Category Archives: General Musings
Last Saturday night, we had a storm go through our area. One bolt of lightning hit very close to our home, and I turned to our media center to see the light our Apple AirPort Extreme router turn yellow, and then fade out.
Although nearly all the cables in our neighborhood are underground, there are still various locations where those cables surface, such as the cable company distribution points and of course, where cables go into our house.
So although our technology is connected via a surge protector, there is nothing “in-line” to stop an electrical surge through the cable coax. But that is what happened…a surge took out the cable modem, and then continued via the Ethernet cable to our Apple AirPort Express.
Our AirPort Express was old…perhaps a 2008 or 2009 model, but it worked well. Even though it was not AC rated (the latest spec for wireless), its N speed was providing 25 Gigabit downloads to our devices. That 's enough for four Netflix streams without any stuttering. My dad loves to come to our house because our Internet is significantly faster than any other place he visits.
But alas, the wifi router was dead. I was able to go to Comcast and get a new cable modem; but I had to order an AirPort Extreme router. I could have bought an AirPort Express, but I wanted the additional ports so we can plug in other “Internet of Things” devices to our router. The Express does not offer these additional ports.
So I had to buy a new AirPort Extreme, which has changed form factors. The old one looked like the old white Mac Minis or like the first generation Apple TVs. The new one looks like six new Apple TVs stacked on top of each other (a tall rectangular cube). I didn't want to pay retail ($199) for the router, which is not overpriced (see the cost of other routers with similar capabilities), so I shopped in the Apple Refurbished area, and bought a new router for $125 (plus tax). It was shipped and received two days after my order ( I couldn't order on Sunday anyway).
I really like the Apple AirPort options; there is a standalone app that helps you set it up, and there are a ton of choices. You can run two networks (normal and guest), and you can easily control individual users. For example, we turn off my 15 year old stepson's Internet access at 11pm, encouraging him to get some sleep. Yes, other routers offer these features, but they are not as easy to deal with (the app really makes it easy). You can also run things off of the router's USB port, such as a hard drive or a printer.
With the new router, it was time to set up OpenDNS again. OpenDNS is a free security service that, in our case, helps filter content in our house. You set up an account with OpenDNS, add the IP address of your router, and then add OpenDNS's filtering DNS address to your router. This sounds complicated but it is rather easy. Then, on OpenDNS, you choose the filtering level desired for your house. We typically choose “moderate” which eliminates most of the major inappropriate things on the Internet. This protects our family from accidentally (or intentionally) accessing sites that they shouldn't be. This is especially true when there is a LAN party of 15 year old boys in our house.
While the school's use of iBoss solved about 95% of our inappropriate use of school iPads, if parents had used OpenDNS the previous year, we might not have had to use iBoss this past year (I just saw a tweet that said when we distribute devices, we do so for their families as well. That is also true…we did have situations in. 2013-2014 where parents were using student devices to look at inappropriate things). If you have children in your house, I can't encourage you enough to use OpenDNS and to protect your children!
Yes, Comcast offers a cable modem with a router, but we wanted the dual channel router along with the ability to control the router with the Apple app.
So…we have a new cable modem and wireless router, and our hope is that we will get at least. 6-7 years out of this device, too.
In one of my previous posts, I discussed the challenges that I have been facing in my current position as a choir director in a middle school, in a situation where music is required–but there is no “general music” class. As a result, any student not in band or orchestra, or any student kicked out of band or orchestra, finds themselves in choir.
Overall, I have been successful, but trying to teach a percentage of students who do not want to be in choir is a new experience for me. When I taught middle school in 1997-1998 in the Dominican Republic, students may not have wanted to be in music class, but as a whole, they participated and went along with the process. That is not the case where I teach today. There are some possible solutions on the horizon, but I wanted to share some strategies that I have come across (none of them are things I invented) that have made my life easier.
The first strategy was a sight singing method called “S-Cubed” and developed by Dale Duncan. Dale’s process of teaching sight singing is established in a game, and the game itself adds to a better classroom management experience in your room. The end result is that your students learn how to sight sing and they act better. It really works.
The second strategy I am going to discuss is called “Above the Line.” This is a management system developed by Corwin Kronenberg (who lives in Minnesota). Our entire school adopted this system mid-year, and for those teachers who stuck to it, it had a very positive impact.
