MET Podcast #13…We’re Back

Paul Shimmons and I were able to get together to wrap up an episode of the MET Podcast this past weekend.  That podcast…it’s a long one…is now available to listen to online, and should populate on Apple Podcasts and Google Play in the next 24 hours.

Our featured guest (at 58 minutes into the podcast) is Don Crafton, from Sight Reading Factory, a program that Paul and I both use in our classrooms.

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Some Professional Updates (A year in review)

I thought I would take a moment to write about some of the things that have been going on in my life professionally.

We have just closed out the 2017-2018 school year, and it was my toughest year yet as a teacher. You would hope that in your 22nd year and 5th year in your building that things would get easier. They haven’t–even though I try to use all of my technology skills and have incorporated ukulele to try to make music and singing relevant for my students.

As I have explained in the past, I teach in a district where General Music was removed from the curriculum almost ten years ago. Teachers did not want to teach the course, and many of the students that took the course caused discipline issues for the school. That isn’t to say that General Music is bad–but you need to have a strong curriculum, a talented teacher, and a school whose climate reflects a respect for learning. Our district decided to get rid of the troublesome course, and decided that all students in middle school should be in music: band, choir, and orchestra. If a student isn’t in band or orchestra, or gets kicked out of band or orchestra, they are in choir. This assumes that students want to sing or are willing to sing-but it is a false assumption.

It is fair to say that our school is working hard on respect as we have adopted PBIS–but change using PBIS is a five-to-seven year process. We have a new principal (who is very good), a new building that opens next fall, and a coming change in 8th grade where students no longer have to take music. All that said, teaching a large percentage of students that don’t want to be in my classes has been a difficult task and it has taken a toll on me. There is hope for the future, but an additional five-to-seven year period seems to be an awfully long time to wait for change.

One of my students wrote a note to me The was give to me at our final concert, and the note said:

Dr. Russell,

I can’t begin to explain how grateful I am for you. Thank you so much for making my middle school choir experience not awful. I have no idea how you didn’t quit. I would have. But I can’t tell you how glad I am that you didn’t.

Can I simply say that I have a tough job, and that my students see it, too?

I have continued to integrate the iPads into my teaching, and have integrated ukuleles into singing. I have been having a difficult time getting my students to sing in parts, and as I work with students using their music (in ukulele play along videos), it becomes clear that much of their music does not involve vocal harmony. With the change to “music for every child” many years ago, we adopted a two concert season (December & May). I teach students non-religious holiday music for December, and a wide range of songs in May. Many of the May songs are pop songs that feature ukulele. In the middle of the year, we study ukulele, playing along with play along videos, learning chords and some individual ukulele notes. The process gives students the ability to accompany themselves, and, if they so wish, to learn their own music (Goal: musical independence). In the May concert, I ask students to play ukulele with me in the concert. Meanwhile, my students continue to learn sight-reading skills (S-Cubed and Sight Reading Factory), traditional warm-ups, and strategic part songs (different hours learn different parts and put them together for the concert).

When it comes to ukulele, this past year I had the realization that all of my musical training required other “things.” As a singer, I needed a choir, a piano, or a sound system. As a tuba player, I needed a room to play in (tuba is loud) and a band (or orchestra, or piano). As a piano player, I needed a room with a piano. With the ukulele, you have an instrument (as a singer or just as an instrumentalist) that is cheap and portable, and you can take it anywhere. You can be your own portable music creator in a way that you cannot do so with any other instrument–including a guitar. When you play along with chords, you start to understand what is happening with harmony in a new way.

Two particularly rewarding situations occurred this year with ukulele. Both involved students who did not show their appreciation in normal ways. One student gave a presentation about their “passion” in another class, and that passion was singing and playing ukulele–where the student gave recognition to their time in choir, even though the student didn’t participate in choir! Her teacher came to tell me about it! Another student had not been in choir this year, but brought in her own ukulele where she performed a song she had written for another class. Although she wasn’t in choir, she was still singing and playing—and even stopped in to play her song for me. These are great things-but I still wish that the choral experience would be stronger for my students.

