Music Saves Education

The glue that binds an educational community

Entry 10/1
Easing in nicely these first few weeks of school.  The class configurations (roughly 20 to a class) are pretty workable.  Having a para or a tutor in each class make teaching music easy for a couple of reasons.  For one, I don’t have to stop an activity if there is a behavioral issue to attend to.  The mere presence of another adult in the room creates an easier dynamic with which to work.  A more self-(or class)-serving use of another adult in the room is simply the use of a partner in a couples dance if there is an uneven number of kids in the class.  I have the administration and my principal to thank for creating and allowing for this dynamic.

I always start the year reviewing ear training solfege concepts from the previous year.  I also dance A LOT to reinforce concepts of working together, sharing space, and moving to a beat.   I use lots of material from Andy Davis, Mary Cay Brass, and the Amidons’ books The New England Dancing Masters.  They are old friends and colleagues from around my hometown, Brattleboro, VT.  The Dancing Masters have simple couples dances from my area and around the world.  I usually accompany my class on mandolin or guitar but the recordings that go with the material are great as well.    So far, my students  are a happy lot, taking it all in.  My 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders loved the stories I shared about my time at Pete Seeger’s house last week but in order for them to fully appreciate who he is, I needed to spend a few minutes on Youtube exposing them to various aspects of his life.  My kindergarteners are easing in and starting to understand how to enter the classroom sit still, and be silly at the appropriate times!

It’s at this point that I would like digress.  I realize that I have not fully contextualized my educational perspective.   In order to give you the whole picture as you read future day to day entries, I’d like to backtrack and talk a bit about how I landed at Symonds some years ago and what makes our school a special place to be for students and teachers alike:

A little history:
I started at Symonds school 5 years ago, having taught for about 8 years prior in various small elementary schools throughout Vermont and New Hampshire, and in a preschool Montessori center in Albany, New York.   I also worked as a math and science teacher in a school for at risk youth 4-12th grade in Holyoke, MA.    Keene is in many ways the opposite of Holyoke, MA.  While Holyoke is a post industrial urban New England town with a large lower income Latino and African- American community, Keene  might be characterized as a picturesque. mid sized, white, rural, politically middle of the road middle income community.

Not that Keene doesn’t have problems that everywhere America has– it does!  …Poverty, drugs, empty store fronts, etc. but Keene has a kind of Rockwellian optimism (and looks the part too) that for the most part doesn’t exist in the America that I have experienced. A measured democratic culture with an educated and civically active white and blue collar population.   Keene has a college (Keene State) AND industry.   Despite the fact that Keene has been placed in New Hampshire, the taxpayers mostly believe in paying for public education.  That said, the “no raising state taxes” pledge that politicians in NH must take to get elected has placed a tax burden on local communities that is proportionally greater than her sister states Massachusetts and Vermont.

Symonds has an active PTA and a principal that believe in a liberal arts education.  In other words, an all inclusive education that encompasses physical activity and visual and performing arts into the academic curriculum.  This is intertwined with the aforementioned social curriculum, Responsive Classroom.  This all comes together to create a school with a positive working environment.  In other words, I have a great job!

The other factor that makes my everyday wonderful is a highly collaborative staff.   The PE teacher (Beth), the art teacher (John) and I form what is called the Quest team.  Sounds like a superhero squad or sorts but we are a team set up to use “Quest”  money– This money is put aside by the district and used by each of the five Keene elementary schools differently.  Some schools use it for gifted and talented programs.  Our school collectively believes in the enrichment of all students, thus the money is used by our superhero squad to create programs that support arts and academic activities throughout the building.  This means that I can do crazy things like write a play for the entire school, hire a choreographer, call up folks from Bread and Puppet (a legendary puppetry troupe)  to build enormous puppets and end up with an outdoor production involving 330 students, 40 staff, and watched by over 700 family and community members.  This is true.  The pictures on this site are a testament to that.

Last year I got a grant from the Putnam Foundation to do a cool project.  My next post will be a description of that….

