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:
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!