This year was also my turn in the review cycle (once every three years), and in my final review, my principal suggested that not all students had to attend the concert. Five years ago, I would have bristled at that. Five years in, after a number students attended the concert in the past so as to only avoid failing, I found myself open to the suggestion. In past years, 35% of my students would miss our spring concert. I decided to still call the concert mandatory, but communicated to students that I would not grade the concert. This year, 40% of 6th Grade, 50% of 7th Grade, and 60% of 8th Grade missed the concert. Only five students (total in all three grades) missed the concert who I would have expected to be there. As a result, our choirs were smaller, but behavior was much improved-and my 7th Grade performance was the best performance my choirs have had at this school. I have never done anything like this before, but grades are supposed to reflect what a student does and what they can do. Concert attendance is neither of those things. I’ll probably keep that policy in the future.

Speaking of grades, I used Schoology to assess student singing. We are a 1:1 iPad school, so students hold their iPad microphone near their mouth and I have them sing a section of a song, or a sight reading exercise, and I grade them on a rubric. This works very well…and the key is not to have them record too long of an assessment. We grade 80% on summative assessments and 20% on formative assessments. Next year, I will continue with the audio assessments as summative assessments, but will also add a participation rubric (completed weekly) as the formative part of the grade.

When it comes down to it, I want students to have the ability to be musically independent, and for those students who sing at the high school level to have the skills they need to be successful at that level. Alison Armstrong, someone I follow on Twitter, recently posted:

My hope is:

1. They perform for charity eventually

2. They teach others to play

3. They sing and play for their own mental well-being

I agree, and if students participate and try in my classes (sadly, not a given) they should be able to do these things.

In terms of technology, I continue to use most of the tools I have in the past: forScore, Showbie, NotateMe with the PhotoScore IAP, Sheet Music Reader, iDoceo, Keynote, my iPad Pro, Sight Reading Factory, Notion, GarageBand, Twisted Wave, iCab Mobile, Luma Fusion, Schoology, my PageFlip foot pedal, my GoStand with Manos Mount, and two Bluetooth Audio Receivers. We also don’t print programs any more and just drop a PDF in Google Drive and assign a shorted tiny.url to the Google link.

In other news, my dream since college has been to teach at the college level, so I have been applying for some jobs. My stepson graduated from high school in May, and we have the freedom to move for the first time in our married life. Sadly, most colleges, even two year colleges, are looking for previous college experience. A couple of months ago, I applied at a college, had a couple of phone interviews, and then was invited to interview in person. It seemed to be a great fit in terms of professional challenge, climate/culture (A Christian college), and location. In the process of preparing to travel to visit the college, I learned that the salary and benefits would be over $50,000 lower than my current position-and that doesn’t include my wife’s income! After a few days of pondering a pay cut, looking at house prices in the area of the college, and getting a sense of the cost of living in the area, we came to the conclusion that I could not take the job if it were offered. I had to withdraw my application. We were heartbroken over this situation in a way that we have never experienced before. Had I taken the job, I would have had to find a second job just to make a house payment-which would have been unfair to my family as well as the college!

I am not angry at the college in any way–they pay what they pay, and I’m pretty sure what I was offered is the going rate of a professor at a private liberal arts college. What I have realized is that my dream of teaching at the college level probably isn’t going to happen-unless we decide to forego food, clothing, and housing.

So, I don’t know what the future holds for me. I look forward to the summer to recharge my batteries. I’ll keep an eye on the job postings (at the secondary and college levels, as well as some other music related fields), spend time making more ukulele resources (there are over 10,000 followers of my YouTube page…www.youtube.com/ukuleletenor), and teach some professional development courses (you can find me at the Wisconsin Center for Music Education later this month).

In other news, Paul Shimmons and I still have to record an intro to a podcast that we recorded with Don Crafton from Sight Reading Factory, and I will continue to blog when new ideas pop into my head about music education and technology.

I hope you had a excellent 2017-2018 school year and that you will have a restful, exciting summer vacation!