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Pete Seeger and kids

So the other night I went Pete Seeger’s house to conduct a taped interview for a coffeehouse show I’m producing in N.Y. on the songs of Woody Guthrie. After school, I drove the three hours with my friend and cameraman Bucky from Brattleboro, VT to Beacon NY.  Having grown up around Pete and the sloop Clearwater, and having many mutual friends, I had been to his house several times before, but never had I had the opportunity to just sit down, talk and play songs for a few hours.  I have had various interactions with him over the years, did concerts with him and recorded on his last CD with the Rivertown Kids, “Tomorrow’s Children”.  Regardless, spending an evening alone with your (and many other people’s) hero is pretty cool.

His house is perched on top of a small mountain overlooking Newburgh Bay on the wide and powerful Hudson River.  True to his usual modus operandi, the first thing he said was, “My memory isn’t what it used to be…”.   Thus, we couldn’t spend much time reminiscing about the many friends we had in common through our common activities over the years.   He is 93 years old– despite that he spent the evening telling stories like he always had.

Before we did the interview I mentioned that I had left some cookies in the car (my mother informed me of his sweet tooth).  He said “Well, you know I’m a cookie-haulic”.  (An hour later I took a look at the package and the 6 choco chunk full sized cookies were gone!). After talking about Woody as I had planned, I asked him some questions on behalf of the kids at Symonds School, the main one being how young people can make peace in the world.  He launched into a story about how he has it made a habit to walk into classrooms and greet kids with “Howdy, cousins”.  The Kids, he said would look at him like he was crazy but he would go on to tell them that we were once foragers and as the result of “progress”, our population would double every certain number of years.  He then would go back to say that during the time of foraging, the few thousand people on the planet were all distantly related cousins and now, especially to children, that concept is simply inconceivable.  However, we ARE all still cousins.  Children need to remember that despite the color of your skin, language, etc, we are all related. Compassion, understanding, unity, and the power to not refer to another human as “evil” is important in your family and in the greater human family.   Just like I say to my kids, “there’s no such thing as a bad kid, just bad choices”.

Of course I gave him a Symonds “Peace Place” cd and told him all about my school, the cd project from the year earlier and our social curriculum.  After shuffling to the drawer, grabbing a new packaged flashlight, fiddling with the batteries and getting his glasses, he looked at the cd and said “That Mr Cate must be a great principal” then went on to say that the only thing that’ll save the world is creativity and the arts. When he took a closer look at the cover of the cd (an aerial photo of 400ish kids and staff standing in the shape of a peace sign) he got up and declared, “gotta get something for you”.  He ran up to his loft, climbing a vertical ladder with books piled everywhere (he’s 93!) and came down with 200 bumper stickers that read “Coexist”– you may have seen it– it’s lettering made up of various spiritual symbols together including the peace sign. Having seen the cd cover he ALSO had to tell me the story of the peace sign and how it was born from the letters N and D of “Nuclear Disarmament”.

Of course the night wouldn’t be complete without a few songs so when he saw that I had my mandolin with me, he suggested we should play.  I was itching to sing a yodeling song I learned from him years ag0– the Sons of the Pioneers’ “Way Out There”.    What fun.

So, I am now left to happily give all my 3rd , 4th and 5th graders each a “coexist” bumper sticker presented by Pete Seeger on the eve of the international day of peace.  I am willingly obliged to carry on a message of peace to the children of Symonds School.  How lucky I am.

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Symonds school is a “Responsive Classroom” (RC). RC is a social curriculum used nationally (perhaps internationally, I don’t know). It was born in Western Massachusetts some years back. The Northeast Foundation for Children (NEFC) develops RC and promotes materials and workshops that help teachers and whole school communities develop common language and cultures of caring; ultimately a positive school environment that serves as a foundation for more successful academic learning. The Northeast Foundation website states the following:

Northeast Foundation for Children, Inc. (NEFC) was founded in 1981 by a group of public school educators who had a vision of bringing together social and academic learning throughout the school day. We remain dedicated to helping those who want to learn about elementary teaching that emphasizes social, emotional, and academic growth in a strong and safe school community. NEFC is a not-for-profit 501(c)3 organization and is the sole source provider of the Responsive Classroom approach.