The basis of the system is this: your students know how to act in your classroom. This may not be true for kindergarten students, but pretty much every student in your classroom–particularly at the secondary level–know what is expected of them. Our problem is that we (as teachers) fail to acknowledge this, and we fail to make general rules known, and even more, we fail to enforce the consequences.
One coach, at a former school where i taught, reminded us of another coach’s statement: “We get what we allow.”
Ouch. And even if we have some students that are management nightmares, it is still true. I’m not saying we can fix every issue, but we can all do better, right?
So the process is this: with each class, you have a discussion with every class about what it means to be above the line. You usually start this off with a written prompt that goes like this:
“Jim and Pete were sitting in class. When the teacher turned around, Pete threw a wadded up ball of paper into Jim’s face. Jim turned to Pete and said, “Man, that was really below the line.”
What did Jim mean by “Below the Line?”
What does it mean to be “Above the Line?”
Then you begin a process of asking each and every class what it means to be Above the Line in choir (or band, or orchestra). And you write down what they are saying (On a projected iPad or computer, on a white board, or even a chalkboard).
Then you ask them what it means to be “Below the Line.” Also write these items down.
Finally, spell out which things are “Bottom Line.” Bottom Line items are things that are simply never tolerated, such as weapons, fighting, or harassment of any kind. Some things in “Below the Line” may fall into that category–although this can be a conditional category. For instance, I believe that mistreatment of a substitute teacher (we have a shortage of these in Minnesota, if anyone wants to move here and be a full time substitute) is a Bottom Line offense. Not everyone agrees with me on that issue. Swearing was another issue that was Below the Line for some teachers and Bottom Line for others.
Then introduce your students to your own “Above the Line/Below the Line/Bottom Line” chart, and review how their answers fit into your document. If necessary, add items to your list.
The next step is to have a list of consequences. These need to be designated by level. It is okay if you want to give a warning to a student for any Below the Line behavior, but if you do, use the language, “_____ is being above the line. Be above the line.” Any Bottom Line behavior results in an immediate referral to the office. After the warning, you go to Level 1 interventions. I suggest keeping track of every time you need to go to a Level 1, 2, or 3 Intervention for future reference with parents and administrators. I know this is hard, but you are already having to stop teaching to deal with these students, so you might as well take the 20 extra seconds it will take to document what you have had to do.
Level 1 interventions follow a warning, if you choose to give a warning (you don’t have to). At this time, you take a minor action, such as moving the student to a different seat, reviewing the expectations (particularly what is going on) with the class, or giving a non-verbal warning (proximity, eye contact, post-it note). The idea is to make sure the student knows that they are above the line, and to give them the opportunity to fix the situation.
At no point in the process do you battle with the student (Has this happened to you? It has to me!). You simply point out the master sheet/chart with the Above the Line expectations, and you point out the consequences. And you never lose your cool, or they win.
Level 2 interventions happen when a student will not correct their behavior. At this point, you ask them to step out of your room, and you bring some materials along. I have a clipboard with a copy of the Above the Line expectations, consequences, and two additional forms. One is a Fix-It-Plan, which helps a student figure out how they will adjust their behavior, or a Think Sheet, where they lay out a plan to fix the problem over time. When you get the student in the hall, you give them two options. The first question is: “Can you fix the current behavior, or does there need to be a consequence?” You are always trying to give them the choice to choose to be above the line. If a student chooses to continue acting inappropriately after this chance, you go to Level 3. However if a student indicates they can get it together, and they do–it is a win-win for everyone. But there are a surprising number of students that will choose a consequence. This is when you leave them outside your door, with instructions to complete the form of your choice. Following this, students can let you know they are done with the form and ready to be a part of your class again. Some will choose to be out of your room for the rest of the hour. Whenever you have a Fix-It-Plan or Think Sheet in hand, it is time to call or e-mail the parent about the issue, and to share the document with the parent, and likely the administrator. Detentions, Lunch Detentions, and Service Projects also make for good Level 2 interventions.
Level 3 Interventions occur when a student chooses to continue to be below the line, even after other interventions. Admittedly, if a student is a daily offender to the system, you might get here sooner than with other students. In these cases, it is important to talk to your administration about what to do with these students. A Level 3 Intervention is a situation where a student is sent immediately to the office.
