have it both ways

R – One of the core issues I have with High School music programs in this country is that they often pass themselves off as academic and essential while not being so in practice, placing an emphasis on non academic goals or meeting the needs of only those kids who “sign up” for music classes. To a music teacher with a humanistic approach to education, music is considered only a means to the end. The opposite extreme is one where the music teacher values the student on their musical aptitude. I rail against both extremes. The reasons have been written about ad nauseum the last two and a half years in this blog: don’t call yourself “essential” if you don’t meet with all students, and don’t call yourself “academic” if you’re an extracurricular activity disguised in academic clothing. This has been interpreted by some as my railing agains the inherent benefits of music education that can’t be found elsewhere. I’ve never said that, and I’ve never believed it. My stance is that you can have it both ways. My insistence is that we as music programs PK-12 must have it both ways.

For my choirs, I assign an end of the semester (Choirs are a semester course at YHS) 5 paragraph essay based on several prompt options which counts as their Final exam. The students are told that whatever they say will not be assessed. The support of their viewpoints is what will be assessed. So don’t bother sucking up, and don’t bother skimming through it. I utilize the English department scoring rubric to grade it, so there’s no subjectivity. What follows below is a midterm that showed up in my turnitin.com inbox yesterday. It is complementary of me and the class, but that’s not the point, it’s not relevant, and it’s not typical of all the essays I receive – – TRUST me on that. I’m also not suggesting that there aren’t a myriad of music teachers out there through whom the following essay couldn’t have been written. But in a class taught by a standards crazed, academic emphasis, “music is for all students not just those who like music”, individual assessment based maniac like me, the following perspective occurred:

There is a certain definite level of respect that an individual teacher will earn from his or her students. Many of my past teachers have made mistakes in how they go about earning it. Respect is not something that children are expected, from day one, to give one hundred percent to adults (as much as parents try to argue the contrary). Teachers need to prove to their students that they deserve it. In chorus, the students respect their teacher on a level different from any other class I have participated in. It’s not because he has established intimidation or given us a fear of punishment. Instead, the atmosphere within the room is one of kindness. The respect is given by us, only because it is given to us. This lesson is one of the most important things to be learned by a teenage student- not the Pythagorean Theorem, or the definition of a helping verb, but instead how one’s attitude can help him or her succeed. Just in this short semester, I have not only grown as a musician, but as a person. I have learned about the ways in which respect is earned and the ways in which maturity and compassion will outweigh any academic achievement.

This is absolutely my only class in which the social expectations are ranked just as high, if not higher, than the academic ones. The emphasis on intellectual engagement in the chorus room has helped me grow tremendously as an individual by encouraging self-assessment on more than just educational aspects. In middle school, and with nearly every class I have taken at York High School, my personal definition of success has been seeing an “A” on my report card. I am proud to say that this class has helped me grow; I now strive to succeed in less measurable ways. In this class, we are evaluated on whether we “maintain a steady beat with the conductor,” but the rubric equally emphasizes “using appropriate language and holding others to the same standards, leading by example in daily classroom expectations, and encouraging others to be respectful.” In a standards-based class, either you meet the expectations, or you don’t, so this method of grading is a good choice for evaluating behavior skills. I like knowing that I am encouraged to make a conscious effort to better myself and my behavior in this class.

In chorus, maturity is valued on the same level as a grade in Powerschool. This one difference between junior high and high school is huge- it separates those who get by with good grades, and those who get by with a good mentality. A student can have the highest I.Q. in his class and still fail to succeed in the majority of subjects valued in chorus. This type of student, one who has scholar intelligence but very little social maturity, resembles myself in middle school. I had a pretty report card, but I was disrespectful to my peers as well as the adults in my life. I did not value kindness or common sense. Five years later, as I reflect on my growth, I like to credit a lot of my “growing up” to the classes in which I have learned more about being a person than being a student. Chorus is one of these classes.

We are often encouraged to self-evaluate in the chorus room. This is a simple concept, yet I have personally honed these skills vastly just by attending this course. With self-evaluation, I am able to set personal goals and strive to achieve them. Even with our simple reflection, where we assess the recording of our previous concert, students are taught to put a value on their own work. This assessment seems silly, but after doing it, I have developed skills that will help me evaluate my work in the future. The poem Success by Steve Kilbourne contains the passage “Success is an attitude, and you can always better your best.” The mindset behind this is the reason why I am glad to have gained skills like these- I am better shaped to “always better my best” in the future. I may not always remember how long to hold a dotted quarter note for, but this skill can always be used.

Essentially, my personal development within this course exceeds so much more than enhancing my knowledge of key signatures. I have learned what it takes to call myself a mature student. I have developed skills of self-assessment that I can use past this class, and most likely past high school. I have especially learned that respect is not given, it has to be earned, and I have learned what a person can do to earn it. The fundamentals in this classroom are important to me. I believe creative learning within art programs, including music programs, is always just as necessary in schools as core classes. I enjoy knowing that I have learned to sight-read. I honestly hope I never forget how to use these skills. But most importantly, what I have learned about being a person far surpasses the worth of anything else I have absorbed within the class.

On Thursday, in this same class, I had a crew of 9 students who still had not achieved at least a 3 on their key signature assessment (they fail the entire course if they don’t achieve at least one 3 on both their time signature and key signature assessments). We did a 20 minute tutorial together during class, an interactive one where the kiddos were sharing the discussion and dialogue. When they re-took the assessment, one of them for the third time now, they had to show me their work when they were done so I could score it in front of them. Every student did brilliantly. Just as significantly, the expressions on every one of those students’ faces when I looked at them and told them that they nailed it, was worth gold. They displayed genuine satisfaction (in one instance a spontaneous high-five) in accomplishing an academic goal – even something this mundane to you or I – that they previously believed they could not get. Moreover, the conversation with every student who took the course under duress due to the graduation requirement was told that now that they have the literacy foundation in place, “…just think what you can do with it if you choose to sign up for another term.” My roster next year is peppered with these kids.

Is this last paragraph in conflict with the essay?

My goal for music education over the next 25 years is for it to become an essential, academic foundation of our secondary schools while simultaneously reaching kids in ways that are, I believe, unique to music. I don’t buy the argument that it’s “either, or”, and I don’t buy the argument that you can’t accomplish both simultaneously. It’s not about the teacher, it’s about student expectations. What this looks like in each individual school may be very different. That’s okay. But please, let’s move forward with the agenda of being academically essential, with the knowledge that the value of our programs transcends the academic. Food for thought as we exhale for a bit during the Summer months. We can have it both ways. Moving forward in the months and years to come, let’s make sure it is.

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This entry was posted in Advocacy, Assessment, Standards. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to have it both ways

  1. Jay D. Nelson says:

    Right on my friend! You are truly an inspiration … And not only to your students! 😉

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