The Responsive Classroom is a general approach to teaching, rather than a program designed to address a specific school issue. It is based on the premise that children learn best when they have both academic and social-emotional skills. The Responsive Classroom approach consists of a set of practices that build academic and social-emotional competencies and that can be used along with many other programs. These classroom practices are the heart of theResponsive Classroom approach:
Morning Meeting—gathering as a whole class each morning to greet one another, share news, and warm up for the day ahead
Rule Creation—helping students create classroom rules to ensure an environment that allows all class members to meet their learning goals
Interactive Modeling—teaching children to notice and internalize expected behaviors through a unique modeling technique
Positive Teacher Language—using words and tone as a tool to promote children’s active learning, sense of community, and self-discipline
Logical Consequences—responding to misbehavior in a way that allows children to fix and learn from their mistakes while preserving their dignity
Guided Discovery—introducing classroom materials using a format that encourages independence, creativity, and responsibility
Academic Choice—increasing student learning by allowing students teacher-structured choices in their work
Classroom Organization—setting up the physical room in ways that encourage students’ independence, cooperation, and productivity
Working with Families—creating avenues for hearing parents’ insights and helping them understand the school’s teaching approaches
Collaborative Problem Solving—using conferencing, role playing, and other strategies to resolve problems with students

Having been a part of a Responsive Classroom community, I will simply say IT WORKS. I might even go so far as to say that implemented nationally, it could save our schools. I’ll talk more about this later.

As you can see from the RC bullet points above, many music teachers would say (and I’ve heard them say this!) “I can’t do this with the little time I have!”. Well, I do, as does our stellar PE and Art teacher here at Symonds. It’s the consistency within and outside of our classrooms that make it all work. That said, how do I practice my first 4-6 weeks of “acclimation” to the music classroom, a place where I see kids 70 minutes a week…? Responsive Classroom stresses that the first few weeks of school are crucial for getting kids acclimated to the “culture” of the classroom. In many cases teachers refrain from any academic content to pave the way for a respectful, orderly, caring and attentive learning environment. This year I have 350+ students this year. 30+ are brand new to Symonds. The returning kids forgot over the summer and the new ones need to learn the crucial routines and expectations.

The music room is a place for order with a cloak of chaos and excitement. Kids have to feel that they can freely, artistically, and openly express themselves but not at the expense of safety and structure. My rules are simple: We must maintain an environment that is Safe, Kind, and Responsible. My first order of business is to establish how we move in our space. We practice, practice, practice how we sit down, line up, move on the dance floor, then we practice again. We also work on how we talk to one another, how we “take turns” talking. The formal part of cementing this understanding involves the signing of a contract. Once we have established as a class what it means to be “Safe, Kind, and Respectful” by naming behaviors and in some cases writing them down, everyone signs a big piece of paper that states “I will help make the music room a Safe, Kind, and Respectful place”. It goes without saying that this is probably more intuitive and more easy established in a grade level classroom than a “specials” room (by the way, I whole-heartedly dislike the term “specials”, and I will touch on that later as well).

So, in short, our first couple of weeks of music class is a combination of a couple of things:

1.Naming positive (and negative when given the chance) behaviors to establish a positive music classroom culture
2. Exploration of the music space
3. Having FUN (and understanding that silliness is fine, but it’s a matter of when to be silly) to establish that hard work can take place in the presence of positivity and a great time.

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The First Couple of Weeks(!)