Above the Line failed to work for me only when I failed to follow the steps. I found removal from class (to fill out a Fix-it-Plan), particularly without their iPad (we are a 1:1 school) a very powerful deterrent. Ideally, you want a student to be back in your class and participating within 10 minutes. There may be situations where you want a student to “stew” a little longer. We have cameras in every possible hallway of our school, and there is a bench outside of the choir room. I let students know that if they choose to leave the bench, we will know and a Level 2 will become a Level 3.
Yes, there will be some students for whom this system does not work. But for most students, it does.
There is one final step in the process, which is that students get up to 3 daily points (as a class) for good behavior. Teachers deal with these points in a number of ways. Some teachers allow a student to take up to the number of daily points to shoot a small basketball into a hoop at the end of a class, and the class with the most “baskets” wins popcorn and pop at the end of a semester. I just gave them daily points as a whole, and added the points they they earned beating me in S-Cubed. My winning classes (by grade level) received a lollipop (I sell Ozark Delight D’Lite Lollipops before school, mainly to make enough money to give out awards). It can cost quite a bit of money to give out rewards when you have over 300 students in three different grade levels!
As a side note, I also wanted to reward students that did their very best in choir. Kids in my choirs do not earn an “A” automatically. Many of them aren’t concerned about their grades in the first place, but I strongly feel that if you can’t sing the music by the time we have performed the music in a concert, you shouldn’t be earning an “A.”
I made an “A” club. Ideally, any student earning an A would come in after school for a pizza party. B’s do not count. Even an 89%. Middle school students can be bribed by food–oh yes, they can.
So, that is the general concept of Above the Line. It really works, if you follow through with the consequences. Again, don’t argue with a student. They are very fond of saying, “Jimmy is doing this…” The issue isn’t about Jimmy, it is about them–and the fact that they are below the line. Follow the process, and watch the behavior improve.
My goal is to adjust my materials this summer (I have attached our above-the-line expectations, Fix-It Plan, and Think Sheet) so they look better. I also wish I could simplify the master list, but the truth is that students came up with most of these expectations this year, and I wanted their voices to matter!
Fix-It Plan (PDF)
Think Sheet (PDF)
My previous post, where I discussed the challenges I have had over the past two years, has resonated with a few people. A huge thank you to those who have taken the time to e-mail or tweet–and as always, if a post ever resonates with you or you feel the need to talk to me about something to the post, please feel free to e-mail me.
Before I continue on my discussion of some techniques that have helped me this year, I think it is important to discuss how my 320 students experience choir at my school.
Choir is considered part of “encore,” and music classes are teamed up with another class (usually physical education) on an A/B basis. They will have choir one day and gym the next. Each grade level has a different number of students; we have a large 6th and 8th grade class, and a small 7th grade class.
To make things work for other electives, I only see a fraction of the students from each grade level at a time. We are on a modified 8 period day (really a 6 period day, as students have a double block of English and math every day), and over those eight hours, I see 11 different classes.
Four of the classes are 6th Grade classes, two are seventh grade classes (large sections of 40 or more), and five are eighth grade classes. With contractual prep time, this leaves me with one extra open hour every other day. I don't use that hour for lessons as it would impact the same teachers in every class period, and I would never be able to see all 320 students in a trimester.
With my sixth grade classes, I teach two part music, but each small class (25-35) learns the same part. That said, different classes learn different parts, which we put together in the concert to create harmony.
With my seventh grade classes, I continue to teach two part music, but I do so in the same class setting, creating harmony at the same time. This is a challenge for many of the students.
With my eighth grade students, I teach SAB music, but there are never enough students in each class to sing both women's parts. So in a fashion similar to 6th grade, I teach the men one part, and the women one of the women's part, teaching different classes different women's parts, so when we sing in the concert, we have three parts.
So…if you teach in a school where you see all of the members of your grade level choir at one time, you have a different situation than I do. If you teach in a school where you audition students for different choirs, you have a different situation than I do. It you teach in a school where students have the option to not take a performance-based music class, you have a different situation than I do.
