal or professional, theoretical or practical, serious or funny. I then collect everyone’s anonymous questions in a box and spend the class answering the questions. I toss aside any that are inappropriate but actually go through the process of answering all the rest. And some of the topics that come out of those questions, and the class discussion that follows (teen drinking, cheating, relationships, family, honesty, faith, decision making), well, some of those classes have been the most valuable of my career. I know I get to hit on topics that are near and dear to my students, and many times a student has come to see me privately as a follow-up to ask more questions, seek advice on something that came up or to thank me. They realize that teachers aren’t just there for the coursework… they realize that teachers are always there for them as people too. And that is perhaps the greatest lesson I get to teach them.

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4 Responses to lessons learned

  1. Karla McClain says:

    Love the question box…. might totally steal that!

  2. Stephen Farrand says:

    Wonderful to read this! Clearly you would be one of the HS teachers I find myself thinking about (and often) 40 years farther along the road.

    But I will voice one minor point, a quibble really, about your argumentation. You _are_ invested in the “what” that your students express on paper; that is the fundamental of effective rhetoric. The “why” is irrelevant to your grading and is vastly complex, perhaps best left to the real psychologists among us.

    I do understand what you meant (and the link makes this clear): that in the realm of our actions, we desperately need to consider the “why” more frequently, more carefully and more honestly. That applies equally to students and teachers.

  3. mllama4 says:

    Your point is well taken Stephen… the primary goal is to get the students to think outside the box, but as a practical matter, the teacher is absolutely invested in the “what” as well 🙂

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