Symonds school is a “Responsive Classroom” (RC). RC is a social curriculum used nationally (perhaps internationally, I don’t know). It was born in Western Massachusetts some years back. The Northeast Foundation for Children (NEFC) develops RC and promotes materials and workshops that help teachers and whole school communities develop common language and cultures of caring; ultimately a positive school environment that serves as a foundation for more successful academic learning. The Northeast Foundation website states the following:

Northeast Foundation for Children, Inc. (NEFC) was founded in 1981 by a group of public school educators who had a vision of bringing together social and academic learning throughout the school day. We remain dedicated to helping those who want to learn about elementary teaching that emphasizes social, emotional, and academic growth in a strong and safe school community. NEFC is a not-for-profit 501(c)3 organization and is the sole source provider of the Responsive Classroom approach.

The Responsive Classroom is a general approach to teaching, rather than a program designed to address a specific school issue. It is based on the premise that children learn best when they have both academic and social-emotional skills. The Responsive Classroom approach consists of a set of practices that build academic and social-emotional competencies and that can be used along with many other programs. These classroom practices are the heart of theResponsive Classroom approach:
Morning Meeting—gathering as a whole class each morning to greet one another, share news, and warm up for the day ahead
Rule Creation—helping students create classroom rules to ensure an environment that allows all class members to meet their learning goals
Interactive Modeling—teaching children to notice and internalize expected behaviors through a unique modeling technique
Positive Teacher Language—using words and tone as a tool to promote children’s active learning, sense of community, and self-discipline
Logical Consequences—responding to misbehavior in a way that allows children to fix and learn from their mistakes while preserving their dignity
Guided Discovery—introducing classroom materials using a format that encourages independence, creativity, and responsibility
Academic Choice—increasing student learning by allowing students teacher-structured choices in their work
Classroom Organization—setting up the physical room in ways that encourage students’ independence, cooperation, and productivity
Working with Families—creating avenues for hearing parents’ insights and helping them understand the school’s teaching approaches
Collaborative Problem Solving—using conferencing, role playing, and other strategies to resolve problems with students

Having been a part of a Responsive Classroom community, I will simply say IT WORKS. I might even go so far as to say that implemented nationally, it could save our schools. I’ll talk more about this later.

As you can see from the RC bullet points above, many music teachers would say (and I’ve heard them say this!) “I can’t do this with the little time I have!”. Well, I do, as does our stellar PE and Art teacher here at Symonds. It’s the consistency within and outside of our classrooms that make it all work. That said, how do I practice my first 4-6 weeks of “acclimation” to the music classroom, a place where I see kids 70 minutes a week…? Responsive Classroom stresses that the first few weeks of school are crucial for getting kids acclimated to the “culture” of the classroom. In many cases teachers refrain from any academic content to pave the way for a respectful, orderly, caring and attentive learning environment. This year I have 350+ students this year. 30+ are brand new to Symonds. The returning kids forgot over the summer and the new ones need to learn the crucial routines and expectations.

The music room is a place for order with a cloak of chaos and excitement. Kids have to feel that they can freely, artistically, and openly express themselves but not at the expense of safety and structure. My rules are simple: We must maintain an environment that is Safe, Kind, and Responsible. My first order of business is to establish how we move in our space. We practice, practice, practice how we sit down, line up, move on the dance floor, then we practice again. We also work on how we talk to one another, how we “take turns” talking. The formal part of cementing this understanding involves the signing of a contract. Once we have established as a class what it means to be “Safe, Kind, and Respectful” by naming behaviors and in some cases writing them down, everyone signs a big piece of paper that states “I will help make the music room a Safe, Kind, and Respectful place”. It goes without saying that this is probably more intuitive and more easy established in a grade level classroom than a “specials” room (by the way, I whole-heartedly dislike the term “specials”, and I will touch on that later as well).

So, in short, our first couple of weeks of music class is a combination of a couple of things:

1.Naming positive (and negative when given the chance) behaviors to establish a positive music classroom culture
2. Exploration of the music space
3. Having FUN (and understanding that silliness is fine, but it’s a matter of when to be silly) to establish that hard work can take place in the presence of positivity and a great time.

Leave a comment »