I Can Do That!

The weeks pass by and I feel more tired at the end of each. The biggest drain is simply trying to provide the energy level the kids need to be engaged. They are curious and excited, bottles bursting with emotions they may not understand and cannot always control.

My favorite part of class is at the beginning (unless we have to keep practicing sitting quietly). We listen to different varieties of music with a video performance and we discuss features of the music. First graders to fifth graders all have something to say about what they are listening to. Each day I am surprised by some of the responses. “This made me miss my uncle who just passed away.” “This is like Tarzan with lots of drums in the jungle!” “There were lots of forte and piano sections.” The kids want to be heard and as we learn more musical terms, I hope they will recognize more of those traits along with the more personal connections.

A moment that sticks out to me from this week came yesterday and has actually happened several times now. During a discussion about the music we were listening to, a student said “I can do that!” The initial response from other students and even myself was, “No, I don’t think so.” It is disappointing I let it go in that direction.

What if instead of saying, “No, you can’t,” we responded with, “Sure you can, I’ll show you how to get there!” The tone we interpret as egotistic or unappreciative to the time it takes is really just an interest in doing the same thing. We play some percussion instruments in music class. When we are watching a percussion ensemble a student recognizes that they are already working on those basic skills, it is terrific to hear that they may want to continue learning.

“Music is the art of thinking with sounds.” —– Jules Combarieu

The next step in this process is in planning. What can I do to provide more opportunities to practice those skills? More recorders? Other instruments and singing? So far the routine for my lessons has helped to create a good template to work with, but there is only so much time. I keep coming back to time and energy. Students need time to explore and practice to feel successful, multiple chances to try, and more than a couple ways to explain the information for it to really sink in. I have forty-five minutes every fourth school day with each group. It makes the process take longer, not to mention management. There is also the curriculum dictated by the district the kids will be tested on in a purely written setting.

Music, like many subjects, is a practice. The more often and with regularity we are using the information and skills, the better we can be. Besides the obvious benefits and engrossing parts of learning musical skills, music is flush with information and practice in other subject areas. Reading, writing, literature, math, science, history, politics, sociology, are all aspects we can discuss and work with. And yet we push for more math worksheets, spelling tests, and tests. In any case, this is not a blog griping about the system, but it can be frustrating to not have many options or time to provide students who are interested, wanting to know more about what is happening in your class.

So yes, of course they can do whatever it is they put their mind to! We do what we can and hope to have the energy and resources to make it worthwhile during the limited time we have in music class. It helps when every kid in the school knows who you are and waves/hugs/says hi whenever you are around. That has to be the best part so far.


Always More to Do

Every time I think about teaching as a job, it just seems like there needs to be a better word for what teachers do each day.  The time and energy it takes to simply keep a group of children occupied, let alone finding ways to present new information and experiences that will encourage learning is intensive to say the least.  I go home each evening, exhausted, but fascinated.

A never-ending supply of variables present themselves through any moment of the day.  If a group enters noisily, and I do not correct it, the entire class period is affected.  Every group reacts to lessons a bit differently, some may need more or less instruction in a variety of ways.  Kids coming from broken homes act out or attach themselves to you or completely shut down.  The kids who just need someone to let them speak, the ones who hide behind others and will not talk at all.  Some who become overwhelmed and need a space to collect themselves.  Sometimes it is heartwarming, other times heartbreaking.  But there is a distinct pressure to make the most of the time.

The first year, so far putting together lessons takes up the most time.  Working in a new area, with new students, with resources chosen by someone else, developing a curriculum to fit a district model; it is certainly a process.  The best part is when a lesson comes together well and the students really take something from it.  But even the best lesson that went off without a hitch one day, could be completely off the mark for the next group.  I try different approaches, talk to other teachers, observe their classes, trying to gauge how to go about the next time all the while thinking that there is not enough.

The more I talk with other educators, the more ideas and tools I receive.  Every day I add a new element to keep things moving, to engage the students, to hopefully make them think and spur some curiosity.  What I really am looking for is to make sure they all feel welcome and encouraged to do more than what they would otherwise know how to do.  Not there yet by any means, but I’ll be working on it.  There is a certain frustration in knowing that I am not the teacher I want to be.  Just need to remember that it is about the journey, there really is no set destination.  Maybe I need a few years here.

On to the next week, there is plenty of work to be done.  Definitely grateful to have a supportive school community to work in and help develop.

I’ll See You Next Time

The majority of my adult life, in fact almost all of it, has been spent in jobs requiring evening or later hours and flexible schedules.  Between school and ensembles, it was always important to be able to shift around a work schedule.

Now I find myself in a situation with regular hours, weekends free, and I see the sun rise and set.  Perhaps it is unimportant in the grand scheme of things, however, some anxieties have been cropping up.

Every other instance of teaching experience has been short term.  Substitute teaching, even student teaching, although longer, was certainly not at this caliber.  There is a certain safety in short term, having someone else in the classroom, not being wholly responsible for the students, in knowing you can quit a part-time job when you need to, or take a longer weekend for an impromptu trip.  This has built into a reaction to drastic changes in my life.

