We made it - the end of the year!!! While many seem to be racing to the last day of school, June can be a time for really great reflection. Once the kids leave and we hand in the final papers to the main office, we are free to go enjoy our summer. However I always like to take some time to look back and take it all in. I do this exercise at the end of every year. If this isn’t part of your practice, I encourage you to give it a try. Ask yourself:
What went well?
It’s so easy to focus on all of the things that went wrong throughout the year - the tough kids, the long meetings, the difficult interactions with a parent or administrator... But focus on what went well! Celebrate those things!
What new lesson did you try that the kids loved?
This is too often overlooked and you NEED to take the time to acknowledge when you were brave and tried something new. What did they love? What did they learn? What "ah-ha" moments did you witness? These moments are so important to hold on to. They are the stuff that motivates us to keep going when things get tough - and they do!
What was one thing a student said to you that made you feel validated as a teacher?
Kids are honest with us (sometimes brutally honest). They do not have a hidden agenda when they share something heartfelt and they mean the words they say. What did someone say to you this year that made you feel great about your work? What filled your heart or made you smile?
It’s really important to do this exercise thoughtfully. I find it helpful in mentally closing up the year and to start summer break. Your next thought might be to think about the things that didn’t go so well and then make a plan to change it up for next year and set up some goals...however, I like to sit in this positive reflection for a while. I want space to breathe in all of the things that went right this year, and you should do the same. They’ll be plenty of time to think about all that other stuff. We made a difference in so many lives and there were so many wonderful moments to be proud of. Keep these thoughts in the forefront of your mind as you clean up your classroom and head into summer. You have the most important job in the world and you did so many things incredibly well!! Pat yourself on the back and go relax - you’ve earned it!
As I am writing this week’s blog, I realize “A Diamond in the Rough” sounds very cliche, but stay with me for a second...
This weekend my family and I drive to the Herkimer Diamond Mine. I am lucky to live in Central New York where we are driving distance to some incredibly beautiful places, including this mine which is the only one of its kind. We arrived excited about this new adventure, and unsure of what to expect. Diamonds? Really…? We were also a little skeptical ...But, upon arriving we paid a small entrance fee, and were each given a little sledge hammer. Our only directions: smash some rocks, have fun, and keep whatever you find. SWEET!
We walked a few yards down from the entrance and there was just a large pile of rocks. So we found a place that seemed like it might be a good spot to start (although really...there were just rocks everywhere. I guess every place was a good place). And then we started smashing rocks - big ones, little ones, colorful ones, ones with lots of holes, ones with no holes, ones in the sun, ones in the shade….
It was fun and we found a few small diamonds. But, right before we left my husband wanted to get one more very large rock. With the first hit, the rock split in two and inside was a big, beautiful diamond. It was remarkable. This stunning, delicate gem was just hangin’ out inside a massive dull stone...for a very long time.
And I couldn’t help but think there was a metaphor in that moment...as cliche as it may be, here it was quite literally in my face - a diamond in the rough. It got me thinking - How much magic do we miss because we are just looking at the big ugly stones? How much more beauty can we see if we are actively searching for treasures? How much more patience can we have if we know there is potential for something magnificent underneath something ordinary?
How many diamonds have I missed? I want to continue to challenge myself to find extraordinary things wherever I am. Wonder is everywhere - we just have to remember to look for it.
How can we keep making our ensembles relevant for our students? I ask myself this a lot. Our kids literally have a connection to the whole world at their fingertips, so how can I compete with those little devices? I think the best way to keep kids connected is to focus building community. This is fundamental to my teaching philosophy. When they experience a sense of belonging in class, it can be far more exciting than anything that can happen on a smartphone. The feeling of connection is very powerful.
Last week I hosted my annual “Bring Your Parent to Rehearsal” day. I use the word “parent” very loosely as the students can choose to bring any important adult, whether it be an aunt, uncle, grandparent, older sibling or teacher. A few weeks prior to the rehearsal, students have the option to invite an important guest and teach them the part. This year we are singing “Happiness” by NEEDTOBREATHE. Each year on the day of the rehearsal I ask the guests to come about 15 minutes prior to the class. It’s great to talk with them. Most of the time they are nervous, and unsure about singing. I often hear stories about how they used to sing in school, but stopped after they graduated. They share stories about being embarrassed by the sound of their own singing voice, and only came because so-and-so asked them. Some are excited about trying something new.
This year I had about 20 guests - including my mom! When the bell rang and the chorus students came rushing in, they were so excited to see their VIPs. I ran rehearsal like I usually do - warm ups with lots of movement and energy, emphasizing the concepts we would work on as we rehearsed the tune. It was really a lot of fun - we did a lot of good work and had some laughs. The guests shared their stories and everyone commented on how grateful they were to be a part of class that day. (These guests will also be singing with the chorus at the concert!)
