Teaching About the Holidays

I’ve really grown to love teaching about the holidays during this season.  In my former schools, we would have holiday concerts for which we would need to prepare. I feel like mandatory concerts amount to a sugar-coated version of teaching to the test.  Rudolf, dreidels, nothing pretending to be religious, but everyone has to “perform” stuff they like a lot or simply hate.  Did I like that?  Notsomuch.  Did it have educational value?  Meh.   That said, there is SO much value in learning cultural traditions, even if they are rooted in religion. In public school, this can be a spicy idea but, viewed from a purely educational point of view, there’s NOTHING wrong with studying the stories behind each holiday of the season, especially in this increasingly culturally illiterate world.  I personally have a complicated relationship to the holidays and religion in general, informed by a fairly secular upbringing and an interfaith minister wife who attends Catholic mass on occasion.  Through my four grandparents I am 3 parts Jewish (of the secularish variety) and 1 part Italian (of the secularish variety).   Traditions abound but finding meaning in all of it has taken until, well, a few hours ago. OK, it’s ever evolving but in a good place right now.

Almost everyone at my school celebrates Christmas.  Further, almost every kid at my school is hard pressed to explain WHY they celebrate Christmas beyond, “the spirit of giving”.  Hanukkah, Kwanza, and perhaps the winter solstice are mostly “those other holidays”, except for those 12% or so who (sort of) light candles for this and that.  So how do I help to bring meaning to our children?  I’m no expert but this is the thing I’ve developed for my 2nd-5th graders:

First, I always ask the question, “What do all of the winter holidays have in common?”.  Some get the answers right away– giving, being with family, eating…but the answer I want to hear is “light”.  We light candles and light up christmas trees and houses.  We celebrate the darkest time of the year with light.   I then ask, “What is the darkest day of the year?”.  Well 12/21, the winter solstice and gosh, then we  actually start talking about science and WHY the earth gets the least amount of sunlight.  Then I ask, “Do you think it’s a coincidence that Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanza all happen this time of the year?”.   This inevitably leads to a discussion about when Jesus was born (we don’t truly know the date), when the story of Hanukkah happened (not quite sure about that story either), and for how long Kwanza has been around.  Clearly there is some intention in placing the holidays this time of the year.  I also like to develop the awareness of pre-birth of Christ traditions, like the Yule which has informed the very way we celebrate all of the holidays this time of the year.

So, many of you may be thinking that I’m ruining the magic of these holidays by getting into the nitty gritty of it all.  My experience is that the discussion that ensues touches on the story of the Messiah, and the story of an oppressed people fleeing and ultimately returning to a sacred place, and stories of cultural pride and social justice.  We light our darkest nights of the year with the bright stories of a man who had lessons of peace for us all, a people who fought an oppressive king, a struggle and celebration of an African people, and a celebration of nature, represented by a lighted and decorated EVERgreen tree that traditionally and historically goes back to prior  to the birth of Jesus.   So many stories revolve around the idea of gift giving and sacrifice. In essence, these holidays are intertwined and about all the same stuff.   Kids get it!  They love the stories, told orally, without books and pictures.  What a thrill to do this.

Some activities (pretty standard) around this talk include:
-Israeli folk dances (from the place of the birth of Jesus and the land of Judea where Hanukkah took place)
-The dreidel game with marbles
-telling the story and listening to the opera of “Amahl and the Night Visitors”, a story about a boy making a sacrifice
and of course
-Christmas, Hanukkah, winter songs
I try not to spend more than a week addressing the holidays.  We all know that they will get holiday-ed out whether we give it to them or not!

Happy Holidays!

Product VS Process

I recently got into a little debate with my wife.  I know it’s unfair for me to post this without her side being represented but, hey, it’s my blog.  She is the director of a wonderful Vermont based distance learning company.  An accredited elementary and high school, they provide instruction and curriculum to hundreds of home schooled students.  Recently they held an open house and as part of the organization myself and a part time teacher with a few high school students in music I was tasked (as I am every year) to provide an ad-hoc hands on activity integrating art and music.  I do this by collaborating with the art teacher to engage kids I don’t know to design and present a crankie show in an, uh about an hour.