All that said, it is easy to see how a student that doesn't want to be in choir, and thus doesn't sing, can have a major impact on the entire class. When there are 24 of you in a room, and six won't sing, that's a challenge. And I am of the mindset that you can't force someone to sing, and that you shouldn't force them to sing. That doesn't mean that you can't base their grade on their lack of participation (usually shown in a recorded voice assessment, which I will discuss as one of my strategies).
We manage to hold two concerts a year (I hold three mini-concerts on an evening, each about 30 minutes with a 15 minute break between each choir, so that we don't have to deal with student management while other choirs are singing), and the majority of the kids show up and sing. We won't be winning any awards any time soon–but we do give the students the opportunity to showcase what we have been working on.
What I want to say at this point is that you can make your program work as a musical organization regardless of the situation. If I can do it, so can you. The techniques I am going to discuss can be brought to any musical organization and adapted for any grade level. I have no doubt that if I walked back into a high school classroom (or a college classroom), I would be better a better teacher than I was before my middle school experirence. There is an old joke that says that anything that doesn't kill you only makes you stronger–and that is true in this case–my experience has been a refining fire. It helps that I really like the students as people–but they can still be very difficult to teach.
I will get to these technquies, tools, and strategies in the coming posts.
I teach middle school, but I still don’t consider myself a middle school teacher. Middle school is an interesting age, and teachers often have an elementary approach to middle school. I prefer to work with students as emerging adults, but that approach isn’t always successful–at any age (even with adults!). That said, I no longer see myself as a high school teacher (this was my identity for 17 years), or even as a college professor. I see myself as a music educator that could teach at any level. That change has been a long time coming!
What I have learned over my past two years of teaching middle school is that there are better solutions out there. The best solutions work regardless of personality or charisma. In my current teaching position, I have 320 students in grades 6-8, and music is a required subject (unless a student has remedial classes to take, or they are enrolled in AVID and choose other elective options). What this means is that unless a student plays an instrument (band or orchestra), they are in choir. I also get all the kids who drop or get booted out of instrumental classes. So musically, choir is the end-of-the-line.
I see nearly half of the school population. The difficult part is (without a non-performance option), about 25%-30% of any given grade level is in choir but has no desire to be there. This results in behaviors that I never experienced at the high school level. Those previous behaviors caused the previous teachers to leave this same position. And not to be rude, but of those 25%-30% of students, 95% of that group behave poorly in other classes. On a related note, their parents are either overwhelmed, enabling, or not involved. With those parents (and students), the statement, “It is just choir, so it doesn’t matter,” is used. There is no better statement that you can use with a music teacher to let them know that they and the subject that they are most passionate about are complete rubbish to you. And no, grades are not a motivational tool for most students, and with “Grading for Learning,” students can earn no grade lower than a 50%.
Last year, all but twenty-four 8th Grade students chose a different option than choir. That was determined long before I arrived–but there should have been over 100 8th grade students in choir. In 8th Grade this year, I kept nearly all of my previous 7th grade students (about 95 of them), but an additonal 25 students were dropped into choir who had not taken choir in 7th grade. Those kids were generally not happy to be in choir, and a large number of them made a concerted effort to disrupt the educational environment every day. Sadly, in our middle school format, there was no other place for those kids to go (they aren’t going to join band or orchestra at that point) and there was no ability to change anything.
I have been trying to stay true to myself, and to treat students as the emerging adults that I believe they are. I have modified my expectations about homework (generally, students don’t do homework in our school, so many teachers stop assigning it) and pitch-perfect concerts. My personal goal is my personal survival and well-being, and to have choir be a fun place where kids want to be. I want them to want to take choir at the high school. Last year, I sent 4 students to the high school choirs; this year I sent 31. Some days, it is a struggle to go to work. I miss working with kids that choose to be in choir, and I now understand why my former middle school colleague bid into my former high school position.
Please note: it isn’t the “middle school beast” that ruins my day–I like middle school kids. I really do! But the kids who hate your class and do everything they can to destroy your class can really ruin your day–and they often do. Sadly, that impacts how you react, even though while 70%-75% of your kids (260 of them) want to be there. But we seldom focus on those particular kids.
