Over the last semester of my first year as Director of Bands and Orchestras at East Austin College Prep, a 3A charter school aimed at low-income families and at-risk youth, I have reflected on my teaching a lot. It’s a constant fearful thought, at the back of my mind, that I am not doing a good enough job – that my teaching limits or inhibits rather than fires up student learning. So what have I done to check my systems, my planning, my technique? WATCH VIDEOS, OF COURSE! (As well as read great texts like Teaching for Student Learning and The Art of War, seek out in my massive library old notes and files and workbooks from my undergrad days, and so on).
Bob Duke has some GREAT lectures on youtube, especially this one on Why students don’t learn what we think we teach.
Many of the lectures are the same lecture delivered slightly differently. Parse wisely.
The biggest take away for me, though, is his “Vision of Students as Accomplished Learners,” which reduces our ideal students into the following qualities or behaviors:
Speaking of behaviors, it occurs to me that one of the more challenging aspects of the professional and administrative realm of teaching is how so many teachers avoid the discussion or evaluation of physical behavior. Assessment paperwork insists that the evaluation of students leave statements of student behavior untouched and unwritten, and I find this difficult – much of what we learn in the musical field is behavioral and tactile, and we assess progress based on behavior (playing a Bb Major scale with correct rhythm, tone, etc.). I have not thought enough on the topic to have any more fruitful or insightful words to its solution, except that I suspect some of the disparity may lie in the close ties of such paperwork to STEM courses.
Sir Ken Robinson never ceases to be a fountain of fresh ideas on education and educational systems especially. Today I listened to this particularly great one on cultivating a prosperous educational culture. His charming British wit is great refreshment for the end-of-day burned-out teacher brain, like a non-alcoholic nightcap.
But now that the most interesting parts of the post are out of the way, I want to speak briefly about habits and routine and culture. I play with the Cedar Park Winds, and one evening I walked up to Chris Yee (at that time Band Director of Four Points Middle School, a brilliant educator) and asked for advice in teaching middle school band. I had experience with high schools and colleges, teaching and conducting, but middle school was daunting and I was desperate. So, over tooooootally non-alcoholic drinks he gave me some of the best advice I’ve ever needed, reduced by myself into three points:
1. From day one, you must INSISTENTLY cultivate the behaviors and habits you want the ensemble to exhibit.
If that means you sit there the whole period with your coffee, making students walk back outside and repeat the desired routine until they get it precisely correct then do it. You may miss out on “academic” information being taught or rehearsal time sacrificed, but the benefits will manifest wildly in the long-term. I’ve modified this slightly, as my students have more trouble with talking while I am conducting/explaining or socializing rather than focusing on music-making – when they exhibit unacceptable behavior I make them take their instruments apart and return them to their cases, then sit quietly. Once everyone has returned to focus they may take them out, put them back together, and resume class/rehearsal. At first it wastes a lot of time, but very quickly the majority of the students grow to hate the act so much they will curb other classmates misbehavior before it ever becomes a significant issue. And this doesn’t just work for middle school – behavior control (or climate control, to quote Sir Ken) works wonders with any age group (at least, in MS or HS. No data from personal testing yet available for older age groups).
2. If you don’t want to get constantly and overwhelmingly angry and frustrated, you have to think of middle schoolers as your tiny, drunk friend.
Many of these students have grown up with terrible habits, and they’re going to behave counter to your wishes often. So we work diligently to change those habits, but how do we cope until the culture shifts? Patience is much needed, and we have WAY more patience when taking care of a drunk friend than we do a tiny (however love-able) monster. The point Chris was trying to make – you have to actively and continually shift your response systems from negative to positive and keep working to achieve important long-term goals. I can speak to the results, they do pay off. The hardest part is maintaining consistency over loooooong periods of time. It’s the American government’s biggest weakness, making decisions that benefit the long term over the short term. I’ve also found developing core curricula or scope and sequence plans for courses to be valuable in shifting focus from short to long term goals.
3. Sometimes it’s okay to have fun.
“What do you mean?” you say, “Music is ALWAYS fun!” Well, Yee says middle schoolers learn much differently than older students. That is not to say the content they learn has any restriction – I firmly believe if it is presented correctly and you treat even the youngest cognizant child as a young adult (that is to say, with respect) then any concept can be mastered. No, rather attention span is much different, and sitting at a desk for 1-2 hours learning the “basics” of music is a sure-fire way to slow down your program growth. Here we mesh all of Yee’s, Robinson’s, and Duke’s philosophies together – students are not low-level desk clerks, they want to learn the interesting parts of music, and to do that means changing the activity that acts as the medium of learning radically and often. We have to be careful that we don’t jeopardize the core routine and behavioral expectations by constantly altering the class pacing, but occasional deviations create excitement and variety that leaves younger learners looking forward to class rather than dreading the “same-old same-old.”