Fostering a sense of belonging does not only happen inside the music room. Belonging is also about building a greater community by explicitly making connections between music in school with the folks outside of the the four walls of the classroom. By opening the chorus rehearsal, we created a shared memory with everyone. In turn, students felt more of a connection with each other and with school. I highly recommend creating these community-building rehearsals. Everyone had a fantastic time, and during the whole rehearsal, not one person looked at their phone!
I started something new with my general music students this week. We are fortunate enough to have tablets for the students so the music staff wanted to incorporate a unit using soundtrap. With this platform, students can create electronic music while learning about all of the elements of music. (If you don’t already know about soundtrap, check it out at soundtrap.com. It’s like Garageband, Google Docs and Soundcloud all in one program - super fun!)
Anyway, last week the three general music teachers got together and reviewed the curriculum outline, specifically the plan for the first lesson. I teach first period every day so my class is usually the guinea pig for anything new. I woke up that Monday morning, nervous like a first year teacher! Anytime I teach a new lesson, I have butterflies in my stomach...I don’t quite know what to expect, can’t anticipate challenges, and just have to hope that everything will go as planned.
Well...that Monday, it didn’t. That morning right before class started I couldn’t find 2 of the ipads, which were on the shelf the Friday before. I asked the students to sign into google classroom which I had set up the week before but because the internet was glitchy that morning, it became a problem. The students who actually could sign in had problems accessing the files from google classroom, and then when I finally figured out why, the videos would not load! AHH!
Finally after about 20 minutes, I decided to abort the mission. At that moment, I had a choice...forge ahead and stay on this train wreck, or abandon ship. And this is the takeaway:
I found a note today. It was on the floor of the chorus room and had fallen out of a middle schooler’s backpack. It said (names have been changed):
To Mr. Slate,
I got a detention from Mr. Allet when you were absent because I was “not quiet” when we were putting stuff away. In my opinion I said one thing to someone. Then the sub gave me a thumbs up for effort in a drawing I did when I was done with work which caused a chatter. As I put my work away Mr. Allet saw everyone trying to talk while I was putting it away and thought I was talking. I feel as though he is singling me out and accusing me and one time I told everyone to stop talking but I got in trouble by Mr. Allet because I was talking. And I am confused to what to do and I feel I will get in trouble either way. What can I do?
From a Confused Student,
This letter is certainly admirable...she’s in a sticky situation and seems to want to be proactive to fix it. Pretty mature for an adolescent! It’s possible that Jessica is either unaware of her actions, or how other people perceive her actions. She also seems to feel like the teacher is singling her out while her other classmates are behaving the same way. She is clearly frustrated, probably upset and admittedly confused. And then she walked into chorus class. Jessica was clearly distracted today and I couldn’t figure out why...that was until I found the note on the floor.
There is so much we don’t see...so much we don’t know. Often we are too caught up in our rehearsals and teaching our content that we forget that these kids come in to class with baggage. Sometimes their baggage is light and a good music rehearsal can be helpful for them to get through something troubling. Other times, their baggage is heavy and they can’t concentrate at all. Sometimes their attention is not in your classroom and when a student is struggling, instead of solely addressing the behavior, get curious and look for the “why.” Sometimes this means a chat after class to find out what’s going on, or maybe giving them a knowing smile, acknowledging their bad day and granting them some time to collect themselves and regain their focus. Whatever it is we do, we must provide an emotionally safe space for our students and be understanding of their feelings. It is this very environment that helps make the music classroom a place where students want to be.
The theme for the 7/8th grade spring chorus concert is perseverance. Rehearsals have been very inspiring to say the least. One of the songs we are singing is I Ask for One Day by Jim Papoulis. This song was inspired by a poem written by a 7th grader. The text is this:
I ask for one day where I don’t have to hear about pain, or life that’s lost.
I ask for one day, where whispers of hope are alive inside my heart.
Where there is freedom, and justice and judgement is gone.
I ask for one day in my life where there is sunshine through the shadows;
Only one day in my life where the world is at peace as I sing.
Just one week ago on May 7 there was yet another school shooting in Colorado. And as we were singing this song earlier this week I couldn’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of anger, and profound sadness. I stopped rehearsing and asked if anyone had heard about the horrible event. 3 people raised their hand. THREE!! I couldn’t believe it! “Why don’t more of you know about this?” I asked. “Why is nobody talking about it?” One student quietly said “Because it’s become normalized.”