I was recently reminded of this, as teachers are encouraged to hand out a reward slip to students who are ready, safe, or respectful. Last Friday, we had a rewards day for any student with 25 or more slips, and a HUGE number of students at that rewards day were “naughty” kids. Teachers used those rewards slip to keep those naughty students involved or calm in their classes. Meanwhile, most of our kids–the majority of them “good” kids–sat in their normal classes, because teachers don’t reward them! We need to make sure that we are rewarding the “good kids,” too.
I have to remind myself why I moved to middle school: time with my family (most days, I am home by four and we have two concerts a year, plus I attend our other middle school band and orchestra concerts), the iPad initiative (I have learned SO much), support for my other professional interests (being allowed time to present at a few conferences each year), and the reduction of stress away from a high-profile high school position. There is also the benefit of a guaranteed position (320:1 and rising), as well as an administration that is supportive and encouraging. Additionally, as of next year, all of the students will have been “mine” for the first time. So the culture might very well shift to a direction that I love.
Realistically, however, things will stay basically the same, and I will have to continue to deal with the 25%-30% of kids that are in choir that don’t want to be there. That situation has resulted in a whole new level of stress which I don’t think I will ever like or get used to! My college choir director, who is retiring this year, often said, “Every hospital has its bed pans.” He was so very wise in sharing that statement with us.
In our disrict, we have bidding rights that come with a four year mandatory bid. If you bid somewhere, you teach in that position for four years. So I can’t go anywhere else for two more years without leaving our district, and there is no guarantee anything will open in our district at that time, or that I would want to bid to another position at that time. As a result, I have to try to fix the problem from the inside out. That partially means advocating for some kind of class that isn’t performance-based (our administration is set against a general music class). I personally want to work on introducing a music technology class, but need to figure out how such a class doesn’t become a draw away from traditional band, choir, or orchestra. The other thing that I have needed to do is to find middle school management solutions. I found two solutions that worked this year which I will keep using, and I also have given up on some solutions. The next few posts will talk about these items. In particular, I will discuss “above-the-line” and S-Cubed. Stay tuned!
P.S. Our last day with students is on Friday.
Before I go any further in this series, I think it is important to note that I am an “end user” in this industry. I have done some arranging, and I have also prepared some larger works (public domain) for use with choirs. I am very familar with Finale and Notion, and am growing more familiar with MuseScore. For the most part, Finale and Sibelius are the major tools that music publishers use to finalize a piece. Many hours can be spent “print setting” a piece. In choral music, the process is generally straightforward, as the biggest concern is printing all parts in an octavo (smaller page size) format, whereas instumental music offers many challenges in both a master score and individual parts. Most composers compose directly to MusicXML, and software of nearly any kind can print both scores and parts. But creating a published piece requires much more finish work, as well as cover art, composer notes, and anything else included in the final printed masterpiece. Then of course, there is marketing, audio recording (samples), printing, storage, shipping, and all the other overhead costs of a piece.
I honestly don't know the cost distribution of a music publisher, but my guess is that the composer/arranger receives 10% or less, and that the license fees of a pop song are perhaps 25%. I believe that music is sold to music stores at a discount of 25% (75% of MSRP), leaving somwhere between 65% and 40% of the cost of each piece of music to the music publisher. When the sale moves to the online format of the music publisher, they may make between 90% and 65% of the cost of the music–with the purchaser often picking up the shipping (the website costs are negligible, perhaps an extra 3% of overhead with credit card fees. Normal website costs are part of doing business these days).
So, with that in mind, let me express some of my frustration with things as they stand and how they can be addressed:
- Music purchased in a digital format should NEVER cost as much as paper. At certain times of the year, I can purchase sheet music from a local music store for 20% off with free shipping. If I order a digital copy, it costs the full cost PLUS shipping (and my local music store doesn't see a cent).
- I “get” that some people love paper music and hate digital music. I can only assume two things when this occurs. First, they haven't tried apps like forScore or unrealBook tied with an AirTurn foot pedal. Second, digital music is paper music digitized, not music optimized for a digital screen. So that said, have the engravers tweak the digitial music you are paying more for to specifically work on the screen of an iPad (with hundreds of millions sold, that's a good start), which will then scale well to the Microsoft Surface Pro 3 (which still lacks a good PDF music reader) or future iPad “Pro.”
- That said, any printed music that makes staves miniscule should stop the process. Earthsongs and Oxford…some of your scores are horrendous to read if you are over 40.
