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.

Students arrive in one hour.

As I prepare myself for being ready for the ins and outs of the day to day, there’s a simultaneous excitement about the many projects I hope to get off the ground this year.  Fiddle tunes, fostering a connection with 38 children in northern India, an audio cd, book crafting, crankie shows, new games, songs….it’s hard to keep the focus on just getting started in the classroom.  The first two weeks will be setting the culture of my beautiful classroom.  It’s all about Kindness, Safety, Respect, and Expression.  Now to work I go.



Greetings from the music room!

In this issue:
1. A Typical Day in Music Class
2. January Themes and activities
3. Request for the contribution of a skill!


A Typical Day in Music Class
As you may know, “specials” see each class twice a six day cycle.  So, for music I have two chances to reinforce concepts, teach songs, or repeat fun stories, dances, or games.

From K to 5, students understand that they will line up outside the music room and demonstrate that they are ready to enter by being quiet and facing me.  Once inside they form a circle around our carpet.    The Kindergarteners have a special song that they sing as they prepare to be seated, sung to the melody of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”.  There are accompanying body motions:

Hands go up and hands go down
I can turn around and round
I can jump up on two shoes
I can listen so can you
I can sit I’ll show you how
Music class is starting now

When  everyone is seated, students will likely learn a school-wide song.  These songs are sung during assembly on the following Day 1 and are designed to give students a sense that they are part of something larger– the Symonds community.  As they sing in a group of 330+ instead of the usual 15-20 the lyrics and message of the song itself is reinforced.

After a song we participate in an activity.  This can be many things over the course of the year.  Some examples are:
-working with singing note intervals (do, re, mi, so, la)
-a notation and/or rhythm exercise
-instrumental work
-a dance
-learning about a particular composer

All of the activities emphasize participation among everyone and include concepts that allow students to internalize music and movement.  When appropriate, I strive to be cross disciplinary and discuss history, science, math, and language as it relates to music and the arts.

My goal is to end class with a musical piece for silent listening.  Given our 30-35 minute block together I admit that my goals are often loftier than time will allow.    Throughout the class, our self created Responsive Classroom goals are encompassed under “Be Safe, Kind, and Respectful”.  We talk to each other, sit down, sing, dance, play instruments and ultimately line up to exit with these concepts in mind.


January Themes and Activities

Grades 1-5 have been beginning work on Ukeleles.  I have a new guitar pick maker(!)–each student will be given their own pick, made from used gift cards for use in class.  Our focus in the upper grades include 3 chords– C, F, and G.  In the lower grade we are working on how to hold the instrument, locate notes, and pick each string.

This month we are comparing the music of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven.  I have given everyone a description of the Baroque, Classical, and early Romantic period of music and played examples. Students are then asked to identify each composer by the sound of a piece.

With the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday approaching we have discussed the significance of music in the civil rights movement of the 1960’s.  We have also touched on what significance MLK has to Symonds.  King’s message of conflict resolution through peaceful means resonates in the classroom and on the playground.  With this idea I introduced a song written by a friend just last year about the legacy of Dr. King.  Ask your child to sing it!  The lyrics are below:

I’ve Got A Dream
words and music (c) John Fisher 2012

I’ve got a dream and I can’t get rid of it
I believe in every bit of it
Been stuck inside of me
Ever since nineteen sixty three

It’s about the content of one’s character
Ain’t nothing else gonna matter
If around the welcome table
Everybody’s got a seat
From the Lookout Mountain in Tennessee
To the streets of New York City
An endless line of marchers
Until everybody is free

Every valley raised and exalted
Every mountain barrier vaulted
On the sunlit path to freedom
A beautiful symphony
In every hamlet, town and city
No rest and no tranquility
’til free at last, free at last
Sweet land of liberty

On the Washington Mall that August
As the marchers gather before us
We make our choice, lift every voice
And justice is the song
It was the greatest demonstration
In the history of the nation
The struggle is long and the struggle is hard
And now it’s ours to carry on


1. Wanted!  A carpenter willing to donate some time and skill to build a…….Crankie! SEE PHOTO BELOW
I have what may be considered an odd request.  Having spent a fair amount of time with Brattleboro music teacher Andy Davis this past summer I had the opportunity to observe his use of what is called a crankie.  A crankie looks like a TV but is made of wood and the movement in the inside of the box is controlled by a crank which moves a long piece of paper.  The paper can be designed by students and tell a story which can be set to music.  It’s a wonderful and creative tool! Symonds needs a crankie!  My thought is that we can create an annual “ABC of Symonds” song along with illustrations placed in the device.  It can be used for the 3rd grade Keene Comes Alive production , etc.  Anyone  with Carpentry Skills willing to put in some fun work, contact me
ere is a meeting this Friday at KHS at 3:30pm

Thanks for checking in and being involved-

Mr. Siegel

PS: I will be playing a free family show at 10am on February 2nd at the Brattleboro Winter Farmers Market
Bring the kids!

Also, look for a kids show with me and Jay Mankita at the colonial theatre in early April.

I do lots of “adult” music but you’ll have to do your research to find out about that!

A Crankie!


I will be posting again soon but in the meantime, here is a worthwhile bit to read at:

Here are the “Ten Lessons the Arts Teach” compiled by Elliot Eisner, one of the country’s leading art educators. 

  • The arts teach children to make good judgements about qualitative relationships. Unlike much of the curriculum which correct answers and rules prevail, in the arts it is judgment rather than rules that prevail

  • The arts teach children that problems can have more than one solution and that questions can have more than one answer.

  • The arts celebrate multiple perspectives. One of their large lessons is that there are many ways to see and interpret the world.

  • The arts teach children that in complex forms of problem solving, purposes are seldom fixed, but change with circumstances and opportunity. Learning in the arts requires the ability and willingness to surrender to the unanticipated possibilities of the work as it unfolds.

  • The arts make vivid the fact that words do not, in their literal form or number, exhaust what we can know. The limits of our language do not define the limits of our cognition.

  • The arts teach students that small differences can have large effects. The arts traffic in subtlety.

  • The arts teach students to think through and within a material. All art forms employ some means through which images become real.

  • The arts help children to say what cannot be said. When children are invited to disclose what a work of art helps them feel, they must reach into their poetic capacities to find the words that will do the job.

  • The arts enable us to have experience we can have from no other source and through such experience to discover the range and variety of what we are capable of feeling.

  • The arts’ important position in the school curriculum symbolizes to the young what adults believe is important.

Elliot Eisner is a professor in Education and Art at Stanford University in California. This article was published in the Arts in Education Council of BC Newsletter. It was provided by Helen Daniels, Executive Director of the ARC Arts Council and a member of the Board of the Arts in Education Council of BC.

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….

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.