Awareness

Tonight I’d like to share a bit about my personal life that may be of assistance to you in your life, or in your life as a teacher.

Throughout my career, I have made a point to listen to, watch, and read the things that my students were talking about. As a high school teacher, this was a bit easier, as the topics skew towards (if not are) adult topics. Now that I teach middle school (five years already), the divide is greater.

Twenty-two years into my career, things are different as I have kids of my own–a step son who graduates from high school in three weeks, as well as a ten year old and a six year old.

The most popular game on the market right now is a game called Fortnite, which originally was a blend of Minecraft and Call of Duty. The most recent versions of Fortnite feature a battle royale where 100 players are dropped into a terrain and the goal is to be the last player standing. The game is cartoonish, and there is no blood or gore–but the goal is to use realistic weapons to kill people–and players celebrate things like headshots.

Everyone is playing this game. I just read about David Price (a pitcher with the Red Sox) who caused a bit of backlash by playing the game in the clubhouse (perhaps instead of doing things he should have been doing as a pitcher). Everyone that I know who plays the game (including many of my middle school students) says that it is addictive and that it isn’t long before you let other things go while you continue playing “one more round.”

As you can imagine–younger kids want to play the game, too. It is rated 13+, but many parents will simply let their younger kids play. As a result, all of my ten year old’s friends are playing Fortnite, and we won’t let him play it. Simply put, he is furious with us.

We make our own choices when it comes to following ratings, but we will read various sources, such as Common Sense Media and PluggedIn to help us know more about the games and shows our kids watch. We had to take YouTube and even Safari off of our kid’s iPads because they were finding them watching videos that simply left the realm of what kids should be watching. Our kids weren’t purposely seeking out those videos–but autoplay is a terrifying feature. Instead, both of our younger boys have YouTube Kids as an app on their devices, and even that app cannot guarantee that videos don’t contain things they shouldn’t be watching.

Other than the clear addictive nature of Fortnite, the other concern I have is about the game is the game’s celebration of gun violence at the same time that high school students are protesting for gun control and demanding changes in gun laws. Jay Feely, a former punter, posted a picture of his daughter and her boyfriend going to prom with Jay holding a gun–using that old image of a father cleaning his guns or showing off his guns to a young man wanting to date his daughter. Jay Feely was openly destroyed on social media for the post–yet we’re happy to put 100 players at a time into a virtual world to try to kill each other with guns, and that’s okay? I don’t think playing Fortnite will make you into a mass murderer–but can we at least be honest about the conflict between the game and the real world right now?

To parents, my message is simply this: please parent. I’m not going to tell you how to parent…that’s up to you. But don’t be afraid to impose restrictions on what your children can do, what they can listen to, and what they can watch. You can modify those restrictions as your kids get older, and you can have honest conversations about things throughout the process. You don’t get a lot of logic from a furious ten year old when you have just told them they cannot play Fortnite–but the restrictions will lead to many good conversations down the road.

And to teachers, try to be aware of the cultural trends both in terms of the overall culture, as well as in the sub culture of the students that you teach. If you know that students are playing Fortnite every waking minute on their phones, you can better understand why they may not practice, do their work, show up for a concert, or even care about school. And it isn’t “just” Fortnite…it will be some other game in a short while, or it will be any of the other major challenges that our culture will face in the months and years to come. I’m not saying that you have to change anything…but awareness is certainly the starting point of the process–whatever “the process” is.

And I’ll be honest…in my 40’s it is much harder to relate to the trends of the “pop culture” than it was when I was in my 20s. I’m not asking you to act younger than your age, or to try to be someone you are not (which always ends in disaster in some way). Just be aware of what your kids or what your students are interested in, get informed about those things, and take action of some kind if necessary.


JamStik 7 and 12 Indiegogo Campaign Now Live

I have been a supporter of Zivix products for a long time. Zivix brought the JamStik (wi-fi), Puc (wi-fi), JamStik+ (pickup and Bluetooth MIDI) and Puc+ (Bluetooth MIDI) and AirJamz to market–using crowdfunding a good percentage of the time.