NORMALIZED?!? WHAT?!?! Nothing about this is normal. Nothing about this is okay. Our kids deserve SO much better...and I told them all of this. I explained (quite emphatically) that this world can be crazy and sometimes it is difficult to know what to do. It is so easy to feel small and to think that one person, or a few people are unable to make a big difference. BUT, making music is doing something. Making music is a way we can elevate humanity, connect with each other and make something beautiful. We can be heard through our music. So let’s sing the HECK out of this song and make our audience FEEL something!! This can inspire change. Let’s persevere through this insane world and find beauty through the chaos.
Empower your kids to find their voice and use it to send a message. It doesn’t matter what the message is. Guide them to realize that these concerts can be a platform to share something important with their community. We have these performances throughout the year to showcase our hard work, but consider occasionally using it for something deeper and more meaningful. Find something that is important to your kids and use the music they are singing or playing to help them discover their ability to send a message. I am very much looking forward to this concert and sharing our music and stories about how we can persevere, spread some joy and elevate humanity by creating something beautiful.
Music and emotion certainly go hand in hand. While technique and music literacy are important, interpretation and expression are the heart of what we do as music makers. Learning about emotions helps in delivering a musical message and telling a story. When our students are rehearsing and performing a song they must communicate with their audience by choosing from a large emotional repertoire.
The ability to name and express emotions should be an essential part of our music curriculum. Our emotions are the lens that we see and interact with the world. Our students are still learning how to articulate how they feel and they are often not very good at it. Musical expression and interpretation should always be connected with emotion. By exploring this in class we are inadvertently guiding them to expand the language they use when they talk about emotions. This emotional vocabulary will also give our students valuable communication skills both in and out of the chorus room.
In addition to naming and understanding their own emotions, it is equally important to be able to read emotions in others. To effectively communicate with someone you have to really understand where they are coming from. After all, communication is not really about what you say; It is about being understood. In order to do this you must be in tune with the person with whom you are interacting with. If our students are well versed in emotions, their connection with the music and their audiences will run deep. As a result, their storytelling through their music will become more compelling.
Here are some things I do to encourage emotional literacy in chorus:
~Emotions in Vocal Warm Ups: Using a simple warm up, experiment with different emotions. Start with the big ones (happy, sad, afraid, angry). Have a student suggest an emotion to the group and then sing the warm up. Ask them to notice the differences in their voice, posture, facial expressions, body tension and gestures. What physical changes take place as they do each emotion? Once they are comfortable with the exercise, take it a step further and invite them to interact with the people around them. What has changed now? As the students get used to this exercise, guide them to notice the subtle differences between the shades of each emotion. For example, what are the changes from sadness to depression and from heartbreak to frustration? I often use the emotion chart below to help.
~Opposite Emotions: Have the students sing a happy phrase in a sad way. Discuss the importance of emotional intention. How does a different emotion change the way the phrase sounds?
Performance is a big part of what we do as teachers. Yes, this is a large piece of our music curriculum, but in reality we perform every single day. In fact, whatever discipline you teach you need to be an incredible performer. We need to stand in front of our classroom everyday and put on a show. I am not talking about entertaining the kids. I’m talking about the type of performance that is required from us so they can pay attention and stay engaged for forty minutes. It is about putting the needs of the kids before our own. Sometimes that means putting our own feelings and needs aside so we can focus our attention on our students.
This weekend was busy for me. After a full week at work with concert season on the horizon, I judged a NYSSMA solo festival. I love doing these festivals. I really enjoy hearing the students come in showing off all of the work they have done. I know that as an adjudicator I have the responsibility to provide a positive experience so students want to keep performing and seek out feedback to continue to grow. I take this job very seriously because it can really have an impact on a student’s self-perception of their singing voice. I make a point to smile and be as warm and cheerful as possible. These kids are often nervous and I want to alleviate any unnecessary negative emotions associated with performing.
Then on Saturday, my dog died. The morning of the festival I said goodbye to her, and then I had to leave. I was sad. Sammy was a part of our family since she was a pup. When I got to the school, I sat in the parking lot for a minute. I took a few breaths, cried a few tears and headed into the school. I had a job to do and I could not through the festival feeling sad, allowing it to affect my responsibilities. All day I focused my attention on the students and felt fortunate for the distraction and of course, the music. I had a role to play. My performance was to be an NYSSMA adjudicator and I had to do it well. So, I played the part.
Maybe that’s what makes music teachers different in these situations. We are actually trained in this. We are trained as performers, and often we need to think of our roles as teachers as just that: parts to play. Sometimes we are tired, or mad, frustrated or sad. But everyday we must be the teacher the students need us to be. That is sometimes the most difficult part of what we do.