So a crankie show is a long scroll of paper moving through a small puppet show like box theatre. It can be accompanied by music, narration, be backlit with shadows puppets, etc.  Here is one I completed with my 4th graders two years ago:

On this particular day, there were lots of unknown factors so or course with minimal preparation, the art teacher and I set out to have a random cross section of home schooled children illustrate the classic song “The Rainbow Connection”.  We wrote the lyrics out on the long paper.  As children filed in with their families, they were encouraged to draw anything they saw fit.

photo 2After the scroll seemed complete and full we performed the song and viewed the cranky with everyone present.  I apologize that there is no footage!

My wife later commented that she was underwhelmed by the product adding that I could have created an experience that directed the artistic content a bit more.   I argued that sure, I could have drawn things myself that the children would color, and sure, it would have looked great.   But… the process and experience of children doing whatever they wanted, inspired by the lyrics on the page is most important.   Sure it was beautiful, messy, and chaotic but isn’t this the argument for homeschooling/ child driven learning?  You tell me.  The kids had a great time, we sang the song, and most importantly, they were able to see their art as a moving framed picture with live music.   Crankies are wonderful and provide opportunities to package minimally planned and crafted art projects into a complete presentation in minutes.  Lots of teacher guidance is great, especially if the objective is to create a set for a play, or a display, but an impromptu art project is a  magical thing when you just let it go.


Maintaining the ecosystem

photo 2Likely not a conscious choice, the garden at Symonds is an unofficial symbol of nourishment, connection, and being part of something greater in our world.  Tom Julius, Director of the teacher certification program at Antioch New England Graduate School has referred to the ideal educational setting as an elaborate ecosystem.   One main idea being that like an ecosystem, if the system is functional, it is open to positive growth and can withstand various negative external forces.  If one person comes or goes, the ecosystem shifts to accommodate but if there is real trauma such as years of budgetary and administrative stress on the system, then a downward spiral can occur.  This ecosystem begins with administration and teachers being caring, supportive, and respectful of one another.  This occurs parallel to  (and trickling down to)  a respectful classroom environment in which students are given intentional, often orchestrated opportunities to show respect for one another.   Music, Art, Library, and PE are places in which students have opportunities to interact in very different ways than the classroom environment, thus there are  more opportunities to reinforce the core components of a healthy ecosystem.


photo 1It’s October in music and up to this point in the school year we’ve basically been working hard to remind and teach our children how we function in a formal and informal setting with other humans.  We continue to stress (this really never ends) being a whole body listener as the most basic method of  showing respect for one another; adults and children alike.  In the music room we’ve been engaged in more of what could perhaps be described as tweaking the ecosystem  by urg3-two-hand-turns-9e2fc81ad2ing, perhaps even say (rein)FORCING positive interaction through dance, song, and group instrumental work.  All classes have participated in singing, dancing, and other whole-group activities such as games and loose instrumental ensembles. Here are a couple of  specific  examples of some of what we do to inspire positive interactions between one another:

Contra/ Square/ Folk dancing
I am super fortunate to live in the Brattleboro, Vermont area, home of Peter and Mary Alice Amidon, Andy Davis, and Mary Cay Brass.  These four folks are the founders of New England Dancing Masters.  (The featured photo of folks dancing is from their website).  This is a collection of some of the finest team building (mostly) traditional dances and singing games ever known to educators.  Here in Southern Vermont, Western Massachusetts where I tend to perform a lot of this music, and New Hampshire where I teach, these dance traditions are not just presented in the classroom, they are part of the woodwork in local grange halls, churches, libraries, and community centers.  I have been taking these dances into the classroom for the last 14 years.  This:
A) Allows students to practice how to choose and dance with a partner and large group respectfully
B) Helps in the practice of safely moving your body around others, demonstrating self control AND creativity  and
C) Instills confidence, leadership, and community participation.
YES!  Lots of this stuff is dorky, old fashioned, and anti pop-culture and it’s downright fun and gives kids the chance to be at once goofy and respectful in ways they don’t get to practice in a home environment.