There is a feeling of unease with my position.  We spend so much time looking forward to when we finish high school, when we finally finish an undergraduate degree, and we are bred to believe that “you’ve made it!” when we summit these peaks.  Naturally, as the dust settles, there is a bit of a let down as if someone pulled one over on you.  It is easy to feel that the journey will be done when we reach x despite knowing that it is really just another piece of the process.

Part of me has felt that instrumental music is where I truly wish to be, and I do believe it to be true, but the unease is simply because I am not comfortable or settled into this new role.  I will see the fifth graders who needed to sit out for half a class period for rude behavior, I need to learn the names of the five first grade classes, and I will have to teach in new ways I have not experienced before for this whole school year.  No turning back, no wavering in responsibility.  Growing pains seems like the best description.

So acknowledge the feelings, realize what is necessary, and push on.  I know the kind of teacher I want to be, the one these kids deserve, and I have many resources to help guide the way.  Here’s to a new week!  Let it be faster paced, have more variety in lessons, more energy, and better, more consistent management!

“Life is growth. If we stop growing, technically and spiritually, we are as good as dead.” —–Morihei Ueshiba


It’s a Craft

This week, as promised, I focused on how I use my voice in the classroom.

The first couple days I was very aware of how loud or soft I was, how often I gave instructions and the length of time it took to give explanations or instruction.  It was surprising how much more I wanted to say or how easy it is to simply try to talk over the bustle of students.  The second day was noticeably better than the first and the results were dramatic.

I begin each class by showing a video of a musical performance as they walk in.  We take a couple of minutes to discuss what they observed.  In this segment, I tried to start out by softening my voice, but still used lots of inflection and facial gestures.  I tend to speak with my hands, too.  In just about every class it made for a quick way to gather their attention.  They were actively listening.

Many times I stopped my instruction when I heard extra conversations.  I tried my best not to repeat myself, but to move on to the next part.  The most notable change happened in second grade.  We were working on a rhythm activity with manipulatives, I clapped a rhythm and they would notate it in popsicle sticks.  There were three opportunities to hear the rhythm and each time before I began, there was one notification before.  “First time,” and then there it was; “second time,” and the same for the last.  It took a couple rounds before the students really took notice and most figured out that the best way to check their answers was to tune in to my voice and shut off theirs.

As with any new position, there are pieces to learn as they occur.  Some new aspects came up and sidetracked my focus for day four, so it reminded me that teaching truly is a craft.  Every day you return to the grindstone and work.  You fine-tune the quirks and details.  When you start, the ‘details’ are much larger pieces like the lesson itself, the transitions between activities.  Relating back to practicing an instrument, after some time, smaller, more precise moments become clear and the parts we clean in practice require a subtler approach.  Teaching is a craft.  A practice that is experienced and becomes clearer with intentional work.

Continuing on, I want to make the use of my voice a constant focus.  It is a fundamental tool in management and technique, as much a part as lesson planning and assessing understanding.  The real fun is in growing, watching the students grow and knowing that your skills are growing, too!  Slowly but surely!

Voice is the Baton

There was a distinct moment during student teaching where time seemed to halt as all sixty band students’ eyes were on me. They were listening, if just for a moment, to me and my face went flush, words escaped, and then it was lost on some whisp of a thought process. It had never been spelled out so clearly that students would be looking for answers to questions, for more in-depth information, to feed off my energy until that moment.

It is a rush, feeling needed and useful in that way. Of course, cultivating those moments where students are thirsty for knowledge and willing to listen is an undertaking. Every day is different, each group is unique, and finding great ways to engage them all takes experience and resource hunting. Keep pushing forward!

This article came across my feed a few days ago and will be the focus of improving this next week.

The biggest problem I hear from other teachers in my building and the one that is causing the most disruption for me is the talking. Students having extra conversations or needing to comment after every point, it can take quite a bit of time from a lesson. Here is a resource pinpointing techniques to build a listening environment.

Things I can focus on for this next week are softening my voice, to stop repeating myself, and cut the extra words. Clear, concise, and one time. The less talking I do, the better off we will be and the more time my students will be doing! Plenty of rhythm and form experiences for them this week.

Softening my voice seems funny as often my supervisor for student teaching would tell me to speak louder. Subtle difference in the concept, here I will be using my voice to draw their ears in, and there are around twenty-five in the room, not sixty. There have been numerous times where I have caught myself speaking very loudly in order to be heard over extra talking. It is a natural response, speak louder. Unfortunately this simply illustrates that students can feel free to continue talking and that they will still hear the information. There is no work or focus on the part of the student, whereas I am bending over backwards. Setting high expectations starts with an expectation that students will be in class working and learning. Listening and following directions are incomparable life skills when it comes to school. Music class should reflect that and it comes down to me.

The best part of the article, this puts the power in the hands of the teacher. There may be the one kid who pushes buttons every once in a while, however, the majority will conform to the rules and management style of the teacher. The fifth graders may need to repeat transitions like the first graders if directions were not followed. Stay with those boundaries and expect students to listen.

The classroom is only as great as it can be envisioned to be. Listen closely, we are diving into making music.

Here we go! Week number four!