The Arts as an Antidote to Testing

February 25, 2015

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If it’s quiet in here, I’m doing it wrong.

I am sitting on the chilly windowsill with my legs dangling, kicking the bookcase below. The sound in my room is such that my clunky boots can’t be heard hitting the shelves right below me. Another teacher walks in – she may have knocked, who knows – and her eyes go wide. To be fair, the scene looks a bit chaotic if you’re used to seeing children at desks with books. I enjoy her facial expression, she puts some paper or another on my desk, and mouths to me “How do you not go crazy with all this noise?”

I clown pantomime that I can’t hear her.

Every few minutes one of the kids motions to me to come across the room and hear his group play something they just thought up. I remind them to make sure it’s written down in some way. Every few minutes a quieter kid looks up surreptitiously and scans the room to see where I am, just to make sure I’m not upset about all this sound. Then they go back to their playing. I swear several of them have the smirk of a 10 year old who thinks he’s getting away with something.

Because they are. Like I said, they’re at school, and they’re playing. 

****

Character Ed. is not dead.

While driving to school last Thursday, I decided that I am guilty of expecting too much of my students academically, because of residual idealism left over from my well-meaning but ridiculous Elementary Music Education classes. Worse, I’ve been expecting too little of them in the way of character.

Yes, my oldest students should know the difference between various types of keyboard percussion, the theory behind pitch and acoustics, and be able to read and write basic rhythmic and melodic notation.

MORE IMPORTANTLY, they should be able to play these instruments in a way that does no damage and respects others’ right to hear themselves think. They should regulate their own progress on a task and keep their time limit in mind. They should collaborate with a partner without much conflict. They should listen attentively and show respect when other people play for them. They should help clean up and store the instruments in a way that maintains order in the room and allows every student to use them for years to come. In short, there are many opportunities in a music room – or band room, or art room, or gym –  for kids to play, and practice how to not be a little jerk

****

Opting out of control.

So we know we fail as teachers the moment we get into the habit of doing a lesson the same way just because that’s the way we’ve always done it. If your tried-and-true lesson is working, every child is engaged, the curriculum is covered completely, and every need of every child in your classroom is met – then wake the Hell up because you’re dreaming.

I teach a modified Orff (basically, xylophones) unit every winter, mainly because it’s fun and a less-boring thing to come back to after Christmas break. We learn songs, talk about the pentatonic (5-note) scale, and do lots of echoing of the teacher and each other. I look forward to these classes. However, I’m pretty psychotic about you playing my instruments the right way. Don’t break it, and get the best sound. Watch it. We play together. Show me bicycle grip. Do we pick up the mallets when we rotate???! (Confession: As a college freshman, what I wanted to be when I grew up was a high school band director. I may have some marching band issues to resolve.) I hate to admit it, but there is definitely a right and wrong way to do stuff, in my xylophone lessons.

In light of the increasing structure in children’s lives, I’m attempting to take a small step in the opposite direction.  One 5th grade class happens to be ahead of the other sections, because of my recent health fun and absence from school. So, I’m throwing out the structured Orff lessons and letting them loose. To sum it up, they’re getting free play time with anything they want in the Music room, the end goal being to compose some kind of music and write it down in some way. I’m giving them whatever instruments I have, a couple guidelines that are mostly about safety and stuff-music-teachers-say, and 40 minutes. Yes, the curriculum objectives are now completely changed from what is written in my lesson plans, in doing this. Ask me if I care. 

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Music is a more loosey-goosey subject, to begin with. There are protocols in other subject areas, pre-written lesson plans for everything. There is a curriculum, and we will test the daylights out of them on it, yearly. Twice a year, actually. Thank you, PARCC. It’s all nicely planned and controlled. However, because of the above-mentioned health fun, I am reminded lately that CONTROL IS AN ILLUSION.

*****

The arts as an antidote to testing.

During those 40 minutes I get a little glance from several kids that says “wait, you’re really ok with this?”  several times.  It’s not that big a deal, but they’re uneasy with it.  We have set out to do something with instruments before; play the rhythms, demonstrate this understanding or that, compositions with prescribed forms.  I still get looks from other teachers who wander in then, too. It’s still loud.

This time the class could write/do/play whatever. Some of them added lyrics or flourish-y dance moves, because they’re freakin’ adorable. Week 2 of this will include some kind of standard notation, because blah blah blah, curriculum. Also, these kids are very sharp and can bridge the gap between iconic and symbolic notation like they’re jumping over a puddle. I gave them no rules about notation – whatever, as long as they could look at it next week and still play it, it was cool. This is not revolutionary, just busy, musical chaos that totally looked like I was doing nothing in the way of teaching. However, the kids are responsible for their own progress. They knew that they have the privilege of playing these instruments so they only play them correctly. They were self-regulating, and writing some very cool little songs. I was pretty impressed with what happened when I let go.

This was my favorite so far:

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Also, a shout-out for my two manly men, M&M, who think they have invented music notation for jocks: “Basket-ball” is a short-short-long, or eighth-eighth-quarter pattern, “Football” is long-long is probably going to be half notes, all on bucket drums.