School wide songs:
While many music classrooms are cut off from the rest of the school culture, I (and I know many other music teachers) attempt to foster school wide intergenerational unity by making sure that each week, the entire school learns one common song to be sung in the following all-school assembly.  The song can be seasonal, serious, eco, goofy- basically any flavor.  Here’s an example of me singing at assembly last week.  A common song makes kids and staff feel “in it together” and motivates school wide  learning.  The video is taken sans children–for legal and safety reasons we cannot show kids’ faces.


May PoleSchool wide and music room Rituals:
We have many.  These are opportunities for interaction that foster group pride.  Here are a few examples:

-Our Turkey Trot gets the whole school physically active around Thanksgiving, running and walking around the perimeter of the playground and collecting food for the local food bank.
-Our Halloween parade gives kids the opportunity to dress up for an hour and March around the playground showing off their costumes.
-Dancing around the Maypole around May Day (seen in photo). Demonstrating this form of visual art and music in an ancient ritual requires intense listening and cooperating skills.  Students need to pay close attention to each other in order to create beautiful patterns.
– 5th grade traditional English Longsword (Morris) dancing to commemorate the spring.


Makeshift instrument ensembles:
In order to prepare kids for really playing music together in band, strings, chorus, and the classroom, I often have kids beat on drums, improvise, and create “sound carpets” somewhat more freely than perhaps I should at the beginning of the year.  Kids’ interpersonal skills are developed through negotiation over conducting, arrangements and improvisation.  Below is an example of how one group came together to create something above and beyond expectations when given the instructions to set a group of instruments to a Haiku:

Deep in the jungle
Big, grey, fat, elephants live
Snorting and grunting

Social skill development is the most important part of this exercise.  Again, faces are excluded. Watch it until the end- they do something really cool:





I am always working to maintain my classroom ecosystem but I will stress that I am so thankful for and couldn’t do it without our healthy school wide environment.    None of this would be possible without great leadership within our school and a seasoned staff, many of whom have been around and working together for years.  An ecosystem takes thousands of years to develop and can be destroyed in very short period of time.  A school is no different– Symonds didn’t  become like this over night, yet it could be destroyed in an instant.    Warning?


Child Driven Learning

Moving past the phase of getting students “culturally adjusted” to the classroom, I’m  now focused on how we learn in the classroom.  I’ve become increasingly aware of (and acutely frightened of) the idea of becoming a talking head teacher.    I LOVE to talk in front of people, often to a fault.  This comes from spending much of my time when I’m not with children teaching adults and performing.   In my experience, adult learners want to spend at least as much time chatting about music as playing it.  Quite the opposite from the young ones.  My 4th graders don’t want to hear me talk about why the treatment of slaves and development of the blues in the Delta made for a far more sad sound than the Carolina Piedmont Blues…..(maybe you do if you’re reading this)  but kids want to jump, sing, write, and be entertained by the blues or WHATEVER.  They don’t necessarily care where music came from (at least not yet), but if it’s fun to listen to it, someday perhaps they will pursue that deeper understanding.  That’s why I sing the “modern” blues song by Bob Reid and Phil Hoose, “I Know Math”.  OK,  form aside, it’s not really a blues song but it’s got the feel and kids love to sing it.  If nothing else it’s wildly cross curricular and sneaks in the idea of the blues:

I Know Math 

From We Are The Children
Phil Hoose ©Precious Pie Music

Now I went to buy a toy it cost three fifteen
I gave her three and a quarter, (If you know what I mean)
She gave me one nickle back I said,”I’ll tell you one time”
“I know math and you owe me a dime!”

