talking shop

R – “Ostriches bury their heads in the sand.” No they don’t. Ostriches don’t bury their heads in the sand at all. I looked it up. When they feel threatened, they actually lay down on the ground and feign being a lump of dirt so they get overlooked or bypassed by those around them. But forever and a day will I equate this ridiculously funny looking animal with that behavior just the same.

A) who cares? B) what’s the point? The answer to A. is, predictably, “no one I could possibly ever think of.” The answer to B. though is a different story.

It seems to me that the greatest tragedy of our profession is any failure to genuinely, authentically share our work with each other. Listening to other groups, in and of itself, is not nearly enough. Nor is it the same thing. And too often it is incredibly easy just to talk shop at the surface level with colleagues at district concerts or at conferences in the hallway between sessions. Worse yet, it can be too easy to allow months and even years go by without talking collaboratively about what we do and why we do it in our schools and classrooms. Sticking our head in the sand. Conversely, the most exciting thing in our profession can often be talking in depth with other colleagues in the field, sharing stories of success and failures, ideas and designs, experiences and plans for ongoing work.

On Thursday of this week, I spent the day with Kimberly Grover, choral director and general music teacher at Frank H. Harrison Middle School in Yarmouth. She brought me in as a guest for the day and I got to work with 270 of her singers, grades 5 through 8 (Guess who had the most fun? That would be me…). The value of the workshops was getting someone else to articulate the same fundamental concepts that she already works on in her rehearsals each week but in a different way (i.e. Dr. Howard’s gift to me and my kids last February in what does it take). It enriches the student’s experience, and gives the host director new insights. But for the guest it opens their eyes as well to new approaches and applications of their ideas. When a guest conductor or clinician is brought in, ideas explode into tangible results and the benefits are equal for all involved. But Kimberly and I also spent lunch on Thursday talking about assessment. We got going and she was asking such great questions that on the spur of the moment I called my choral colleague at York Middle School, Jen Etter right there as we were eating! Jen is already a master teacher in my estimation and has SO much expertise to share. To my surprise, she picked up, had two free minutes, so I handed my phone over to Kimberly and let them have at it. It was awesome! Before our lunchtime conversation wrapped up, I could see Kimberly’s brain going a mile a minute. She began her 6th grade general music class a few minutes later by saying to a few kids who are also in chorus, “Hey, what would you think if I did individual assessments in singing each month?” And the reaction she got (all positive) got her going even more. Yesterday morning I got an e-mail from her: she implemented one of the things we spent lunch the day before talking about in her grade 5 chorus rehearsal and it worked!!! She was SO pumped… and it was a tribute to her for wanting to know more. Wanting to do even better. Wanting her program to be the best it can be for her kids.

York High School had a scheduled day off yesterday (prior evening parent conference release time) so I headed up to Brunswick High School to work with Ashley Smith’s Chamber Singers. Ash is a former student of mine and is doing great work there, especially as a first year teacher, but is also building a foundation for future directions for the BHS singers. We had a blast with her students, working on foundational technique stuff as well as teaching them a song they’ve been working on. You see, they will be coming to York to join my Chamber Singers in singing that song at one of our June concerts, and my students will be doing the same at BHS for theirs at the end of May. Personally, yesterday was a blast. But professionally, for her and for myself, it was an enlightening hour and a half. We shared ideas and perspectives and I know I got more out of it than she and her students did.

I came home, had lunch and then at 1:30 had a previously scheduled phone conversation with Lisa Blanchette who is the music teacher at Sumner High School in Sullivan, Maine. She called me at the beginning of the week because she heard I had been working on standards based assessment and she wanted to know more about it as she continues to move further in that direction herself. Our half hour conversation was awesome on multiple levels. By the end of it, she clearly was articulating some new strategies for her assessment practices, but I left the conversation dying to hear from her again soon so I could learn from her experiences in implementing them!!!

And on it goes… I could give you many examples of this kind of sharing done by other colleagues I know in this state, instrumental, general and choral, who have this practice embedded in their year to year, month to month activities.

Collaboration should not now – nor ever – be limited to working on formal projects with someone (I can hear Jarika now, “Isn’t it obvious???”)! Sharing our efforts and resources with others in the field – as an ongoing, routine practice – remains an incredibly gratifying and invigorating approach to furthering our own work. And it’s a hoot to do! The last two days were reminders for me of why it is so much fun and really rewarding. I don’t know how I’ll be perceived in the years ahead as a music teacher in Maine, but I promise you two things: 1) I will not be an ostrich and 2) I will continually be gravitating to others who aren’t either.

No more ostriches.

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