Each generation of Zivix’s devices have addressed customer suggestions and concerns, and have incorporated newer technologies. The company has continued to improve its software and has expanded to Android applications as well. Examples of continuing improvement was their early adoption of Bluetooth MIDI and the addition of a pickup in the JamStik+.

The existing JamStik is a five-fret wireless Bluetooth MIDI device, using real metal strings in a portable format. New players can use the JamStik with the JamTutor app to learn to play the guitar while existing guitar players can use the JamStik as a way to interact with digital audio workstations and notation software. The newest JamStik models will use new “FretTouch Finger Sensing Technology” and “Infrasense Optical String Pickups.” I am excited to see how this new technology works. Seeing as the previous models worked very well–I know the 7 fret and 12 fret models of the JamStik will be an improvement.

This is also the first new Bluetooth MIDI device I have seen on the market for some time. Bluetooth MIDI is wonderful–and I simply believe that most music educators (and musicians) simply do not know it exists!

As a bonus, Zivix is a “local” company for me, located near Minneapolis, Minnesota.

When I started following Zivix, I was teaching high school guitar classes. Since that time, I moved to the middle school level and have introduced the ukulele to my middle school students. Admittedly, I play ukulele a lot, and I simply do not play guitar very often (this is quite common). I do bring the JamStik with me to conventions and professional development sessions to show to others.

Beyond Zivix’s own focus to help people learn music through their products, I have used JamStiks in an educational setting. I have done so in both a 1:1 setting with a small class of difficult students and have also used the JamStik as an instructional tool in a guitar classroom. The JamStik is far easier to carry around a classroom than a full sized guitar or even a backpacker guitar (which I purchased to use in the classroom before the JamStik came out)–and your finger position on the JamStik can be shown to the whole classroom via the JamStik+ app. I would not want to teach a guitar class without a JamStik–and if you teach guitar in a school–I can’t recommend it highly enough–either for your use or for 1:1 situations where a student would learn better through a digital experience or through additional enrichment.

Earlier this year, Zivix announced a new 7 and 12 fret model of the JamStik+. The biggest complaint I have heard about the JamStik from guitar players in the past is that the existing JamStik only has five frets. These new devices solve that issue–although many guitars have 20 to 22 frets. I’m sure that “Pro” players will lament the lack of 8 to 10 frets from a regular guitar…but let’s be honest…most casual players will never leave the five frets of the original Jamstik.

I’m excited for the new JamStik models–not only will they have more frets, but they will be packed with new technology–and I am told that the plastic body will be made in Minnesota. Imported items are fine…but if an American company can keep production elements in the USA, that is nice, too.

I also keep dreaming of a ukulele version of the JamStik–and the 12 fret JamStik makes this a possibility as many soprano ukuleles only have 12 frets (however–the cost of a ukulele Jamstik might be too prohibitive when a travel ukulele like the Flight TUS 35 sell for $60 or less).

As the Indiegogo campaign is underway, you can purchase one of the new JamStiks at a reduced cost from what they will sell for later. And unlike many crowdfunded projects, Zivix has already seen several crowd funding projects from start to finish. As of this post, the project has already received 149% of its required funding–so you know you will receive yours–and Zivix has always delivered. The JamStik 7 will ship in August and the JamStik 12 will ship in Q1 2019.

Interested? Join the Indiegogo campaign!

https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/jamstik-7-jamstik-12-modern-midi-smart-guitars-iphone-bluetooth#/


Apple Education Event, March 27, 2018

Earlier this morning, Apple held an education event, where it offered some new solutions for education.  I’ll be visiting with Robby Burns in the near future on his podcast about the education event, but I wanted to cover some highlights and offer some initial reactions.  I work in a 1:1 iPad environment and have done so for five years.  I have “hands on” experience with teaching and iPads.