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And they sounded pretty good, too.

This thing where we give kids stuff to play with and say “go” is the basis the wonderful curriculum in my 5 year old’s Pre-K class. Somewhere after that it gets tossed. Because their lives now include lessons in how to take tests, that playtime really needs found again.  A child’s work is play.

I love this:

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In our attempt to be taken seriously as an area of academics, have we taken the play out of playing music?  We have our own standardized testing and huge curriculum binders, too. But the arts, and the tragically disappearing recess and Gym class, are sometimes all our kids have left in the way of play at school.

 So, for my part, here’s what I’m going to do about all this: My goal, in light of the ever-increasing need to structure and test, is going to be to make sure there is more actual PLAYING in my class.  When you walk in (sign in at the office first), you may think they’ve taken over and I’m tied to a chair somewhere. Don’t worry, they know there’s a filing cabinet of worksheets they could be doing instead. That usually keeps them in line. Wa ha ha. 

I’m looking forward to this. And, probably, to going deaf before my time. Because holy crap are they loud.

 

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Under New (Behavior) Management?

November 15, 2014

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So, I let the elder offspring give this letter to her teacher:

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Parents, teachers, and friends, I need you to tell me what you think of that move.

Here’s the background:

I have the feeling that my kid has been put in the ‘rough’ class several times now, probably because she can fend for herself academically and assertively.  Talking to parents whose children are in other classes in my daughter’s grade has confirmed it: They’re having a lot more fun. There’s always a ‘rough’ class. How do you know if your kid has landed there this year? Count the rings under her teacher’s eyes. 

But it’s a teacher conflict too. We all have a story about that teacher, who seemed miserable and possibly scared the #$%@ out of us in grade school. Mine had a foot-shaped hole in the tile floor where it was rumored she had screamed and stomped her foot so hard that it Broke. The. Floor. She supposedly left it that way as a grim reminder to future students that things could get UGLY. 

The elder offspring’s 2nd grade teacher has decided that whole-class punishment is her classroom management tactic. Several times now, all the kids have missed recess as punishment for bad behavior. Yes, like when we were in school. Although for me, that was the 80’s and I don’t remember much of this happening. 

Although I (empty) threaten individual students with this consequence sometimes (actually quite effective), I disagree with this policy on several levels:

1. Though occasionally necessary, regularly punishing the whole group is unfair and bad for morale.

2. These are 7 year-olds. They need recess. If you make the mistake of keeping 7 year-olds from running outside and being crazy, you might as well feed Gremlins after midnight, because that’s what you’re gonna get. 

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Cute before you make a giant mistake. Just like 2nd graders. It will be a loooong afternoon.

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Leave my 2nd grader alone, Arne Duncan

October 30, 2014

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This quote and stunning portrait of Secretary Duncan popped up on social media last week. It’s from his speech during a 2009 visit to a Brooklyn elementary school. It is, of course, taken out of context here.  But that just means it’ll fit right in with every other quote on the internet, ever. Here’s a post about Mr. Duncan addressing the “educational crisis” in this speech.

He seems to be claiming that you can tell where kids will end up, higher education-wise, because of how they’re testing in second grade. Reading this on a friend’s wall, I actually said aloud,  “You leave my second grader ALONE, Arne!”  Yes, that’s a tad dramatic, but Arne is a fun name to say aloud.

Though well-meaning, this is some serious oversimplification, and rhetoric to sell the need to test small children.  I teach K-5 and let me tell you: By second grade, a couple of them haven’t even really mastered holding a #2 pencil yet, let alone having one help decide their future.  In second grade, they’re about 8 years old. Meaning that every bit of their little life has occurred in a shorter time than Seinfeld was on the air. Just let that sink in.

No, Arne, we should not.  I mean, I can totally pick out the future trophy wives by the time they’re leaving 5th grade, but that’s as cynical as I’ll allow myself to get as a teacher.

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The 4 Year-Old Curriculum

August 24, 2014

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The 4 year old starts Pre-K this year. In our public school district, Pre-K is free and lasts half the day, much like Kindergarten in days gone by. This is because Pre-K is the new Kindergarten. Kindergarten is the new First Grade. First is the new Second, and after that you’d better be ready to take the SAT’s, kid, cause it’s about that time.  Hopefully somewhere in there you find time to learn to tie your shoes.

Actually? When I was in Kindergarten I was the dead-last kid to learn to tie my shoes. This was humiliating. Nowadays, motor skills like these develop later. I presume this because it is not a standard skill among my first graders.  I have even had 8 year olds asking me to tie their shoes. Spoiler: I did not.  Now ask me if my 7 1/2 year-old is all that good at it…

This past summer I ran across a great blog post from the blog A Magical Childhood, and loved it. “What Should a 4 Year Old Know” was a calming reminder that, though my little one is not reading or writing like my big one was at this age, there are far more important things than a knowledge of the two sounds “G” makes.   I will admit to buying a Pre-K workbook for us to use when we ‘played school’ in the summer.  We cracked it once. Again, we had stuff to do.

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