I Know Math Ooo I Know Math Yes I do!
Stronger than Karate – Tougher than Kung Fu
I Know Math

Now the teacher asked the class what is eight pus eight
She didn’t think we knew she heard us hesitate
Then the whole class yelled in voice clear and lean
“Eight plus eight is SIXTEEN!)

I Know Math Ooo I Know Math Yes I do!
Stronger than Karate – Tougher than Kung Fu
I Know Math

Now we were behind the score was seven to four but when our turn came we scored five runs more
The other team yelled at least we’re sttil beatin’ you
I said, “Don’t make me laugh cause we’re ahead by two!”

I Know Math Ooo I Know Math Yes I do!
Stronger than Karate – Tougher than Kung Fu
I Know Math

Now the Tooth Fairy knows I get a fifty cent rate
So when I lost two teeth I thought, ‘Hey this is great!”
She left me quarters til she heard me holler
“Get back in this room gal, you owe me a whole dollar!”

I Know Math Ooo I Know Math Yes I do!
Stronger than Karate – Tougher than Kung Fu
I Know Math

So Hey Cashier! Don’t you act so strange!
We can figure taxes and we make change
We know the minutes and we know the hour
and that adds up to a lot of KID POWER!
We Know Math Ooo We Know Math Yes we do!
Stronger than Karate – Tougher than Kung Fu
We Know Math

So now kids had fun singing “the blues” and I can go on and refer to this in the future in another context.

I have quite a bit more to say (and will in future postings) on learning in MY music room but in the meantime I want to share a TED talk on Child Driven Learning. This talk by Talk by Sugata Mitra  really touched on something I’ve been thinking about for a while; the fact that so much of my time in the classroom is spent teaching kids to be good listeners TO ME.  My lifelong goal in the music classroom is to foster a learning environment in which I don’t say a word but kids learn on their own– self driven.  I know it sounds like an odd pipe dream but Sugata Mitra’s experiment exemplifies this idea.
In short, he placed computers in the walls of buildings (child height) in small villages in India where children had no access to technology or education and suggested that kids teach themselves how to use them without even knowing the English language that the machines were programmed in.   Please watch and feel free to comment.  I’m very interested in others’ thoughts on this.  BY THE WAY, if you would like to hear the tunes to the lyrics I publish, let me know.  I’m game.
– ’till the next post

All School Assembly Song!

Today was our second all school assembly of the year so it’s time to get kids in the mindset to what it means to be a “whole body listener” in a large room.  Last year I was tasked by some colleagues to come up with a song for these occasions.  I’ve developed a bit of a reputation for composing silly songs about “relevant” topics (comes from my political songwriting days).  Here are the lyrics to our “Day One Assembly Song”.  Think Rodgers and Hammerstein:

When it’s time to see the show,
There’re something   you’ve got to know,
From the moment in the hall, to the final curtain call,
Let this knowledge help you grow, let’s review before we go
So please recite the following and then and enjoy the show..    Ohhhhh,

Be a super sitter sit so all can share the show
When a piece is over please applaud so students know
That you did appreciate the things they did present-itate
and when you’re done applauding
please stop clapping hands go up stop yapping
Please stay still no nervous tapping, soon it’s time to go…        Sooooo

Exit as you enter you know this is nothing new
Stay in single file slowly quiet calm and cool
If you do these things so nice to do,
we will smile right back at you.
Every week we have our chance,
to sing and dance, to be the greatest audience,
and thanks to staff and Mr Cate
at Symonds  we all know we’re great
and now it’s time for us to state
Let’s Start Assembly!

I often sing the last part twice and the seconds time super fast.   After we sang the song, we ended assembly with our original “Hail Symonds School”, in which I hope to instill a sense of place in our community.


More on the the building blocks….