First, Google Chome has been kicking the hind end of the competition—including Apple—as it comes to education.  School districts are simply too tempted by low cost devices that have a keyboard and offer free services/apps/storage.  If you are a music educator, you are fully aware that you need more tools than the Google Suite, and that those services (rightfully) charge a key.  There is also a very good chance that your school district isn’t budgeting any extra money for you to have those services.   We’re also actively ignoring Google’s willingness to sell data to provide those low cost services. As reported widely today, Chrome represents 60% of the education business in the United States right now, and Apple only 11%.  Just yesterday, Google announced a Chrome-based Tablet, set to compete with the iPad for $329.  It will be interesting to see if these devices become “accepted” in Chromebook schools—proving that the choice of Chrome devices over Apple devices isn’t really form factor, it is an anti-Apple bias, which still exists.

Second, what was really announced today?  As I wasn’t there (I would have loved to have been there, and as I’m on Spring Break, I could have made that happen), here’s the list as I know it:

  • A new 9.7” iPad that is faster and works with the Apple Pencil for the previous price point of $329 for end users and $299 for schools.
  • Apple Pencils will sell for $89 to education
  • There are new cases, including a good looking Logitech armored keyboard case for $99
  • iWork has been reworked to allow for annotations.  This is cool in Pages—but will be positively AWESOME in Keynote.  I’ve used PowerPoint and I have used Google Sheets, but I find Keynote to be the best tool for what I do.  I have always said that Keynote is a program that acts as if PowerPoint and SMART Notebook had a baby.  At this point, I would rather work on a mirrored iPad in KeyNote than on SMART Notebook on a SMART Board.  My school recently decided against getting SMART Boards in every room in our new school—a decision that will pay for itself with this announcement.  SMART activities are great, but many have been messed up on the Mac platform for years with Flash anyway.
  • Apple Classroom will now work on MacBooks, too (a major request)
  • It appears that iBooks Author is somehow integrated to Pages on iPad, allowing you to finally create iBooks content on the iPad (This has kept me from updating my own iBooks, to be honest).
  • There is a new homework hub that will integrate with education apps, allowing teachers to assign work and track completion.
  • And school assigned accounts now get 200GB of free storage per account.  That is a nice change.

Third, it is unclear how some existing services will decide to work with Apple.  Can Schoology tap into the new homework hub?  I think Apple has made a poor decision in not acquiring JAMF, which is what most schools use for Mass Device Management (MDM).  MDM should also be free for schools, provided by Apple.  You want the market?  Eliminate the extra costs to run Apple products in schools. I also did not see Apple address the problem of in-app purchases for school apps (there is currently no way for a school to pay these costs).  Apple also didn’t solve the situation where students can stop management simply by going to Airplane Mode or restarting their device (Yes, kids do this—all the time).

Finally, I wish we could be honest and admit that part of the problem is that Google refuses to provide their own suite on iOS with the same functionality it offers on its own platform.  I am very aware of this as I work with Google Slides.  I have to work on a computer in Chrome or on a Chromebook to have full functionality, whereas even working in Chrome on an iPad isn’t enough.  There is a “nod” to provide basic functionality—but if you really want to work, you need to move to another device.  That is a purposeful choice by Google, and if Apple did such a thing, they would be mocked for it by the press (you can run most Apple iWork apps through iCloud.com, by the way).

All in all, the biggest changes in my life due to today’s announcement will be the ability to write and draw in Keynote and the ability to create an iBook on the iPad.  I don’t see schools buying Apple Pencils for students, but I can see some students opting to buy them (what happens when they are stolen or broken, I do not know).  It sounds as if Logitech is making an Apple Pencil device for education—I need to read more about it.  Perhaps this opens the door for 3rd party Apple Pencil devices?  That wouldn’t be so bad.

We are also going to have to update my own children’s 4th Generation iPad Minis, as those devices are getting dated (and are in rough shape).  As a parent, I can see myself buying a 9.7” iPad in the place of those iPad Minis, with a keyboard case from Logitech and a Logitech “pencil.”  I could also see buying the new iPad for my parents (my mom has the previous generation 9.7” iPad).  I just wish Apple would start those devices at 128GB these days.

I don’t know if this is enough for Apple to “win,” and I’m not sure Apple wants to “win.”  I think these changes make it possible for Apple to keep competing, and today’s announcements certainly do that.