The Monday after break is always challenging, particularly after spring break. I had a very restorative vacation out of town with my family, maintaining the ‘no work’ boundary the whole time. Yes - not one email was read or sent for a whole week! When I came back home it was suddenly spring! A new season! No more snow! There was so much to do! Yardwork, spring house cleaning, laundry from our trip, food shopping, bills for the rest of the month, vacuuming up the incredible amount of dog hair that had accumulated during the week….and did I mention all the laundry? Sunday was just not enough time to get everything done. I felt like I needed just another day of break… or two days...maybe another week or two...
I woke up on Monday to my obnoxious alarm…I really should change it to something that sounds more pleasant... Getting out of bed was challenging. It was just so early! When I got to work I had to reset my room quickly before the bell rang when the kids would come swooshing in. I probably should have done this before I left for break...RING went the bell and then they came down the hallway. The scene reminded me of when Robin Williams shouts “It’s a STAMPEDE” in Jumanji. They were all chatting loudly, laughing and shrieking with their friends about their week away from school and lamenting about the day ahead. One by one they came into my room for homeroom, surprisingly quiet. Despite the energy in the hallway everyone seemed to be tired.
I was tired too and just like them, wished I was still on vacation. I noticed that my energy was low and as a middle school teacher, that can be a death sentence. So, I made a choice - I smiled. I didn’t let my sleepy eyes control my mood and changed it with a simple gesture. I met each student at the door with a smile, and then all (...well...almost all…) smiled too. It’s pretty awesome how contagious a smile can be.
Later that day some of the teachers gleefully shouted “9 more Mondays!” and “only 43 days left!” I didn’t celebrate with them, instead I just smiled. Yes, coming back to work after break is hard, but you are in charge of how you decide to spend your time. You can count down the days until the rest of the school year, or smile and enjoy the ride. Some days you probably want to do both. Your students will know the difference. As teachers we get to work with kids everyday, and while it would be great to win the lottery and not have to work ever again, we have the most important job in the world. Choose to smile.
In the last 15 minutes of chorus yesterday the students needed to finish a few pages in their sightreading packet. They were all scattered around the room as they worked with their friends, free from their chairs on the risers. I was walking around to each group explaining the details of the assignment as questions came up. I was vigilant in making sure the students had 4 beats in each measure in their 4/4 time examples, encouraging them to check each other’s work.
There were a bunch snacks underneath the desk in the chorus room that were leftover from an event that we hosted over the weekend. They were hidden, but apparently just enough in view that it caught the eye of one of my middle school singers. About 5 minutes before the class ended I was quietly told that one of my students (let’s call her Lilly) was taking the snacks and hiding them underneath her sweatshirt on the floor. It was very sneaky. If nobody said anything I probably would not have noticed. I discreetly went over to Lilly’s group and asked if any of them needed any help. I moved her sweatshirt so I could sit down and there were the snacks. She was totally busted.
I have a good rapport with Lilly. She is a great kid, a good singer, an athlete, and has a fun sense of humor. She struggled last year in 7th grade with detentions and ISS, but she is doing much better this year. Lilly’s grades do not reflect her potential and it is pretty transparent that she has an inner conflict between wanting to do well at school and filling the role of what other people think of her- more of a tough slacker. But she is so much better than that.
When I discovered the stolen snacks, she shut down. “Why did you take these?” I asked…”I’ll just put them back...I’m sorry…” she said. But I kept going “You are so much better than this choice you made. I know that you are better than this.” That’s when she got defensive “You don’t know me!” she said pretty loudly, all the while looking at her paper, avoiding eye contact. Her response surprised me. I didn’t know what to say. I do know her...I know her as my chorus student who is kind, thoughtful, and a leader in the alto section. But in that moment I realized that I really only know a small part of who she is. I don’t really know how she is in other classes or at home. I certainly don’t know how she sees herself, and as an adolescent that thought might change four or five times a day! So I said, “I accept your apology, and I know that you won’t do it again. Finish your work please.” I walked away unsure if that was the best response. Lilly’s behavior was a choice - a mistake and not a character flaw. It is important that she understands the difference. This was a bad choice; She is not bad. It’s a small shift in language, but a very powerful distinction. Making an apology is a good way to move on. A mistake doesn’t necessarily mean that trust is completely broken and consequences like detention are not always appropriate for every infraction. She needs to understand all of this.
Being an adolescent is hard. Teaching adolescent kids is also hard, and in situations like these it is sometimes difficult to know what to do or say. I have learned over the years to be firm, but kind (like one of my favorite characters, Mary Poppins!) Structure and clear expectations for behavior are incredibly important, but so is granting grace when circumstances call for it, and having the wisdom to turn a misstep into an important lesson; You might have made a mistake, but it doesn't define who you are.