It’s the 3rd day of school and I’ve seen every grade level except the K’s.    At this stage I am molding a music room culture for the year so content from 1st to 5th grade for the first few classes is virtually identical.  Here’s my message board:photoOur art and PE teacher are in the same process, perhaps with a slightly different approach, but what makes our job wonderful is that the result is the same.  We are all upholding the same “pillars”;  Kindness, Community, Effort, and Knowledge.  Further, though our terms might be slightly different, we have similar versions of the Responsive Classroom questions that we use to “create rules”.  We ask: What does SAFE, KIND, and RESPONSIBLE look like?   Every step is (theoretically) based on this question.

Looking at the sloppy handwriting on my white board you can note how I reinforce the culture with our first day activities:
1.  Our first activity, “Dinah’s Dead”  is an easy movement piece/ chant  that gets kids ready do participate in a pressure free silly way.
2. We briefly discuss what Safe, Kind, and Respectful look and sound like.  We discuss the “no “I can’t”” policy.  I do an activity in which students ask an opposite gender to dance by using eye contact and whole-body listening.  Our school psychologist and occupational therapist have created a chart that specifies what “me thinking” vs “us thinking”  is as well.  This is particularly pertinent on the 2nd and 3rd grade levels and is a big part of our classroom culture discussion.
3.  We practice responsible/ safe movement and taking care of materials by moving through an “instrument museum”
4.  If we have time, we dance (In this case a dance called “Alabama Gal” and discuss how to move safely in the classroom.
5.  Assess our own behavior and talk about the “scale” our teachers have created:  4= no reminders   3= a few reminders   2= a bunch of reminders    1= TOO MANY REMINDERS!   Classroom teachers are informed of what the class earned and often put into place group rewards (NO FOOD!) such as extra recess time or a fun game or video.

More to come!  I will be checking in in a few days….stay tuned.



The building blocks of a great year.

Old bellIn many ways, the first few days of school, a time typically wrought with excitement, stress, and extra work for classrooms teachers is different for me.   Having spent the last few weeks and much of the summer  at home with my 10 year old girl and 7 year old boy, I can honestly say that school allows me to breathe a sigh of relief.  A structure, an organized classroom, kids that listen (!)…..what a contrast to an ever evolving family life.  Plus, I have the added bonus of not having to get a whole class in the swing of things from the start.  I have 35 minutes twice a week with 18 classes…..a slow cultural evolution instead of the firing of the starting gun.

Now it’s time to see the kids!  The first day of our six day cycle at Symonds School (I can explain more about this later) begins with all-school assembly.  As the music teacher, I am the first voice our 350 kids hear in the ’14-15 school year.  As a musician, I rely heavily on my ability to improvise so while I plan classes, pre-choose songs for assembly, and generally function knowing what I am going to do next, it would probably surprise folks to know how often I simply change my mind  in the moment.  I do this because I CAN.   I have a song repertoire and the ability to wax poetic in front of large crowds, sometimes to a fault.  Stage (and in front of classroom) presence is like jazz to me; stick with a familiar structure but be ready for anything.  So when I feel that the school needs a body movement energizer when I planned a wordy song, I switch in the moment.  In this case I planned on the old familiar “Awake, Alert, Alive” as the kids’ (and staff’s) first activity of the school year.  Using hand motions to the melody of “If you’re happy and you know it”:

I’m Awake, Alert, Alive, Enthusiastic
I’m Awake, Alert, Alive, Enthusiastic
I’m Awake, Alert, Alive
Alive, Alert, Awake
I’m Awake, Alert, Alive, Enthusiastic

Directions:  Awake– point to your eyes/  Alert– point to the top of your head/  Alive– Hug yourself/  EnTHUS –pat thighs iAS– clap / TIC — snap twice


After a quick talk and ritual ring of the bell (the original bell from a former building, pictured above)  on the “Four Pillars” of Symonds (Kindness, Effort, Community, and Knowledge) by our fearless principal, Mr. Cate we ended with a rocking nursery rhyme song called Hump tee dum.

So then I ready myself for 1st and 2nd graders.  Stay tuned for the skinny on that.