- Storage of paper music stinks. Collection of scores after a performance and distribution is a challenge, and some kids fail to turn things in until the very end of the year. Sorting scores (in instrumental music) is a pain. Digital music can solve all that (after the piece is used, it is deleted or recycled). An online database could easily track what a school (not a director, as those change) has purchased, allowing that school to redownload and print as necessary.
- We (educators) can photocopy cheaper than you can print. Covers are pretty, but are not needed with digital music. We want the first page to be music, with “extra” materials at the end. For a digital score, pages should be re-numbered. Save the money and do away with the fancy covers that end up dating the scores in five years anyway. So if your school isn't 1:1 iPad or Surface (or a future Chromebook tablet), you can still photocopy. Remove the cost of printing, stapling, handling, storage, and shipping from the cost of the music, and make it less expensive for all of us. Make digitial copies we can print the standard.
- With that digital copy, be bold. Include the MusicXML file so we can convert songs easily to rehearsal files. Include rehearsal audio files (like Carl Fischer).
- Make a way for us to “trade in” printed music (or simply recycle) for the number of copies we have (thus showing those copies in our school's databae), either for free or a ridiculously low cost (covering the cost of the person who has to enter the data). Help us remove our sheet music storage rooms. Paper is terrible. It becomes brittle, gets abused by students, is suceptible to water, fire, and insects (the school where I taught in the Dominican Republic lost all of its music to termites. My father's male chorus had their music library flooded), and even professional drying didn't save all of it).
- Rewrite the terms of your copyright agreement to allow for things like creating “keepsake” CDs for students, posting on YouTube and SoundCloud. Encourage people to share those recordings. Also modify your copyright terms to allow directors to revoice music as needed.
- Change copyright to require each SCHOOL to own the music, and make sharing or lending illegal.
- Obviously, allow schools to use purchased digital music in lieu of printed sheet music in 1:1 situations.
- Never, EVER, sell us a piece that is in the public domain without letting us know that it is available in the public domain. Help us to use our limited money to buy music that supports living compoers. Some teachers may still want a printed copy–if so, fine. But most teachers would appreciate the customer service.
- Offer schools the ability to buy a set of music versus indvidual copies. In choir, treating a song like a band score, authorzing use from 1-25, 1-35, 1-50, 1-75, and unlimited. Those price points could change (increase) from year to year, but once you buy the set, they stay with your school. With band scores, allow owners to use as many copies as needed for their school.
- On a related note, if schools consolodate, their libraries could legally merge.
- Never, EVER, let anything go out of print. Ever. Always make it available. If I can reasonably recreate a piece in a couple of hours, so can your engraving experts. They might even correct original mistakes in the process.
- That said, when there are errors in your music, and they are reported, update the scores, and upload the refreshed versions to the overall database, with a note that errors were corrected! Furthermore, if you are updating scores, update fonts and beaming at the same time. Just because the original printing plate was horrible doesn't mean that you can't make it better today.
- Stop with the practice of developing your own app for every publisher, where music has to be locked into the app or printed. This is complete DEATH in a rehearsal (“Okay, now open the Alfred App. Now the Hal Leonard App). Everything should be in an unlocked PDF.
- You know all those workers who handle all your music in your warehouse? They can become compliance experts, traveling to schools and checking that the music being used is legally purchased and owned. Don't sue those who are not in compliance–bill them for the cost of the music. This could also be passed on to the independent music stores who are getting cut out of the action.
- I would love to see a Pandora of music, a site where all publishers made their works available, and schools could register to use “x” number of copies per year at an annual fee. You would have every song at your fingertips at a cost that could be defended to administration and budgeted. Furthermore, use would be tracked, and then payments would be sent accordingly to both the composer/arranger and (if necessary), the performing artist/song writer (pop music).
The world has changed, and paper resources are on the way out. It is time for music publishers to embrace the new paradigm, and in fact, to profit from it. There has to be a realization that school budgets are shrinking, and that schools are simply not going to be able to buy music as they have in the past. There are ways to sell digital music (such as Graphite Publishing and BandWorks) that make it possible for schools to afford music and use it digitally, while still paying the composer and the publisher. I know that change is scary–but right now, the music publishing industry–even with its attempts at some apps–is out of date with the changes in technology and funding that we are seeing in our schools.